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!
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 at the place I was working, 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, Ohio. 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. It was definitely 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 provided him with a high school diploma from a Cleveland high school also. 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.