Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Incarcerated Youth...Up Close and Personal

The variation in our personalities, interests, and jobs adds so much to our collective being, and the variety of  their life's stories are always amazing and intriguing to me. We find among us those who spend much of their lives following a chosen path which elevates them to a desired level in their field. We find those who strive to help others and find satisfaction in giving of themselves. They clearly understand how life can affect and destroy some of the most helpless, the most innocent. By telling their stories they help us understand the problems in our society give us insight into a world that may seem quite foreign, yet shows us how we, as a society, played a role through our action or inaction. Oh, but if only the lessons could be learned.

Valerie participates in a writing class I lead and has many wonderful stories. She chose this one to share, no doubt, because there is a message here for all of us. Thank you for this story. May it help everyone have a better view and an open heart.


Broken children are everywhere, subsisting within the obscure fringes of the social order. Society chooses not to embrace them by claiming ignorance to their essence and their needs. These children’s minds, bodies, and spirits bear a resemblance to fragments of a smashed glass. This situation equates to the Christmas story of the damaged Misfit toys. Banished to a remote island, the toys disappear out of the visual acuity of those who have so callously terminated them without any conception of their intrinsic value if repaired. Out of sight out of mind. Society tends to discard objects that are flawed. Imperfection is not an attribute we are willing to encircle with open arms. We follow the same pattern with children that do not live up to the criterion we as a society exemplify. If a child is broken, is it not our moral covenant to take the time and effort to rebuild that shattered child instead of throwing him/her away?

In 1990, I accepted a position with the Wenatchee School District as the School Program Teacher housed at the Chelan County Maximum Security Juvenile Detention Center. In the blink of an eye, I had descended into the world of incarcerated youth. For 20 years, these children infiltrated my heart, challenged me, occupied my thoughts, and inspired me to achieve unparalleled pinnacles of compassion, patience, and love. MY STUDENTS became my passion, morphing into a part of me. We were the same in so many ways. Welcome to my world of Incarcerated youth -- up close and personal.

It is 8:00 a.m., and I am on my 2-way radio calling for students to come to school. They walk down the hall hands behind their backs, eyes looking forward. The line must be straight and talking is prohibited. The students are accompanied by juvenile custodial officers, and when the kids are seated the staff retreats back into the bowels of the building. Standing by my door, each student is welcomed with a cheerful greeting. Many of the kids refuse to look at me and most mornings there is no reciprocal response. In all honesty, the kids do not know how to react to a simple salutation from an adult. It makes them uncomfortable. They are much more at ease when the interaction is negative as opposed to positive. Negativity is their forte  and sadly enough their life code. Their social etiquette is simply stated: attack before you get attacked.

The kids know the routine: Enter the classroom, get your work folder, take your assigned seat and remain silent. The actual scenario presents itself as: enter the classroom, talk to anyone and everyone, forget about your file, sit in someone else's seat, continue to talk as loudly as possible, and pretend you are clueless. Finally, students are in allocated seats, folders on desk and silent.  In a final effort to establish control before the day begins, they deliberately make eye contact with me flaunting an intimidating leer reminding me to watch my back.

Routine is problematic for this group of youngsters. They identify it as an implementation of authority. The line in the sand is brazenly drawn the minute they enter the classroom. Pencils, aka potential weapons, are passed out. A request to open folders is made and to begin work. It is now 8:10 and the natives are already restless. The next issue of the day presents itself as “what do I work on?” The habitually repeated answer is “where you left off yesterday.” The response, “Don’t remember, can you show me? Note the use of the words show me instead of help me. Asking for help demonstrates weakness. This start-up routine is to get attention, and each individual student demands it on a  daily basis. With vague recognition etched on their faces, the day ultimately commences. Continuity and routine are two perplexing concepts thrown into their chaotic reality. Adapting to others expectations does not come without some kicking and screaming along the way.

As the day continues, small battles are fought and indignation infuses itself into every situation. The kids do not like to have anyone tell them what to do. A simple please get to work or stop talking can erupt into an ugly confrontation in less time than it would take to snap your fingers. The choreography between teacher and student is set in motion. Attaining the lead position is the ultimate goal of both parties, but for very adverse motives.

The teacher's intent is to gently guide the student to the awareness that life is dictated by boundaries and to demonstrate how the usage of adaptive behaviors and respective demeanor can ultimately influence the outcome. The frequently used illustration is: you are on the job and the boss instructs you to do a task. You blow up, curse him out and storm off. You get fired for this behavior and now find yourself in the predicament of not having money. You blame the boss! Being told what to do is taken as harsh criticism, and immediately there is the need to reestablish control over the situation. At the end of the day you no longer have a job, but you have the satisfaction that no one can tell you what to do. We then run through the role play of respectful compliance and its outcome.

