“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 He was quiet and withdrawn in class, which meant sharper attention to his other means of communication was required to build rapport with him.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
- 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.
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.
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.