Lately I’ve been visiting Creative Writing classes in the L.A. juvenile jails as part of my teacher training. I wrote about my first visit here, and every minute I’ve spent in the jail since, I’ve learned something completely unexpected. Needless to say, this teaching position will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
When I tell people about this new job, the most frequently asked question is:
Aren’t you scared?
All I can say is that I am way more afraid of the mountain lion that lurks in the hills behind my house, and the pit bull down the street than I am of these kids.
To me, incarcerated kids are not scary. Here is what they are:
They are appreciative.
Thankful for the few things they have left, like family (if they have any), friends (if they have any), shelter, food, and outsiders who brave the halls of the pokey to mentor and listen to them.
They are curious.
They want to know what I drive, what kind of kid I was, about the books I write, what music I like, if I want to hear the song they wrote, if I like baseball, if my hair is real, why I dress the way I do, why I like the color pink so much, if I like their tatts, why I have no tatts.
They are lovers of reading and writing.
The other night, I sat in a cramped room with 12 alleged murderers; it was two of the most fascinating hours of my adult life. We didn’t talk about murder or gangs or “the outs.” We talked about…books! They crave books more than any other luxury item. More than candy or photos or soap or socks. For them, books are an escape, books are entertainment, books are education and wisdom. Even though many of them can hardly read fluently, they want books. Any books, all books, picture books, girly books, Dan Brown books. This surprised me…have to admit that my little closed mind assumed kid-thugs would find books boring. Boy, did they school me on that one! Writing is many things to them: therapeutic, entertaining, exciting, enlightening, hopeful, and anything but boring.
Most importantly, they are hungry.
Hungry for food. Hungry for shelter. Hungry for money. Hungry for attention. Hungry for respect. Hungry for compassion. Hungry for knowledge. Hungry for a new life. Hungry for guidance. Hungry for hope.
They are hungry because their basic needs have never been met. While on “the outs” they lie, cheat, steal, assault and kill in an attempt to acquire these things. The only difference between them and me as a kid is that my basic needs were always met…I had the luxury of loving, nurturing parents, constant roof over my head, plenty of food, money, role models, and opportunities for success in sports, academics, arts, and social activities.
Working in the juvenile jail is like watching a sick and twisted real-life version of SURVIVOR, where the contestants’ hunger for basic needs remains unmet, and the worst in them emerges. Ever notice how on Survivor there’s always a “losing” team that acts negative and defeated? They’re always out of food and skinny and sick and cold because their shelter leaks and they have no blankets. Then, as soon as that team wins a reward challenge, their demeanor and behavior completely changes. They become confident and happy and positive and physically stronger. Then, they’re less likely to steal food and fight and attack each other.
I believe that you can take the most compassionate and level-headed person and turn him into a monster criminal by stripping his basic needs. And I cannot judge them for the things they’ve done because maybe I would have taken the same route if I’d grown up in their circumstances. I also believe that if we help them gain and sustain these human needs, their behavior will change and hope will prevail.