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Puzzle Pieces | 2014 | Inside the Dragon


Children are all foreigners.  

-Ralph Waldo Emerson


Six Months for Two Seconds

I know two murderers. I have lost track of the rapes, the muggings, the larcenies that occurred before and after the six months my students spend in the facility. As far as I know, I have yet to teach a boy who was later killed, but I understand that this is an inevitability. I will walk into work and the juicy bit of gossip will be that a young man whose essays I labored to turn from D's to C's is now in a morgue. That I have made it two years without a mortality seems a statistical unlikelihood. Some may have died, but the state didn't care enough to notice and report. To a bureaucracy, a body might simply be a kid who won't violate probation again.

For the most part, I do not think about the crimes my students committed. Nothing in my job requires me to know their rap sheets, though some are eager to boast of their infractions for perceived esteem from the other boys. Invariably, a colleague will point out a sexual predator or a teenager who attacked a teacher, but only so I am particularly cautious. When I am trying to drill into their heads how to explicate poetry, I am not thinking who they hurt but how I can reach them, how I can give them a tool I use to remain on the right side of civilization. During my initial training, I was told that my goal should not be to so fix my students that they no longer steal the car, but that they hesitate for a moment before committing a crime. I spend months for those two seconds, if I'm lucky.

That they have committed crimes tends not to affect my attitude toward them. The aforementioned murderers were affable, clever, and kind in the facility. They were near model students, merely ones who could not avoid the allure of gangs once they were moved to a less restrictive placement by gubernatorial diktat. (I joke that gangs recruit from outside of special education classrooms, because it seems that most of my affiliated residents joined either because they have a learning disability or because they lack parental support, the two often correlating.) My job isn't to judge them. The courts have done that and my further condemnation only means they won't listen to me, that I will be yet another adult who shut them out for their (occasionally grave) mistakes. If I am shut out, there is no chance I can give them the two seconds of hesitation that could save their life or the lives of future victims.

I don't think they are good people, but that is because they are not done becoming people. In the best case scenario, the brains of adolescent boys are not done forming. Even without the crimes against them and whatever these facilities do to them (though I think my facility does a superb job of attempting rehabilitation and therapy), adolescent boys have a lot of growing up to do before we can even say who they properly are. Whenever my colleagues and I encounter a boy who acts like a normal boy-not explosively violent, not oppositional to ever word spoken in his presence, not obsessed with killing and dying, not laser focused on sexual objectification of his peers-we are over the moon with their potential.

Between eighty and ninety percent of my residents revocate, meaning that they either violate the terms of their probation (failing a drug test, skipping too many days of school, staying out passed curfew) or they commit a new offense. When their stint is up, I tell the boy that it was good getting to know him, but that I honestly hope I never see him again. I do see most of them again, wilder for the time away, emboldened that the state can think of no worse punishment than "three hots and a cot" at "summer camp." They don't see that losing six months of their adolescence, time where their peers are falling in love with a half dozen people and figuring out what the world could mean for them, should make them quake. The six months before they were here were likely a form of terrible beyond my reckoning. The six months after will be just as terrible, as far as they know.

Occasionally, I am asked how I manage to work with this population. I wear sport coats and have shaggy hair. I write sensitive fantasy novels about brave young women. Or, as I heard in an interview at a different facility, I am "white, look like I weight sixty pounds, and they will think [I am] weak." My goal with my students is rehabilitative, not punitive, and I do not need to throw my weight around to get the boys to comply with my lessons. Instead, I try to make the lessons as complex as I think I can manage with a population that very often views the concept of reading for pleasure as baffling and potentially homosexual. (They are a confused bunch.) I don't pander to them, as I admit I did when I began my tenure here. Where I once offered up worksheets requiring them to circle the nouns, I now teach them Common Core-aligned units about Oedipus the King and Romeo & Juliet and they do passable jobs completing them.

They are heartbreakingly damaged on occasion, which shouldn't come as a surprise. Children with warm and nurturing home lives do not tend toward performing muggings. More than once, a student has implied that he stole that car only to find an escape from the rapist sharing his mother's bed. I report these remarks to their clinicians, but that is all I am permitted to do. For all their sins against the world, I can't help but pity the boy making my class difficult because he doesn't know another way to express himself.

I don't believe that my residents are lost causes. Often, I can look at them and have no trouble picturing just how successful they should be, if only we could remove them from the impetuses that brought them to the facility long enough to give them coping skill and hope. If we could move them into the suburbs, away from the gangs. If we could get them into a rehab that stuck. If we could take them from families that abuse their trust, safety, and bodies. However, we cannot. We have to hope teaching them to read and do arithmetic, guiding them toward nonviolent alternatives to beating someone's face in for an insult, showing them that women are autonomous and sentient beings that they must not rape, will be enough to give them freedom. (Freedom is not being on the outside of the bars, it is knowing one does not need to destroy in order to survive.)

I am not some Great White Savior, nor do I ever see myself in this light. I do not know that my direct actions have saved a single one, because I can't save them. Only they can. Only they can decide that they are done with a life that keeps them away from family and friends, and their decision-making skills can't be stellar if they ended up with me in the first place. I won't take any credit for their occasional successes because that would make me just as culpable for their failures. In both magnitude and number, their failures are likely to be far greater.

I am not a bleeding heart here. Some of the residents who earn further incarceration need it or deserve it. Society needs to be protected from child molesters, even eighteen-year-old ones, and they need protection from themselves. They need treatment beyond what six months in juvie can give them and there is no other way they can get it. And, in this way, we lose many. Once they enter the penal system, there isn't a convenient off-ramp.

When I exit every school day, I try to leave the business of the facility at home, but it has changed me. Dr. Temple Grandin uses her autistic mindset to better understand the feelings of cows in slaughterhouses in order to calm them. This job has given me a juvenile criminal filter. I walk into a room and can identify the potential weapons, the distractions. Barely consciously, I will clean and secure my classrooms whenever I enter because it is easier to toss a couple of pieces of stray paper into the trash than spend the next forty-five stopping the residents from fighting over them and hitting one another. When someone starts getting loud and unpredictable in public, I assume a non-defensive posture in case I need to deflect and restrain (though my union no longer permits teachers to restrain residents, they insisted upon it when I started my employment here and I cannot delete the knowledge and muscle memory). I notice teenagers much more, laughing at their presumed rebellion when I look them in the eyes. No matter the posturing of punks in the mall, nothing about them fazes me because I have glared down Blood and Crips twice my weight and made them work on their grammar.

I want my day job to be a discrete part of my life that has nothing to do with my writing or my relationships. If I didn't make that separation, this would weigh me down to the point that I wouldn't be able to do anything else. I would cry about how devastating it is to see a gang member who thinks he is nothing but a corpse go sledding or inmate-to-be build a popsicle stick house, because he never got to have a childhood before he was sent to us. They tag everything with their names or the names of the gangs that abandoned them because their greatest fear is that no one will ever remember who they were. They will die early or be nothing more than a number in a correctional facility roster. I understand what is against them. Most of them have no future to speak of. They will not write impassioned speeches, they will not rally people to arms, they will not paint masterpieces. They will die, small and unremembered, and it dictates their daily actions. They tell me how they are not scared to die, but they are terrified of the lives they are leading.

Soon in Xenology: The perils of poverty. Praise and negotiation.

last watched: Tampopo
reading: The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two
listening: Jenny Dalton

Puzzle Pieces | 2014 | Inside the Dragon

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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