The other day I was reading a post on Christy Raedeke’s blog, Juvenescence, about her travels through India, when I suddenly got the itch for travel. Not like, “I need a shopping trip to Santa Barbara” travel, but the urge to get up and go somewhere completely foreign and different than my current world. Every few months, I become overwhelmed with the need to reach beyond my safe bubble and experience life as strangers know it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the result of growing up in a military family where we traveled constantly. Or maybe I was an explorer in my past life. Or maybe I just have ADD.
There’s something about traveling to new random places that really charges my batteries and makes me feel like I’m fully living life. Travel cures my restlessness, clears my mind, and just makes me a happier person. Little did I know that I’d be transported to a place so foreign, so different from my own existence, that I’d be forever changed. And it was only three short hours from my house. And it wasn’t even another country. But it was a completely different world.
Earlier this week, I spent the afternoon and evening at Los Angeles County’s Central Juvenile Hall, where I joined several writing classes for my first official InsideOUT Writers training. Beyond fascinating. Everybody knows that jail isn’t exactly The Ritz, but nothing could have prepared me for the claustrophobia and sickening feeling in my stomach as I wandered down the long hallway of concrete cells. Tiny square windows carved into heavy steel doors framed ghostly faces pressed up to glass. Some screamed, some smiled, some cried. But I couldn’t hear a thing through the soundproof cells. Skinny feral cats lurk throughout the place. I had read about this, but never really believed it. When I questioned whether the cat situation was a health issue or not, the IOW program director commented that it was actually pretty helpful since the cats scavenge the rats, lessening the work for the probation staff. Every room in the entire joint is either freezing or a complete sauna. There’s no comfortable in between.
It’s no wonder the kids are ecstatic to join a writing class. They get human contact. Fresh (or at least oxygenated) air. Paper and pens. A semblance of normalcy. The kids were polite, funny, creative, vulnerable, and honest. Though I learned important jail stuff, like how the girls “shave” legs and “pluck” eyebrows by resourcefully using the tiny elastic threads weaved throughout their Los Angeles County CJH issued socks, and how to use ink pens and comb bristles for all my tattooing and piercing needs, the most important thing I learned was just how huge a difference teaching writing to these kids really makes. It provides them with an outlet. And connections to other people. And most importantly, hope.
Our conversations constantly reminded me how child-like they really are, missing their moms, wishing they could dress up for Halloween and eat Easter candy and listen to music. The most riveting part of the night was when perhaps the most threatening-looking, beefy, tatted-up, double-murder, facing a life sentence, would rather swim with crocodiles than meet this kid in a dark alley dude I’ve ever seen stood up to read his in-class assignment. He’d written a beautiful poem about his greatest fears in life. The one that got me the most… “Fear of love. Cuz when it’s gone, that’s the worst pain of all.” Then he said, “You know, under this tough-guy exterior…is really just a little scared kid.” I believe he summed up the sentiment of the entire class.
I think I’m going to love this job.