Photo by Becca Sabot
Saiku Kanneh rarely thinks about the day his school bus plummeted toward the banks of the Mississippi with him and 51 other children in it, the day the 35W bridge collapsed.
But once, it was all he thought about. He was an 11-year-old who couldn’t cross bridges, whose mother dropped him off at school at 5:30 am, where he would wait in the dark until someone opened the doors, all so he wouldn’t have to ride the bus.
“I tried to put it out of my mind,” he says of that day the bridge fell. He just couldn’t.
His mom brought him to Washburn, where psychologist Dr. David Hong used “narrative therapy” as part of the healing process. He asked Kanneh to write his story of the collapse.
But not at first: “First we just talked about school. He gave me snacks,” Kanneh says. “I knew at some point I would have to talk about it. I started with the nightmares. The more I started talking, the easier it got.” When he started writing, that took time too. Hong wanted details—like how Kanneh spent most of that day in the wave pool at Bunker Beach, how his friend bought him nachos, how the seats on the bus were nearly full, how he fell asleep coming home.
Then, the bridge. “First David and I went to look at the new 35W bridge,” Kanneh says. “Then we went to the Stone Arch Bridge. Then we went under the new bridge.” They talked about how it looked stable, better now, rebuilt. Finally, after months of therapy, they crossed it. “It was weird,” Kanneh admits. “But the second and third time, it was normal.”
Today, narrative therapy is a common approach with children, and Kanneh has graduated high school as senior class president, having played Vince Fontaine in his high school’s production of Grease. He rode often on a school bus. He’s headed to the University of St. Thomas on academic scholarship. Washburn will go with him. “If I’m ever in another stressful experience, I will know how to handle it,” he says.
And the narrative? “I kept it for a few years in my room. I liked having it there.” Then, one day, while cleaning, he decided he didn’t need it anymore. And he let it go.