Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For information about listening to Vermont Public Radio, please go here.

Young Writers Project: Black Box Man

Olivia Howe is this week's Young Writers Project selection.

Olivia Howe, a freshman at Brattleboro Union High School, wrote “Black Box Man” in response to a Young Writers Project photo prompt that showed a young girl working in a factory. The historic photo, from the Library of Congress archive, is one of many photos taken by Lewis Wickes Hine (the “Black Box Man”) that exposed child labor in the early 20th century. Olivia read this story at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October as part of Young Writers Project’s Millennial Writers on Stage.

Black Box Man
By Olivia Howe
Grade Nine, Brattleboro Union High School

My morning work was interrupted by the strangest man I’d ever seen.  In appearance, he was nothing exceptional—looked a little more beaten-down than the Overseer, dressed sharply in a suit and tie, had this funny little quirk about his lips like he could know all your confessions before you even spoke but he was fine with them, even the ones you thought would be best to keep private — extraordinary was what he held...this object, the likes of which I’d never seen.

He said to the Overseer he wanted to “take our pictures.” He wanted to “make portraits,” because he was doing a study. On what? I thought. No scholar had ever taken interest in us, and why would they? What were we to the world but serviceable?

None of us looked pretty during a day’s work anyhow — and I’d been there straight through since at least nightfall last, but I couldn’t remember precisely anymore — and we were busy, busy, busy, busy. We couldn’t afford to pause even a moment to have portraits done up like we were some high-society ladies.

Despite his strange request, the Overseer let this man roam the enormous yarn room.  Slowly through the rows of machines he wound, occasionally pushing his small, round glasses up the bridge of his nose, always looking at us with that curly grin.

He would stop in front of one of the children, prop his shiny black box on some black poles, and after a little while there would be a burst of light as if he’d channeled some lightning out of the sky and into his box. It frightened most children, except the older ones who acted brave so the littlers wouldn’t be in too much of a state.

I thought it looked marvelous: we got a magic show for free! I’d seen those traveling people — they were extraordinary people, beyond human  — on the street, doing their tricks, but I’d never lingered because the moment came at the end when the apprentice would run into the crowd for funds and I couldn’t offer any because I had to bring every penny home. Then he came down the row to me and in a gentle voice asked, “May I take your picture?”  I could tell he wasn’t like the Overseer and if I’d said no there wouldn’t be a punishment. However, I felt the urge to please him as the other children had seemed to do by posing.  I nodded, smiling a little to prove I wasn’t afraid. He stationed his black box and poles, draped a cloth over his head, and asked me to stay put a moment, which at any other time I would’ve been right jittery to do for fear of the Overseer scolding me for being lackadaisical. He cautioned me about the flash, told me it would turn out well if I just held still. I pretended I was the statue I’d seen in the square of the nearest city whose name nobody ever told me.

While we anticipated the flash, he asked me a question: my age. It seemed so simple, but I told him I didn’t remember, which was the truth. I made sure to tell him, in case the Overseer was listening, that I still worked as well as anyone, even though I wasn’t yet of age to work here. After the bright pop of light, I jolted a bit because it did come as a surprise despite his warning. Then the man in the suit walked over to the Overseer.  I heard them talking about how old we children were and the Overseer told him that when we worked well, he didn’t bother to ask or take note of our age or height —which was another thing the black box man pointed out to me. He’d measured me and gulped like he’d just had a shock. I didn’t see why being 51 inches tall was so astonishing. The pencil hash-marks on my bedroom wall had stayed steady ’round there for nearly a year now, and besides, most of my friends my age were the same size.

Then he found out how much I was paid: I worked four sides of the cotton machine and was paid 48 cents every day, and I sometimes worked nights, too, like the one that crossed over into today. The man’s lips, forming a deep M normally, dragged down. Under his breath, he said something of which I only caught, “…this world coming to.”

He shook his head, moved like he was going to pat my shoulder, then drew back when I flinched. Again he frowned, and again I didn’t know why. Him touching me would be improper; the Overseer and my own daddy never did unless to hit some sense into me.

When the box man had left, those of us who had a quick break huddled together and whispered about him and his strange measurements of us and his funny questions — who cared how old we were? — and his nice manner. Then the Overseer came and broke us up, told us to get back to work immediately or our pay would be cut in half for the day. We ran back to the machines and never spoke another word about the man and his lightning-harnessing black box.

Learn more about the Young Writers Project.

Latest Stories