The 2nd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

The following is part three of a series titled “!0 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). The introduction and the first thing I learned are also available on my blog.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”– Lena Horne

The Second Thing I Learned
No matter what happens, show them a smile.

     As an educator at a county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There were days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrunk me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only later in the day when I was alone at home.

     Often, my students had experienced trauma, toxic stress and the violence that accompanies poverty throughout their lives. Enduring these injustices infuses a heightened sensitivity to the moods of others. This constant state of hyper alertness to determine fight or flight gives them an above average ability to appraise how others are feeling.

     The last thing kids being held at a detention center need is a classroom facilitator in a constant state of sorrow or rage. Fortunately, my years as a server sufficiently prepared me to maintain a smile on my face, or at least to avoid frowning my lips and furrowing my eyebrows. Repeatedly, students extended feelings of relief and gratitude in private notes they generously and discreetly shared with me, because school was a positive place to escape an otherwise harsh and negative environment.

     Augustus* was in my class when I arrived back to school from a summer break. He was there one school year prior to a “call to action” colleagues and I had with our school district’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In partnership with a local advocacy group, Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), we asked for year-round school at the detention center. With the support of GCC, the detention center began to follow a year-round calendar schedule beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. The new school year calendar immediately followed my last school year working there.

     Often, over half of the children being held at the juvenile detention center were previous residents. This recidivism rate indicates crevices in the juvenile justice process yet to be sealed. Augustus, however, was not a prior resident and he had been there all summer. He was quiet and withdrawn in class, which meant sharper attention to his other means of communication was required to build rapport with him. Luckily, he felt comfortable expressing himself through written words.

     Each day, I distributed assignment packets to students, which we would mostly complete together during a series of instructional activities. After putting their names on their papers, the first prompt on the paper stated:

Write one thing you are grateful (thankful) for today. Finding things to be thankful for helps improve our overall happiness. Happier people are more successful people. ____________________________________________________________________________________________
________________________________________________________________________________________

Today I’m thankful I’m here!

     As an example, I also included something I was grateful for that day, and I may have included a silly image. Visuals are imperative when teaching youth impacted by trauma.
I explained the rationale for this practice in the introduction section of a compilation of my lessons created for publication on an online website for educators:

Why is gratitude important for students? For my students, being incarcerated is atraumatic and painful experience. Beginning each day with this small and quick activity is my attempt to mitigate negative energy, and to have students start from a positive place.

According to the Harvard Health Journal, “With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

My intention with students is to create habits during these adolescent years connected to gratitude, so that as they move into more emotionally mature years they will have a greater opportunity to attain the benefits associated with people who are grateful.

According to Psychology Today, “Fostering gratitude can also broaden your thinking, and create positive cycles of thinking and behaving in healthy, positive ways.” In a detention center that seems like an obvious goal to strive toward as part of our rehabilitation efforts, and in a world often fraught with negative images flashing across screens, more gratitude in our attitudes could improve everyone’s health and happiness.

     Responses to the prompt from students regularly offered speckles of insight into their lives. I would habitually place “smiley faces” next to their answers when I graded their submissions, which inspired Augustus to begin mimicking these faces in his writings. He would sheepishly show half a grin if he caught me amusingly glancing at his imitated creations. This non verbal communication is how I began to understand Augustus’ perspective as a young person being detained.

     On August 26th he unassumingly left a note on my desk on his way out of class. In it he shared the following:

Dear Ms. Svigelj :I
I don’t have the best of handwriting but I just want to say thanks for just being a teacher in here everyday. I wake up super happy to come to this class. It may not seem like it, but trust me I am. I been in here for the whole summer and when I showed up here it was a whole new world. I sometimes don’t want to leave. Each day I’m not in your class I talk to other people about your class and how cool it is. Most people just come for the computer, but I come to escape the madness, the endless fights, the sleepless nights. Sometimes I pray you show up at school so I can come each day… I may not talk a lot. That’s because I just like to do my work, 🙂 or you can say I’m shy. LOL. Just thank you for being a teacher in here. You made me lots happier. I’m kinda mad the weekend is here, so no school…

     In October, Augustus was still at the detention facility. During an art project to celebrate the upcoming holiday, a visiting Italian muralist guided students in the decoration of papier-mâché masks for Dia de los Muertos. Across the top of his black painted mask, Augustus wrote SUICIDE in large white letters.

     Gratitude, expressions of appreciation and smiley faces may insert moticums of positivity into negative spaces, but the continuous causticity of juvenile detention centers can be debilitating.

