Often as an educator in a facility for incarcerated youth I sometimes feel desensitized to the dangers of working with these particular teens. I walk the halls, unlock the cells, and remember to not turn my back day in and day out. Today, I went about my teaching set to multitask (I have grades due), provide some reading time, and essentially survive the school day as I was up all night with a teething toddler. I looked at my first class and cordially explained, “Guys I need you today. I had a rough night with baby and between the coffee and the sheer will to live I’m going to get through this day. And I can’t do it without you.” My hardened students’ faces softened and they nodded in unison as a sign of solidarity— we would get through the day together. A new student asked me how I’m handling the toddler years as he has two little ones at home. He smiled talking about his children and told the class he can’t wait to see them again. We all went about the rest of our class period listening to Pandora, reading and exploring figurative language. I wrapped up the lesson, collected the pencils, and nominated the boy with two kids at home for Student of the Week. I told everyone goodbye and brought my teaching cart to my next class.
I finished the day after several trips to the teacher’s lounge for cheap, watered down coffee thinking nothing of my Student of the Week. I wrote several students up for rule violations and cruised down to the living units to deliver the paperwork, gather the signatures, and shoot the shit with staff for a few minutes. The boys shouted, pounded on their doors, and yelled at me from inside the concrete walls. I’m so used to this routine I have to remind myself I work for a jail. This isn’t the same as school. I key myself into cells, exercise caution when I ask students to use a pen to sign paperwork, and shut doors. On the second floor of the living unit I knocked on the door, peeking through a scratched window, foggy with gang graffiti. The gentleman paced in his cell—fists clenched. I questioned if I should open the door. Maybe today just wasn’t his day…maybe today is the day I get punched…maybe I should tell staff I don’t feel comfortable getting a signature? I slipped the key into the lock and told the student, “Hey I need your signature on this. You ok?”
“I’m good. Where?” I pointed to the signature line and handed him the pen. Should I be doing this? Will he stab me with a pen? He signed, returned the pen, and paced pensively. I thanked him, closed the door, and walked down the stairs.
“Staff. The kid up there may need you. He’s not doing so hot.” Something wasn’t right.
“Ok.” They move upstairs to talk to him. Two residents are out of their units in the common area. Another staff starts to walk the area checking rooms to release residents for time in the common area. He starts at the first door. For some reason I decide to stay a few minutes longer. See what this part of the day looks like. He looks through the window to check on the resident. He looks longer…squinting as if to see if his sight will sharpen that way. He calls for another staff. They race to open the door. I hasten to the two unsecured residents, “Go in your rooms. I’ll shut your door.” They move without hesitation. We lock eyes and I see one resident transform into a kid in seconds. This….this stuff is scary and the boy I am currently shutting behind a heavy metal door doesn’t feel brave right now. He feels scared because three doors down something bad just happened.
What happened was in the four minutes I visited the living unit a resident used a portion of his shirt to harm himself. When the code was called I moved to lock the other residents in I looked in the room where the code was called. The Student of the Week’s body was limp, motionless and pale. He looked comfortable. As if he were sitting calmly on his floor praying or meditating. He swallowed air and his face showed a deep sadness; the Student of the Week was disappointed someone made him breathe again. His plans foiled. This image and the sounds sit silently and painfully in my heart. I watched the mass incoming of staff with radios gather in the unit; the empty common area packed with professionals. Suddenly, I realized it was time to go. I glanced at the boy I had secured earlier and mouthed “Thank you. You’ll be ok.” He nodded and responded, “Thank you.” I don’t know what I did other than shut a door. But the staff responded immediately and did what they do best— help keep residents safe. Even from themselves.
According to statistics, boys who grow up as the child of a single mother are far more likely to make bad decisions resulting in time served in juvenile detention. The United States Census Bureau states “youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds” (Harper, 369-397). So why do I care about this statistic? My son is in a father-less home. We live in poverty. Poverty enhances the risk of aggression and delinquent behaviors. My son is at risk and he’s not even two yet. I pondered this deeply as I processed the almost death of the Student of the Week. His father has been in prison the student’s entire life. I can’t even fathom the number of boyfriend’s his mother had in hopes to provide a father figure to her growing son. He lives in the depths of poverty and described himself as spending his next 20 years in a cell in County. He lives his life hard—tattooed from head to toe. He is someone’s son. He could be my son. Not that I intend to raise my child to glorify the thug life or surround himself with negative peers, but kids, good kids, can make some of the worst decisions. I cannot close my heart to the incident I witnessed. I cannot chalk it up to working in an emotionally grueling place with residents who need to accept consequences and do their time. I cannot sweep the potential loss of life under the proverbial rug because of the increasing number of mental health issues impacting our students. A BOY tried to take his life today. A BOY who is also a father to two children who are and will most likely continue to grow up in a fatherless household. Somewhere in an apartment that is crappier than mine a mother grieves the loss of her son to his choices and the system.
Tonight, I snuggled my cranky teething toddler as he wailed for a binkie and drooled from pain in his gums. Tonight, I stroked his little tufts of hair and tolerated his tantrums for Legos and free reign over our domain. I prayed for him. How will the pangs of an absentee father impact him? I hope my son never sees concrete walls like the Student of the Week; I do hope he gains wisdom of his own future as a father when the time arrives. I hope his eyes light up at the thought of his children. And I hope I remember tomorrow to tell every student he/she matters, we want them home, we want them better, and I know they are still growing. They can “be the change they wish to see in the world” and I intend to help by serving as the best teacher I can possibly be. Moreover, I hope I can be the steady foundation for my son to prevent him from becoming a statistic. My job, in its essence, as a mother and educator is built on the notion I can prevent negative outcomes. God, grant me the strength to change what I can and accept what I cannot change. God, I cannot hold the Student of the Week and tell him he will be ok. But I possess a new wisdom… as a teacher and a mother. And this boy will continue to challenge his world, strike new ground when adversity hits, and stumble often.