Posts Tagged ‘Alternative education’

One thing you take away from Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher by D.H. Goddard (a pseudonym for the author who is still teaching at the jail he writes about) is that the prison system, no matter where it is located, no matter what the setting—big or small; urban or rural; county, state, or Fed—is pretty much the same: inefficiently run, punitive in its approach, more interested in retribution and warehousing than helping people change their lives. Another thing that strikes you after reading this memoir is that in these toxic systems there are always people who want to make a difference in inmates’ lives, who understand that what we are doing is not going to cut down on crime but only increase it and in the process tarnish our national character.

D.H Goddard is one of those people. A high school teacher in a county prison in what he describes as a “cow paddy town” where cows outnumber people and “the major industry is incarceration”, he cares about the young people he works with, guiding them through the high school equivalency curriculum while motivating them to change the behaviors that got them locked up in the first place.

He doesn’t hesitate to share his frustrations and failures along with his successes. The reader sees him feeling his way through an arcane system that nobody bothers to explain to him. He gets no help from his supervisor who seems more afraid of his students than interested, or from the correctional staff who are, at best, hapless if not indifferent or obstructive. Yet Goddard learns as he goes along, developing respect for his students, recognizing the lost worlds they come from and trying to make a difference.

Interspersed throughout the book are the projects he instigates—a classroom aquarium and an ambitious unit on aerodynamics, both serving, it seemed to me, as metaphors for these young people’s lives in and out of prison—as well as the risks he takes to engage his students in discussions that might help them see beyond the block, the razor-wired walls, and a world defined by abandonment and defeat.

Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher is filled with the author’s efforts to educate and engage students, to connect with them and mentor them as one of the few adults in their world who not only cares about them but also enjoys their company. What might happen to our penal system if every incarcerated kid—whether locked up in a cow paddy town or in an urban swelter—was given the same opportunities?

The days are filled with graduation speeches by the famous and the not so famous as students leave their schools and start out into the world. So I decided to re-post a piece I wrote about what it’s like for a locked up kid to “graduate” from jail and go out into the world. Indeed, a very different kind of commencement.

 

Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.

It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.

Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping.  That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.

When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail.The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”

And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.

When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.

I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name.) Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you.) Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.

It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.

I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.

It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.

Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.

I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.

Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible.  Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

Maybeth Zeman’s Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time demonstrates, through a series of heartwarming yet heartbreaking stories, what anyone who has worked with juvenile offenders knows: that the thousands of minors locked up in US prisons—at least 10,000 such kids held in adult correctional facilities on any given night—are just children.

The media makes it easy for Americans to ignore this obvious fact with its visual clips cycling through the Nightly News mill showing teenagers of color, usually in hoodies, being let away in cuffs to a police cruiser or a young African American boy in an orange jump suit and shackles shuffling into court. Too few people see the half-truths behind those images. But Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian won’t let you turn your back on what juvenile justice really means in this country or on the vulnerability of these young people’s lives.

Zeman doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, though. She gives backbone and bite to these boys’ stories by effortlessly weaving into her narrative research about such crucial topics as the psychological and neurological development of children, the devastating effects of poverty and racism on personality development, the high rates of juvenile recidivism. These studies challenge the reader to examine the laws governing how youth are handled in the legal system and the impact of prison culture on young offenders once they disappear behind the walls and razor wires into a world where the retribution trumps rehabilitation.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian would be an important book if it just stopped there. But it doesn’t. There’s another tale to tell. Although Zeman is a transitional counselor for a prison high school program, she is also a trained librarian. When she realizes that there isn’t a lending library for her students she does what any librarian would do. She gets a book cart and loads it up with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction including comic books.

There are no pretentions to her library on wheels. She is delightfully unconcerned with Core Curriculum, mandated standards, “the canon” of literature. A firm believer in the power of story and books to open up people’s lives, especially the lives of locked up kids whose worlds are limited and narrow, Zeman sets out to peddle her wares—adventure and mystery; heroes, superheroes and villains; customs and people from other cultures. As she writes, “The great thing about reading books is that they change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even a few hours every day.” And that momentary relief for a locked up kid can often be a life saver in the chaos of jail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and know the sound that a book cart makes with its squeaky wheels. As Zeman describes pushing her cart through the prison hallways from classroom to classroom I could easily imagine that squeak calling kids out of the harsh reality of prison into the safe world of words and graphics like the pull of a Good Humor truck’s bell.

And those orange clad boys are just as hungry for something to read as they might be for a “King Cone” or a “Candy Center Crunch.” The reader can’t help but laugh, and be moved by their eagerness, asking for a particular book or comic, barely able to cover up their disappointment if the “Green Lantern” comic they’ve been waiting for hasn’t come back yet. They keep track like the old fashion librarian of what’s out, what’s in, overdue, or lost. There’s a poignancy to these boys and their books as though they themselves know what they missed as children and are now trying to make up for lost time and innocence.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time opens up to the reader—like the books that Zeman peddles to her students—a stark and punishing world that so few people know about, yet a world that is created and maintained in each of our names as citizens of this country. But she is a gentle alchemist. She mixes the harsh realities of prison life with just enough facts and a good bit of heart as she walks us through the same dark places into which so many of our children are sent every day.