     According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, youth involved with the juvenile justice system have an increased risk of suicide. In a 2013 fact sheet, they offered the following alarming statistics:

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth in confinement.
  • Youth in residential facilities have nearly three times the suicide rate of peers in

the general population.

  • Risk factors for suicide are often more prevalent among youth in the juvenile

justice system.

  • Studies report that over half of juveniles had current suicidal ideation and

one-third had a history of suicidal behavior.

     Augustus had to be placed under “suicide watch” more than once during his stay at the detention center. Were his mental health needs being met before he arrived at the juvenile detention center? Were they assuaged or amplified while he was detained? I don’t know for certain, but I have formed my own suppositions.

     Augustus was a student in my classroom when I was assigned to teach youth staying on House 3. I didn’t learn about the torment many kids living in House One’s residential area were enduring until after I stopped teaching students staying on that house. My heart was distressingly ravaged when friends began sharing news reports on social media revealing “fight nights” on House 1 organized by a couple rogue detention officers.

     According to a lawsuit filed by four young men who had been held on House 1, detention officers would force them to participate in “bloody and brutal brawls.” Local printed news stories reported, “The guards organized the fights that pitted the teenagers against each other all for the guards’ amusement and entertainment. The lawsuit also states the guards conspired to cover up their behavior.” Three of the young men’s names who were parties in the lawsuit were listed in the article. All of them had been in my class.

     Immediately my mind began flipping in reverse searching for a sign I may have missed, or a distress call I may have mistakenly shuffled into the deck with the rest of the routines from a school day. They were quiet and compliant kids in class. I don’t know how anyone could be expected to learn under the duress they were enduring, but I hope their time in my classroom gave them moments of comfort or reprieve.

     I searched through the stacks of notes and letters I saved from students and did not find any direct messages from them, but when I read another student’s note to me, it made me feel worse instead of better.

     The same school year “fight nights” were occurring on House 1, *Pete had briefly been a student in my class. He knew he was about to be placed somewhere else, and graciously left me this note among his classwork the last time I saw him.

Ms. Smith,
I may be getting moved to a CCF tomorrow so I wanted to let you know. Thank you for the handful of sheets of extra information on happenings in the world and just being an overall positive vibration in a pretty negative environment. Maybe I’ll end up running into you on the outside one day, so until then keep doing your thing and filling the youth with wisdom…. I hope you enjoy life thoroughly and follow your happiness… Thanks again for being a friendly face in a place where there are very few.
Much love

     I wish I could roll backwards on the linear continuum of time and prevent the additional suffering and abuse experienced by youth under the watch of adults who should have been protecting them, or at the very least should not have been causing additional harm.

     The “fight nights” revelations haunt me. Some may say I should accept that which I cannot change, but I cannot accept that which is unacceptable. The exploitation and maltreatment of the powerless and vulnerable is unacceptable. I refuse to swallow a pill of injustice or perversion. Thus, I am left with an internal nagging guilt parallel to a trace of hope benevolently bestowed through a student’s note.

     Perhaps a “friendly face” and “positive vibration” allowed for iotas of respite? Even when churning thoughts provoke my eyes to reflexively swell with sorrow, I make sure they see my smile.

*Government names are always changed to protect juvenile anonymity.

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The First Thing I Learned: Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you are going.

The following is part two of a series titled “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). Last Sunday I posted the introduction

Thanks for reading!

I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am. – Paulo Freire

The First Thing I Learned

Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you are going.

