The first theft is the easiest. I go back in after months of thinking about it and walk out with several boxes of things that do not belong to me. A man fixing his roof stops hammering to watch me. As I try to make my getaway, the car gets stuck in the snow. I am a lousy criminal.

After I finally dig the car out, I drive away from the middle school in which I have just been trespassing. Built in the 1960s in the international style, none of the floor-to-ceiling windows are intact. Earlier I'd walked through one of those windows right into the principal's office, where four decades' worth of report cards lay scattered on the floor. There was a stack of yearbooks on the secretary's desk: 2007, the last year of classes before everyone just walked away. I flipped through the faces of the kids whose presence once made this building a school. I found a banker's box and began gathering what it was I was there to collect.

A few months later and I find myself stealing again. I am in what must have been a records room for a K-6 elementary school built in the 1920s. The floor is covered in paperwork that dates back to the 1940s. My flashlight on the attendance records highlights a name "Kermit Nowicki" [last name changed] born in 1946. A baby boomer. I flip through the rest of the names and wonder where these people are today, old now and off in some suburban life so far from the 1950s city they once knew with backyards and alleys full of neighborly noise and activity and white kids in all the streets, milk bottles on the porches. Kermit missed a few weeks in January for the mumps. Would he find it strange to know I was sitting in the dark with the history of his body pressed against one of these chairs, the history of his warmth missing from these rooms?

I find a box filled with copies of checks written out to suppliers in some ancient calligraphic splendor; $7 checks written to the power company in 1958 and $12 checks written by the principal to pay for a month's worth of milk. I stuff a few checks in my pocket. Later, on the floor: a colored pencil sketch of Martin Luther King Jr. I take that too.

The bathrooms still have their marble stalls. The copper has been ripped from the walls behind each fixture, sledgehammered fissures in the brickwork. The scrappers have left notes to each other on the walls, gloating over what's already been taken. "$5,000 strong copper bitch." Just a few weeks before this trespass, a principal at an operating school in this same district sent home a letter with her students pleading for their parents to send toilet paper and light bulbs to school with their children. The school I'm in was closed so recently that only now are the smoke detectors running low on batteries. The devices are chirping birds in the hallways and classrooms, with songs like cooling embers.

The library is completely intact, with books dating back to the 1930s:

The picture book section is filled with the kinds of books I love to read to my daughter. I have seen what happens to books in these school libraries.

I grab and take as many picture books with me as can fit in my arms. I am a thief. But that all started months ago.

* * * * *

After my first visit to the shattered middle school, I am haunted by what I found in one office: hundreds of file folders containing student psychological examinations complete with social security numbers, addresses, and parent information. I sat and thumbed through them. Many contained detailed histories of physical and sexual abuse, stories of home lives so horrifying I still can't get them out of my head: sibling rape, torture, neglect that defies belief. The detailed reports explained emotional impairments, learning disabilities. There was another box full of IEPs. The dates revealed that many of these students are still in the school system somewhere. I found several of their faces in the 2007 yearbook.

I spend the next few months trying to track down someone who cares. I send e-mails to the school's former principal, offering to go back and collect these records for her or destroy them. She never responds. I call my mom, a retired special education teacher and erstwhile administrator to determine the extent of malfeasance. Then I call the school district's legal department and leave voice mails warning them of the liability of this gross violation of student privacy. I never receive a response. I track down the school psychologist to some address in Troy. Nothing. It turns out a daily newspaper reported abandoned records like these within many of the 33 schools closed in 2007 and the district did nothing. No one is responsible. Someone else was supposed to destroy them. The company that had been paid to secure the school never did its job.

So I did it. I went back in to destroy them so they would no longer be just sitting there on the floor for anyone to find.

* * * * *

I have read a stolen book to my daughter every night for the past few weeks. Last night, I pulled out the charging card from the first page of a book called The Boy and the Forest, and scanned through the names of the children who'd checked it out all the way back to 1964. Steven. Suzy. Kelvin. Natinia. Here was the history of a school, of a neighborhood, of a city. I write posts like this and the e-mails start coming: I went to that school. Let me tell you about the neighborhood back in the 1950s; and, Why don't you do something about it other than take pictures?

This time I did do something else: I stole stories. Some I hope will never get told. Others I hope to tell time and time again.

I have been documenting the waste at recently-vacated, unsecured Detroit Public Schools for Vice Magazine for the past year or so. This month a seven-page spread appears in the U.K. print edition and some of the photos are online. The photos may get picked up by some of the international editions but for now the print version is only available in the U.K. I have been holding on to a lot of these photos all year and I will probably share a few more in the next few weeks.