“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist,  shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.

Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty

 Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap.  Theyve grown up in verbal poverty.

“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old.  Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.

“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children.  One.  Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever.  Four out of fifty.”

No books?  No newspapers?  Nothing?  No wonder the boys skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write.  How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them?  I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.

As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:

Children with professionally working parents                         1100 words

Children with working-class parents                                         700 words

Children with non-working, welfare parents                             500 words

(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)

Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:

First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)

Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis:  Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)

What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers:  “In grades K—3, students learn to read.  By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”

But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on.  His skills and knowledge stay limited.

Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss.  What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window.  “Like, past the clouds.  How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”

Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.”  He read at a 4th grade level.

So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.

He’s more likely not to become a strong reader.  As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills.  Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line.  And the cycle continues.

Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know.  And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if?  What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?

I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t.  In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books.  So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.”  I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs.  Apparently, it helped.

What if all parents could be coached to do that, too?  Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.

NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).

But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge.  The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to.  Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.

Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.

I was thrilled when I read the article.  It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.

I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies.  Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension.  And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.

I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too.  Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents.  How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.

Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond.  They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so.  They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit.  They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.

Word.

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” a number of times. She writes  about the incarcerated women and men of all ages that she teaches. In this piece which originally appeared on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange Gayle tells the story of a young woman who from a very early age had to face the kind of challenges that leave a life wrecked and almost irreparable, a life that ended up in the criminal justice system.  Gayle’s piece is indeed a moving demonstration of why  we must give much more support to young women caught in the system. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” .

Girls in the Juvenile Justice System Need Our Support

I just returned from the Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Portland, Maine, where Piper Kerman, author of the memoir “Orange Is the New Black,” — the inspiration for the wildly successful Netflix series of the same name — gave the keynote address to the 400 or so attendees all with some connection to the offender population.

In her book and as a consultant to the writers of the show, Kerman’s fellow inmates are shown in vivid back stories that humanize them all. She has stayed in touch with some and lost track of others. She attributes all of the success stories to a strong support system on the “outside,” post-release.

For the past three years, I have been volunteering at a New England county jail leading a mandatory goal-setting workshop for newly incarcerated women. They cycle through in two-week batches. My best guess is that I have taught at least 1,500 women in those three years. Generally their crimes range from drug and sex trafficking to assault and battery to a smattering of white-collar crimes. They are of all races, ages, socio-economic backgrounds and most are repeat offenders.

I enter my classroom from the top of a set of stairs where I can look down at the women waiting for me in their rows of plastic chairs. Last week, I could never have braced myself for seeing “C,” who I have known since she was 10, sitting with the other inmates. Never.  Ever.

I froze (truly, I did) and watched as she ran to the back of the room and fell to her knees in body wracking sobs. I took a deep breath as I walked down the stairs, and instead of taking my place in front of the group, hurried back where I crouched down, watching her shield her eyes as she said over and over again, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

The other women were curious as to what was happening and I think they caught on that the two of us were deeply connected in some way. I got her up off her knees and hugged her tightly breaking every single jail boundary rule imaginable. I didn’t care. How could I have cared?

I had been out of touch with her for several years, losing track after her first baby, born when” C” was just 15. I first met her when I worked as a fundraiser for the largest child welfare agency in New England. The administrative offices were steps away from the residential group home where she lived. I was able to have lunch with the residents and she took to me in a way that she didn’t with other staff. Hers is a common story — no known father, drug-addicted mother — shunted into the system at 10. She was a hardened kid, often needing to be restrained and kept from bolting out the doors of the residence and adjacent school.

She moved along the trajectory of the system, aging out of one residential program and moving onto the next. I was part of her team of decision makers having been designated as her “educational surrogate,” monitoring her grades and progress while she was pregnant and attending a public high school while still living in a residential program. I was part of her life and she was part of mine.

She was 17 the last time I saw her. My husband and I went to visit her at the apartment she shared with her baby’s father and his mother. There was a huge and splintered hole in front of the toilet, easily big enough to fall through, porn, bongs and empty booze bottles all over the place. The mother was lying in bed, chain smoking, barking orders through a drunken haze. Someone in the system, someone who had to have made more than one home visit, had made the decision that it was acceptable, that it was OK, for “C” to be living in this environment.

Back in the classroom, after soothing her and telling her that it was OK, everything was going to be OK, she sat through my class, participating and smiling, looking again like the teenager I remember her as (she’s now 22). I found out after class that she had another baby and was awaiting sentencing for stabbing her most recent boyfriend in apparent self-defense. According to her case manager this is only the latest in a string of violent crimes. She and I are not allowed to sit down and catch up, not allowed to exchange pictures of our children, while she is there and I am still a volunteer.

Sadly, unlike the success stories that Piper Kerman cited in her keynote address, I don’t think that there is a strong support system waiting to boost up “C”—and so many other young women like her — when she’s released. It takes many people to wrap their arms around a girl so full of shame and anger to prove that there are other options, ways to avoid abusive boyfriends and repeat pregnancies, and even more likely, a life of crime.

 

 

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