The teenage girls could barely hear me -- and I could barely hear their questions -- over the screaming roar of the motorized plumbing snake that the county workers insisted they needed to run through the classroom drain the entire hour that I was trying to speak to a class at the Girls Rehabilitation Facility.
One of the girls apologized -- even though it wasn't her fault, and said she thought it was disrespectful of the workers to keep the motor running while I was talking. Apparently the drain had been blocked for a long time and this was the hour that the county had finally sent the plumbers over. Asked if they could come back until the author had finished speaking, they flatly refused.
It was a little surreal, and it also made me realize how difficult it is for "inmates" of any age in a public detention facility to get rehabilitated, even with the best of intentions. But I plowed ahead, and did my best to shout over the noise.
As a former county government and social services reporter for the newspaper, I had written many stories about the foster care system and the Polinsky Children's Center, another county facility, where neglected, abused or abandoned kids are taken. These include kids whose parents are drug addicts and alcoholics and have been carted off to jail. When I was at the paper, 85 percent of the women in the county jail were there on drug-related offenses, and many were recidivist meth users who were only able to get clean behind bars. Some of the Polinsky kids "graduate" to the GRF if and when they end up in trouble.
I always use a microphone in a big room, but not surprisingly, they didn't have one for me at the GRF. I tried to illustrate for these girls that I'd gotten where I was through persistence and determination, and I was going to get through this particular situation the same way. I was determined to leave them with a positive message, and from watching their blank emotionless faces begin to engage, some even smiling as I talked to them, I think I succeeded. We were in this together, and like me, this roomful of girls was clearly used to operating under adverse conditions.
They were mostly 13-year-olds, I was told by an administrator, and their offenses ranged from truancy to stealing to committing other crimes. Some did this to get out of their foster homes and, reportedly, to escape situations such as having to take care of their drug-abusing foster mom's three children.
Dressed in t-shirts and pants, most of them wore their hair pulled back and rolled up into tight buns on the top of their heads. Most of them had brown or black faces. I talked about my background and explained that I wrote about "court cases" for only a few minutes, and then let them have at it.
I was encouraged, and a bit surprised, to see how curious and thirsty for knowledge these kids were. They all had lots and lots of questions, which they threw at me the entire period.
I can't imagine that living in a place like that, coming from foster homes and poor families, teaches kids how to be successful in this world. I wanted to serve as a good role model and impart some hope, some reality and some practical advice, so that's what I tried to do.
At the end of my talk, a student brought me up a plastic vase of sunflowers and other summer blooms, shyly apologizing for the noise and thanked me for coming. I was touched.
And before I even went to the front of the class, the administrator who invited me handed me a box of chocolates, saying they couldn't give me an honorarium but they could give me candy. She too apologized for the noise afterward, then came outside and bought four of my books for the GRF library.
"You just have to roll with it," she said.
I found it curious that she was buying books for the girls to read, but we couldn't discuss their content during my talk. That seemed illogical to me, but I have learned not to question the rules of a detention facility no matter how old the "inmates" are.
I'd been told that I couldn't talk about the content of my true crime books because of concern that I might "trigger" something in these girls. But when I told the girls I couldn't answer those types of questions, of course they just wanted to know the answers even more.
"Why can't you talk about that?" they kept asking.
I tried to be informative and yet vague, inspirational and yet short on details. It was a tricky line to walk, but I really wanted them to understand that I had, as a journalist, and now have, as an author, what I think is a very cool and important job: to educate the public about the criminal justice system and why people hurt each other and do bad things to each other (like kill each other), and to do lots of research so I can tell the story properly and keep my readers turning pages.
"Can you talk about a case that you wrote about that isn't a local case?"
The administrators were more concerned that I didn't talk about local cases vs. non-local cases, but I didn't see any way to do that without including the "trigger" details. So I told the girls that I write about murder and violence, but I want to do something positive so I approach these topics from a psychological point of view; I explore why people do bad things to each other, I said, as a way to try to educate people and figure out how we can try to prevent these tragedies from happening again. I interview the attorneys and the investigators and the families involved and I collect lots of paperwork, trial transcripts and court exhibits.
"How old were you when you published your first book? What was the first book you wrote?"
I told them about Poisoned Love, my first published book, which was released in 2005, and how I was now working on number 10 and number 11.
I told them about the book I wrote that took 17 years to get published -- Naked Addiction, my first novel, which went out of print and will be re-released this year by WildBlue Press.
And I told them about the very first book I ever wrote, which was in elementary school, and which I illustrated with colored pencils, about a family of mice. That last one got some smiles from the girls. I didn't tell them that my mother was worried when I wrote that book, because I killed off the mouse's mothers, and I was only in the first grade.
Some of these girls asked pretty intelligent questions, and it sounded like they had been doing some reading. So I encouraged them to do even more, explaining that I used to go to the library when I was their age and brought home a stack of books, checking them off a list as I finished them.
"That's how you develop your ear," I told them, "so you know when a sentence you write sounds good."
I told them they should be writing and rewriting, maybe in a journal, and that I had rewritten my first novel many, many, many times. I told them they should read well-written books so they had a model from which to learn.
Some of their questions made me laugh.
"Are you rich?" (Uh, no.)
"How do you become a publisher?" (I explained that a publisher is a business, and that anyone could self-publish, but that this was not always a good idea.)
"Can I see one of your books?" (No, sorry. They won't let me.)
"How do you get money from your books?" (Advances, percentages of the cover price, agent commissions, blah blah blah, not very much money left.)
Some questions were quite insightful.
"You just said you have four or five jobs, how do you have time to write?" (Good question. I ask myself that all the time.)
"How do you get permission to have all these important papers and things? They let you just because you're a journalist?" (Yes, isn't that cool?)
And some questions made me smile.
"Can I have your signature?" one girl asked softly. "Please?" (This was the same girl who asked if she could see one of my books. Please?)
After getting permission I said, yes, of course, to this last request and I used her pencil to sign her folded piece of blue-lined notebook paper.
To Cierrah, Best wishes.
New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother has written or co-authored nine books, including I'LL TAKE CARE OF YOU, POISONED LOVE and LOST GIRLS. To learn more, please visit her website, http://caitlinrother.com
Follow Caitlin Rother on Twitter: www.twitter.com/caitlinrother