The day brings constant struggles as the two worlds continually collide. Oddly enough the perception is that their world is much safer than ours and simpler to navigate. Their so called straightforward world consists of violence, abuse, crime, addiction, gangs, and death, and yet to them it is the more benign of the two coexisting domains.

Anger is the mother of all emotions. Indignation will eventually set you free. Strike out at everyone and you will be memorable. Where does this rage come from? That can be answered in one word: life. These kids have been deprived of a childhood. By the time they can walk and talk, it ends before it  begins. They start off at a early age missing out on the occasions that make childhood special and magical. These kids will never have hot chocolate waiting for them on a cold winters day. Having their hand held to cross a street never happens. There aren't any loving hugs and assurances  that everything will be OK. Nobody wipes the tears away or puts band-aids on scraped knees. Bedtime stories are never read. There isn't any encouragement or hope tossed their direction. Incapable of envisioning a future, only the current moment matters.

Home is not a sanctuary. It is a house of horrors. Think about going through a haunted house at Halloween. It is dark, scary ,and the fear of the unknown looms before you. Your heart races, and your palms get sweaty with the anticipation that a monster might jump out of nowhere and grab you. Your instinct is to run back outside to a safe place. The trepidation of what might happen if you stay is paralyzing. If grabbed, is escape even a possibility? Does the monster want your blood? Will cries for help be heard? Will your absence be noticed? For most of us having these concerns running through our minds at warp speed are short-lived. Outside of our present nightmare there exists a safety net of love, protection, friends and family. Make it through the next 5 minutes on this dark excursion and Shangri-La awaits. For most of us it takes a little side trip down a dark alley to make us appreciate what we actually possess. At risk youth live in the haunted house 24/7. When these kids depart into the dark alley there is no light to guide them to a safe place. There is no one waiting on the other side. Life for them  is like being trapped on an out-of-control roller coaster ride. Your screams for help fall on deaf ears. There are no good Samaritans in their world.

Imagine having an accident where you take a large gouge out of your leg. It is deep painful and bleeding profusely. With proper measures the hemorrhage can be stopped. At risk youth are constantly on the verge of bleeding out. Preventative measures are not always  accessible to them. Many friends and family members are already In heaven due to violent deaths.

In a convoluted way, these kids are very religious. They believe Heaven will provide them with the good life that was denied them here on earth. They do believe that God is virtuous and will grant them redemption sanctioning their entrance through the Pearly Gates. The honor of sitting at his feet and basking in the Holy Spirit will also be bequeathed. The ultimate vision is absolution. It is worth dying for even as a child. Religion is a lifeline used only to the hereafter not in the present.

A student’s writing helped me visualize the inner angst of my charges.

I jump on a big white fluffy cloud and sail away from my life. I look down and  jump off when I find a new place that looks good. This community has not labled me. They do not know what prior bad acts I have committed. At first they enthusiastically welcome me with open arms. Just as I feel like I belong, all of a sudden Chicken Little arrives yelling,” the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” The sky falls on me and ruins everything. It is though I had a gps system installed in by body at birth and can be tracked anywhere I go. Eventually all the Chicken Littles will  find me and  it is back to square one and once again incarceration. I screwed it up again and know that it is a vicious cycle. No more clouds. I need something faster to outrun my life. I hop a frieght train and am satisfied this will work. It departs and speeds throught the night increasing the distance between me and my old life. Sometimes it slows to a comfortable pace and then Boom it resumes  full speed ahead. The train never stops. I find this odd. Then I realize there is no one driving this train. It is the train to no where for nobodies like me. Why did I not jump off when it was going slow and I still had a chance? Those chances are over. This train is now in runaway mode and there will be no slowing down.  Why do I always try to keep up with my homies, my drugs, my crimes?  Why? Why do I keep doing this? My one saving grace is knowing that I will be with god in the afterlife because I have already  spent my years on earth in hell. God I am ready to be your obedient and devoted solider. Please take me now!

Why do they keep doing this since 99% of their reactions are impulse driven? The answer is simple; Because it feels good.One moment of feeling good is worth sacrificing everything! Sacrificing everything is easy because you never had anything. A moment of pleasure is a way to escape the harsh reality of a dysfunctional life even if only  for a millisecond in time. The moment, the rush of adrenalin, the thrill, the chase, the deception, and the fame make it all worthwhile. Crime, addiction and violence are normal lifestyles for these kids. It is all they know. Trapped in an environment created by others, survival is the driving force. Incarceration for this group of youngsters is viewed not as a deterrent  but an achievement.

Why did I do this for 20 years? That is best answered by the poet Emily Dickinson.

       If I Can Stop
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

by Valerie S., 2013

23 Apr 2013