I am not one of those time-honored educators, who knew seemingly from their conception that they wanted to teach. I rarely played “school” as a child, and although I have always enjoyed learning, being at school was not always gratifying for me.
I metaphorically checked out of high school before my senior year even started. After being in religious schools for kindergarten through ninth grade, I never seemed to find a coterie I felt I could assimilate with when I transferred to the public high school near my home in Ashtabula, Ohio, before my tenth grade year began. I applied to colleges after my junior year and received a couple merit scholarships to small private universities, but they did not make college seem more financially reachable.                                                     A couple months into my senior year at the age of seventeen, I became pregnant with my eldest son, whom I gave birth to less than two months after graduating from Harbor High School.
Resolved to raise my son on my own, I accepted admission to Cleveland State University, kept a job waitressing and commuted to and from classes while we lived in small apartments near my family.
While in my fourth quarter of courses at Cleveland State, I gave birth to my second son, with visions of a future life as a military wife once his father completed marine training at Camp Lejeune. The course I thought my life would navigate was interrupted seven-and-a-half months later by a fatal car accident on a curvy country road in North Carolina, between Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point.
At age twenty I possessed all of the arrogance and sense of immortality that accompanies the age, and remained oblivious to the wisdom experience engenders to the extent that I was unaware I should be seeking it. Embroiled in a probate court battle with my son’s paternal grandmother for four-and-a-half years, and awash in what I thought was an unbearable and interminable grief, I wanted to hurry up and live, so that I could get life over with and die.
Feeling like I was left with no alternative, I finished school earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, history and social studies. Not knowing what career path to pursue while raising two sons alone, I decided to return to school for a middle school through high school teaching certificate.
While still in college, I turned twenty-one and began bartending, or serving cocktails, in Cleveland area establishments where tip yields were more lucrative than the small restaurants in Ashtabula. A regular customer at one of the bars I was working at taught at a nearby high school. He planned social gatherings for faculty from that high school and requested me as the bartender for their events. His principal would sit at the bar drinking Absolut Vodka on the rocks while the staff socialized around tables, billiards and darts.
For bartenders, the identity of returning customers can often merge with the customer’s drink choice. I could not have predicted that about a year later, Mr. Absolut Vodka on the Rocks would be the first principal to interview and then hire me to teach high school social studies in Cleveland. Nor could I have predicted that sixteen years later I would be an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center (JDC).
Juvenile detention centers resembling institutions designed for mass incarceration should not be places we attempt to raise or rehabilitate children (or adults). Yet, I began working in such a place.
With an intelligent, compassionate and supportive principal at the helm, classes were blended learning environments in self-contained classrooms. Educators provided instruction and enrichment, along with access to online courses for students in order for them to acquire high school course credits. The same group of students remained in one classroom for three hours and forty-five minutes per school day. Plus, they received physical education instruction for up to an hour each day at a gymnasium slightly down the hall from the school area.
Each teacher was assigned to one group of students from one of five housing units divided by age and gender. My first two years, I was assigned to male students ages 15-17 from House 1. The last two years, I was assigned to male students ages 17-21 from House 3.
House 4 holds the youngest males. House 2 is assigned to the second-youngest males, and House 5 is for all females regardless of age. On average, over one thousand students per year passed through the center while I taught there, with an average stay of two to three weeks.
There were extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes a student would arrive to class for the first time immediately after his court arraignment in the morning, and before the end of class he would be gone. I also had a student in class who was in and out over the course of a few years, with his most recent time there lasting over five hundred days.
There is no doubt it was an adjustment for me when I was planning lessons the first school year. I had to create lessons that could be facilitated successfully without knowledge from a prior lesson for all of the new students, but might simultaneously be expanding upon a previous lesson for students who had been there a while without recycling previous lessons. There were vast differences in levels of ability among students too. Eventually, I implemented a system of instructional strategies and content I felt made learning relevant and accessible to everyone.
During the second half of my first year, a student arrived to class seemingly uninterested in engaging academically. He even went so far as to discourage others from completing their school work as he verbalized the pointlessness of it all.
I had an unwritten two-week policy during which I acclimated students to our class, but did not excessively push them academically. The trauma of being arrested and detained away from their families and friends, perhaps the trauma of events related to an arrest, and sometimes the symptoms of withdrawal from self-medicating, requires an allowance of time for students’ minds to adjust to learning environments.
The seemingly most effective factor of engagement for teenage boys being detained was not taught in teacher preparation courses or professional development, nor read in scholarly articles written by education experts. I admit to incentivizing (bribing) students to complete school work for edible treats otherwise unavailable to them while at the detention center.
Thus, the day this particular academically apprehensive student witnessed me offering a personal cake and caffeine free soda bottle to a student who had successfully completed a high school semester of coursework, he decided to give school a chance.
Before the school year ended, the previously apprehensive student had passed four of the five state tests required to graduate, and was less than a few credits away from completing his high school course requirements. I was able to coordinate a special visit to the juvenile detention center during summer break in June in order for he and another student to take the last state test they each needed to pass for graduation.
At the end of the summer, the student was adjudicated to the adult court as a seventeen year old for a crime he committed when he was sixteen, and then he was transferred to a prison facility in central Ohio. He passed the last test he needed for graduation that June, but had a couple high school credits to complete in order to be certified as a graduate.
We corresponded through mail and then through JPay, a costly prison email system. I promised him I would attend his graduation if he finished his high school course credits. I assumed every facility orchestrated graduation ceremonies when an incarcerated student graduated – the way I did at JDC. I was incorrect.
The following school year, the student finished and graduated in May without a graduation ceremony. Our school was able to request his transcript and, in accordance with state law, also provided him with a high school diploma from a Cleveland high school. He asked me to deliver the Cleveland diploma to his aunt in a neighboring suburb, which I did. Yet, I felt I was not honoring my promise to him by not seeing him for his graduation.
After researching the complex rules and procedures for correctional facility visitations in the state, I was able to make an afternoon appointment in July to visit him. I had also planned a roadtrip with my father, youngest son, and dog during the end of June that year to visit my two eldest sons. One son was in Nashville, Tennessee, and the other was in Fort Myers, Florida.
As happens with many family trips, the length of time travelling was longer than anticipated, which meant I needed to drive nineteen hours straight from Florida to Ohio in order to make it to my appointment with my former student on time. Arriving just minutes late to a scheduled prison visit results in the visitor being turned away without exception, and without any immediate ability to explain why you are not there to the person being held inside.
About 20-30 minutes away from the facility, after driving over eighteen hours, I pulled my Dodge Durango off the highway into a rest area to change my clothes, wash my face and brush my teeth.
I had to make sure the clothes I had on were not a reason to be turned away once I arrived. I discovered this potentially devastating dress code detail previously while visiting a different student at a different Ohio prison. On that occasion, even though I had on a flowing pink dress with layers of satin and chiffon that fell just above my knees, the white leggings I had on underneath warranted being sent out of the facility after getting all the way to the visiting room.
I incorrectly thought the guards would consider the leggings to be a statement of additional modesty since they prevented the visibility of any flesh, but a strict no-leggings policy was in effect. Luckily, one of my sons had left his malodorous soccer bag in my trunk. I was able to take off the banned leggings while standing behind my car in the prison parking lot, put on a pair of my son’s (unclean) athletic shorts under my dress, and return inside.
My (unshaved) legs became visible from right below my knees to my shoes, but because I didn’t have leggings on, I was permitted back into the visitation room to sit with my former student. Knowing how to adhere to strict dress codes for prison visits is a crucial component of access, even when that code’s intended purpose would be better met without a total fidelity adherence. Lots of things about prisons do not make sense.
When we arrived in central Ohio for my July appointment, I left my dad, son and dog in the car after nineteen hours of driving. I rushed inside the prison facility and made it just in time for a visit with my high school graduate.
I was able to buy some items from the vending machine in the visiting area to contribute to our own small graduation celebration. He had gotten taller and no longer had his braces on. My fatigue didn’t diminish our conversation.
As we sat in a set of chairs facing each other in a large room with guards and other people and their visitors, we talked about Cleveland, sports, news, my trip, family, and his future. He shared more than once how he hadn’t previously envisioned himself as a high school graduate, because it didn’t seem to be a goal close enough for him to realistically grasp.
We were mutually appreciative of the ninety minutes we spent chatting and laughing that afternoon. I am not sure exactly why, but I wiped away tears when I left the prison before I joined my dad, son and dog in the vehicle again.
Before this high school graduate was released a few years later, he was transferred to a lower security facility for a couple years. While in the lower security facility, he successfully completed college courses provided by a university nearby with plans to continue college once home.
Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you’ll be in life later. I didn’t imagine I would become a teacher proficient at navigating prisons, and my student hadn’t imagined himself as a successful college student, yet there we both were.

