DON’T get too close to the kids, Cullen Cook warned me that first day at Griscom School. Don’t get emotionally attached.
And don’t tell them where you live. A city schoolteacher who had gotten too close a couple of years ago had paid for it with his life. And he hadn’t even been working at Griscom, the combined middle school-high school at the city of St. Louis’ juvenile court detention center. So, if Cook, the warm and compassionate principal at Griscom, was trying to scare me, it worked.
With the warnings given, the grand tour began. We stepped out into the hall and I saw a single-file row of boys, all bigger then me (but then, I’m small), all in red sweat suits with the letter “I” written on them in black magic marker, blue slip-on shoes, and their hands held behind their backs. I heard the door lock shut behind me.
These boys (and girls) – like most prisoners – live in cells. There are about 90 of them here in all. Some of them are in for rape and murder, others for so-called status offenses, such as truancy.
Some will serve out their sentences at Griscom. For others, Griscom is a stopping point on the way to other agencies, or a state home. Because all of the students are under age 18, the city is obligated to offer them an education. School is in session at Griscom from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In many ways, the classrooms at Griscom are like the classrooms anywhere else. As a Springboard to Learning teacher, I have seen many schools, most of them in the city. There is something special about Griscom. Maybe it is the luxury of having small classes, but the teachers at Griscom go out of their way to reach their students. They love their work.
You won’t find many discipline problems here. If a kid misbehaves, he or she gets locked down at 6:30 p.m. It’s the dreaded “30 ball,” equivalent of getting sent to your room.
Their crimes set aside, who are they? As far as I can tell, they are a lot like I was at their age. Scared and, at the same time, wanting to act tough. Lost and, at the same, wanting someone to find them, to make a connection. We read about their crimes against humanity, but no one hears about their humanity.
My first day as a teacher, I tried to tell them everything there was to know about who I was and why I was there. Who am I, a white and obviously privileged woman, to go into this place and try to get anything as intimate and personal as creative writing out of these kids?
That got me some raised eyebrows. “I am someone who knows nothing about you,” I told them, “but I am aware of that and I figure it gives me a leg up.” Heads nodded.
I am also someone who made a lot of mistakes, did a lot of drugs, came within inches of flunking out of school. I still look at my own tattoos as remnants from a time when I thought that being tough was more important than anything else. I was one of the unreachable kids. More nodding.
The truth is, I went through three high schools while people tried to reach me, and no one could. Finally, a wise teacher suggested I start writing and maybe look into acting. I did, and suddenly I was getting praised – lauded for acting out in more socially and educationally appropriate ways.
So, even though they didn’t know I was listening, a few teachers got under my skin, and years later I still hear their voices. I told my Griscom students that I wanted to be one of those teachers to them.
I said I didn’t care if they could spell or write grammatically, I wanted them to make an effort to write and to write honestly. If I could get them to say it, and say it well, I secretly thought I could get other people to listen. I still think that.
My first assignment: write about yourself, your life. Be honest.
D.B. was, in many ways, a “tough” guy. He was very busy being cool – always the first to speak up, looking for approval from the other students, and making it clear that mine didn’t matter. But he had something to say.
Living in the city of St. Louis is torture to me. On the streets there is nothing to play with. Soon as you walk out the door you have to worry about making it to the next day. You have to think if you have on the right color to go in a certain area. If you have on the wrong color people start approaching you, saying things. You can’t just walk down the street without police thinking you up to something. I ask myself “Why does it have to be like this? Why can’t I just live a normal happy life?” I am very tired of living like this. Something has to stop. We need help on these streets.
R.H. was the opposite end of the spectrum from D.B. He rarely said anything. In fact, I never thought he was paying attention. I was floored when I read his poetry. When I handed it back to him, I looked him in the eye and told him I thought he was brilliant, that he should practice, that his voice was one which should be heard. He smiled and said that no one had ever told him anything like that before.
