Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. She often talks about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. In this current piece she writes about saying good-bye to a group of young guys (many of whom have spent their lives in and out of institutions) when her Life Skills class is closed due to loss of funding. Gayle communicates so well the deep and powerful relationships that can develop between students and teachers, relationships that stay in both their hearts for a long time. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” where she writes about variety of topics with her usual honesty and humor.
When Young Offenders–and Their Teacher–Say Good-bye
Last month, due to a lack of funding, the juvenile lock-up where I taught a weekly “life skills” workshop was shuttered. According to my very rough calculation, in the year that I worked there I had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group. Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week, and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.
The kids I worked with in lock-up have dreams like everyone else. They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners. They want to become pilots and work with horses. They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down. Others, in their own words, say “I don’t give a fuck.” But, they do.
The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds are the most hopeful. They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be. Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards their own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system and that soon enough, when they are old enough to be tried as adults, they will just continue on to become “career criminals.”
The bottom line is that I will most likely never see any of these boys again. I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.
I will miss Emmanuel who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis. His pudgy face with his dimples and mile-wide smile is wallpapered on the inside of my brain. At 16, he was the youngest student I taught and without question, the most articulate. Before the program closed a staff member told me that he was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back. Not one.
I will miss the most hardened young man, Josh, the one who looked at me suspiciously when he first met me but was the first to thank me for everything I had done for him when I saw him for the last time. During our first group together he told me that he smashed his phone on the ground when it froze in the middle of a game he was playing. By the end of that first hour together, I made him laugh at the absurdity of the act. I never knew, until the program had closed, that he is a heroin addict that drives him to have a needle in each arm at the same time.
I will miss the young man with the first name of a classic literary character, a boarding school student from a very affluent neighborhood. We talked about books and movies. His alcoholism has destroyed his life.
I will miss seeing Ricardo, a light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, sprawled on a chair all smiles and light. I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and his gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges. I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed. I know that he is terrified of going back there. He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away. When an informal conversation occurred in class about superheroes and that inevitable question, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” He said, “I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud. I want to bring happiness to the streets. I want to protect my little sister. I’d want to be a superhero. I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”
At the end of my last group I gave each boy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” which is a lot less hokey than it sounds. We had ended each group up until then with each kid reading five sound bytes of advice. They understood what that final gesture meant, that I’d be with them wherever they landed, that I was dedicated to their success. I wasn’t allowed to hug them when I said goodbye, but my handshakes were long and warm, and my tears told them that I would never, ever forget them.
“Good night you princes of Maine,
you kings of New England.”
John Irving, Cider House Rules