Introduction to “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too)”

     The following is the introduction to a series of ten additional sections revealing what I learned while employed as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) in Cleveland, Ohio.  

     The lines between good and evil, justice and injustice, virtuous and unvirtuous, and consequential and inconsequential were never more undefined and indistinct than the four years I taught at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Jail changes everyone, including those who are able to leave and return to their families and communities each day once their shift is complete.

     Anyone repeatedly exposed to the routines, sounds, sights, and the numbing absence of scent or touch, begins to conform unwittingly and often unwillingly to the absurdities of the institution. It is an unhealthy and vacuous normalization to become immersed in.

     Yet, I possess the distinctly immodest notion, as many educators do, that I have the ability to teach any child within my reach. Thus, as I contemplated leaving the teaching profession entirely after working for sixteen years in public high schools throughout the city of Cleveland, Ohio, a position for a social studies teacher at the county’s juvenile detention center became vacant. Communicating through a long-established network of colleagues, I was encouraged to apply for the post.

     After the interview process was complete, a job offer was made. Although the new placement meant my salary would be reduced by approximately twenty percent, the appeal of no longer having to prove my value within a system hyper focused on test scores and data, which requires an intentional neglect of the humanity of children, enticed me more than monetary factors. After all, I have not known any teachers who entered the profession with visions of future fortunes. There is a reason teaching colleges at universities are not part of the business college. Teaching is a humanity.