Here’s one of his poems:
Tainted images of how I was treated, threatened and pounced on like a common criminal, being labeled by people from the other side, losing my own true identity, confined to a small room, thoughts festering and lingering in my mind, trying to seek refuge from the unwanted illusions. Vigorous yet lenient is what I now am. Lost in the waves of confusion looking for myself. I attempted to fasten my interest into what they said was the right life to lead. It wasn’t for me. Trapped in this world of being low-class, uncivilized, a menace to society – maybe I am.
D.B. and R.H.’s pieces are typical of the work my students gave me. About half the work I get each week is about life in St. Louis. They have a lot to say about how their lives lead them to where they are now. Locked up. The other half are explorations of their inner selves. Why do I feel this way? Why do I act this way?
No one offered excuses or claimed to be a victim.
In my other schools, when I am greeted with smiling faces, I can, in the back of my head, take the kids out of context and imagine their lives filled with the toys and games of childhood. But at Griscom, I cannot do that. I can’t help but wonder what these kids did to get locked up.
One of my students paid attention in such a way that I could almost see his thought process. He smiled at me, was eager to talk and discuss his writing. He was a truly gifted writer.
I later learned he was a rapist.
Maybe I started out with the idea of trying to save them, despite my principal’s warnings. But I learned this isn’t TV, that the students come and go, and you have no idea whether any of your good intentions for them have stuck.
May as well just tackle that feeling. I stirred them up a little with talk about all the big ugly social issues – racism included.
Using the poetry of Langston Hughes, we spent a few weeks discussing the role of poetry in addressing social problems. How little has changed since the day when Hughes wrote, in “Junior Addict,” that “it’s easier to get dope than it is to get a job.”
I asked my students to write to me about how they think racism affects their lives. What do they want people to know? G.H., a 15-year-old boy, quiet, focused and very well spoken, responded this way:
I’m kind of a good guy that always asks why . . . Why do people turn their heads when I walk down the street? Is it the clothes on my back or the shoes on my feet? Why do they walk away when they come in my direction? Is they scared of the way I dress, do they think I’m a thug? Why do people think that I am such a bad guy, when they sit down and talk to me then they will know why I dress in a certain way . . . Why do people call me names behind my back? Is they scared to come in my face with all that crap?
On that same theme, K.W. wrote:
Don’t judge me for being myself. Don’t judge me because of someone else. NO! I’m not perfect, or a saint, I am not covered in black paint. My character may not be like you want me to be, But please don’t judge me.
K.W. was surprised when she read her poem out loud. A shy girl, her voice sounded foreign to her, a little awkward. When she finished, she looked at me and said, “That sounds good, doesn’t it?”
By this time I was starting to notice more smiles when I walked by. The students became eager to work, and talk about other people’s work. We moved on to metaphors and similes. The following came from P.B.
Fear and fire look like blue and black in the air, through the sky like a bird that flies. Deaf and dumb, to the devil come go to hell or go to jail. In my life I feel like a burning fire and a bright lightning bolt up and down like a boat. Angry like a wild ocean in a storm in the deep black sea. My skin rough like a high hard mountain, my feelings cold as the snow on top, my feelings won’t ever stop. A Griscom student named C.S. gave me this little gem: Anger is hot and burns like steam, everyone has it, like the sun it beams, it causes anger inside the brain, hold it too long and you might go insane.
My singular little creative writing program in one juvenile detention center in one city isn’t going to change the world. But if I help even one person find his or her voice, know that it matters, and use it to communicate, then I have accomplished something. I hope one of them will then go out and do it for someone else.
There is a line in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” when Caliban, upset with Prospero, says to him: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse you.”
For me – and I hope for the students – that’s preferable to the alternatives.
___ This article originally appeared in the Saint Louis Post Dispatch. I wrote it about my experience teaching creative writing in the youth detention system, a job that I loved and intend to return to some day in some way. I am posting it here as an article not because it is breaking news, but because it will help you understand my complex background, which has formed the foundation of JUST CAUSE. Also because it is still the kind of story we will be telling – and helping our readers find ways to support efforts such as these. I am still proud of the experience. – Alyssa