At 8:00 when the late bell rings, my class of sixteen numbers a mere nine students. I take roll on my phone, and my students write their journal responses based on a prompt on the board. The students are a mix of white, Latino and black. Almost all are freshmen because this is a freshman English class, but I expect a junior who is redoing ninth-grade English to appear shortly – and he does. He tends to be fashionably late. As soon as they have finished their journal, the girls start shouting at each other across the room. They aren’t angry; they’re animated. They talk about girl drama and boy drama. They use terms that were unfamiliar to me – left hand, right hand, backbone, BAE — but they took the time to teach me their language and now I understand. They like that I put in the effort.
Seven minutes into class, two more girls come in carrying Starbucks. One asks me to put her Frappucino in my minifridge, which I do. I’ve already erased the journal prompt, and we’ve started working on a grammar assignment. They each get a sheet from me and they fall into the familiar pattern of going over the instructions, doing a few examples, and then working together or as a group on the rest of the sheet. This day the lesson is on apostrophes. Some of them didn’t know what the comma-looking things were called, and most of them thought they were used to make words plural.
Five minutes later, two boys come in. They also pick up the grammar from me, and sit next to the girls who usually do their work and who usually pay attention to my instructions. Halfway through the class, we’re still missing two kids, and they’re almost never there before the last ten minutes. These are not bad kids. They’re not lazy or stupid or dangerous. Their parents work or are overwhelmed by the ravages of not working – poverty, homelessness, drug use to dull the shame. These kids have to parent themselves, and I know there are mornings when I myself have a hard time not hitting snooze until it gives up.
When I first started working at this school and heard the stories my kids told or wrote about – mental health issues, undiagnosed learning disabilities, illiteracy into high school, incarcerated parents and/or siblings, abuse, foster care – it gave me a strange sense of déjà vu. This is exactly what I kept hearing when learning about death-row inmates. You see, in my spare time I am on the board of Death Penalty Focus and many of my fellow board members work with people incarcerated at San Quentin. Given the stories, many of the men and women imprisoned at San Quentin face some of the same issues as my students.
Even though I teach sixth through ninth graders, roughly ages 12 through 15, some of my kids have already entered the system. One of my girls has a probation officer because she was with a friend who started a fire in a bathroom. “Arson” is emblazoned on her juvenile record because she was caught on camera leaving the bathroom. Having already gained a reputation as being a wild child, it was easy for people to believe that she would light a fire in a trash can. She said she didn’t do it and I believed her. That surprised her. And it made her really happy.
I started teaching at this school two years ago. It isn’t easy, but I loved it from the first day. All the influences that contribute to people going down the path to prison are writ large in these lives and they make my kids challenging to teach. But experience tells me that given structure and love and patience they can be as successful as anyone at a more affluent school. I know this because for ten of my twenty-five years in the classroom, I taught at those affluent schools.
Any demographic analysis of prisons, death row in particular, will show you disproportionate numbers of people of color, people who didn’t finish high school, people with mental health issues, people who are functionally illiterate. They’ll be people who were abused, who were abandoned, who somehow slipped through the cracks and were left with few alternatives to lives of crime and violence. These are my kids, and every one of my colleagues fights like hell to divert them from the destiny their life to this point seems to funnel them toward. We see ourselves as the pipeline to college rather than prison, to better lives rather than continuing the cycle their parents have become trapped in. Every member of the staff at this school has many jobs beyond the one he or she is paid to do, because we don’t give up on our kids as they expect us to do, as so many have done.
So my kids show up late. That they show up is what counts. So they sometimes opt not to come to English at eight in the morning. They show up eventually, and they ask for make-up work. Sometimes they come in at lunch, sometimes after school. And they do these things not because they believe in themselves – yet – but because they begin to get the idea that someone cares about them and wants them to have a shot at a life.
Education is expensive, but more money for counselors, for training, for diversion programs and for “mental health” days might obviate the need for as many prison cells. Every one of the kids I work with could end up in “the system,” but once they see there are other possibilities out there, they get that it’s not inevitable.
As for those who have already been through that pipeline, those for whom no one intervened, those who will live behind bars until the state puts an end to the hope they once represented, we can only ask why something wasn’t done to provide other options.
But the future is not set for my kids.