     Being a teacher for any length of time results in hoarding a massive amount of materials, just in case they are needed in the future, and because teachers are never certain if they will be able to obtain the items again if they do decide to discard them. It took me twenty years to relinquish the plastic sheets filled with history notes for the overhead projector I used when I first began teaching in 1998, even though they had been filed away and unused for fifteen years. This accumulation of materials means it is never enjoyable to pack up a classroom and move to a new one. Yet, I bundled my many belongings and supplies, loaded them into a large SUV and prepared to go to jail.

     My first few days at the juvenile detention center were spent trying to figure out how to get in and out of the facility. The nine-story, low-rise, cream-colored building on a reclaimed industrial site east of downtown Cleveland  looms largely and noticeably over the neighborhoods nearby. It is not coincidental that its location is near some of the most impoverished areas of the city and multiple public housing complexes. The majority of the young men who arrived to my classroom grew up in nearby neighborhoods, plagued with particles of discrimination and segregation.

     For the general public and most employees, entering the Juvenile Justice Center requires passing through a sheriff’s security station immediately after the main entrance doors. Bags are rolled on a belt through x-ray machines while sheriffs view their contents on monitors. Then, everyone walks through metal detectors, hoping they didn’t forget keys or change in their pockets because that misstep requires them to circle around and attempt the whole process once more.

     Next, individuals going to the detention center complex must swipe their badges to open a door which allows entry into an area with coat racks, locker rooms, a kitchen area, a training room, and offices. When transitioning from the public area of the Juvenile Justice Center to the secure area, the visual contrast is stark and harsh. All hues of color are assaulted and consumed by a complete white washing of the floors, furnishings, walls, and ceilings. No natural lighting filters through the solid block walls, which leaves only the intimidating and accusatory glare of fluorescent lights.

     The next step of gaining entry to the residential and school area includes another rolling belt to place bags on for another x-ray. Only clear bags are permitted. There is another stroll through a metal detector, and friendly brief exchanges between the sheriff assigned to the station and employees following the security routine. Once cleared to continue, a short  walk to a heavy white door with a small vertical rectangular window is required.

     Someone in another room watches this brief walk through mounted cameras encased in half circles attached to the ceiling. A buzz at the door from the watcher grants entrance to a narrow corridor that leads to another weighty door. Again, someone in a different room is watching through cameras and the sound of the buzzer at the second door means access to the detention center has been permitted.

     Upon opening the door, a short distance to the left, along rubber track flooring and curved white concrete block walls are two sets of doors with windows revealing the school area. Another swipe of my badge provides admittance to the school. Dark blue, bumpy carpet, walls covered with certificates celebrating student successes and colorful motivational posters break the white monotony, but there is no escaping the unrelenting fluorescent lights.

     When I first arrived to this school, my need to escape the sterile and drab whiteness everywhere overwhelmed me. Soon, my students’ artwork began creeping to walls beyond my classroom, like vines on a trestle covering foot after foot until the whiteness was absorbed. By my second year there, others had embraced the idea of decorating beyond their classroom or office walls. The school at the detention center became an oasis of color in an otherwise barren, bleached desert.

     There are ten classrooms side-by-side along two adjacent walls in the rectangle-shaped school area. An under-utilized life skills room with kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer is in one corner of the school, and an open library area is in the middle. Next to the library is a room with windows on three sides deemed the “fishbowl” room because anyone walking by any of the three windowed sides can peer in. A main office with a teacher supply room and three offices for intervention (special education) teachers is along another wall.  A fourth wall has a barbershop and school storage room.

     In order to exit the school area, the entrance procedures are followed in reverse: swipe out of the school, wait to be buzzed through two heavy white doors, walk past one sheriff station, gather outerwear and personal belongings, exit the secure area, and walk past a second sheriff station.

     My error the first few days of working at the detention center was not identifying a landmark to designate the set of heavy white doors needed to leave. As I attempted to leave work, I was buzzed through the thick white door I was waiting at, only to find myself in a small room with a chair and no other doors. My confusion must have been transmitted through the pixels captured by the camera. A voice over the speaker asked,

    “Ma’am, where are you trying to go?”

     Embarrassed, I responded I was seeking the exit. I was released from the small room and directed back to a door I had initially passed, with a red exit light above it. Remembering to look beyond the eye level my 5’4” height is accustomed to was probably the first lesson I learned at the detention center, but it wasn’t one my students taught me.