I've done a number of interviews since publishing I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, and I find, like many authors, that I'm often asked the same questions. "I can answer them in my sleep," I heard one author grumble. I felt the same way until I started to really listen to the questions and give them deeper thought. After all, they raised good points, and interviewers repeated them because they got to the core of both the book and the issue.
Why I wrote the book was one of those questions. Initially, I answered the same way because it was true. I wanted to put a face to the statistics that abound in juvenile justice circles. Although they are just numbers (for instance, on any given day there are 7000+ kids in US adult jails, or African American youth are 5x more likely to be locked up than their white peers) they are powerful in their consequences, and I wanted to show just who we are talking about before important decisions and polices are made based on those numbers.
But I began to wonder if making those numbers real was my only reason for telling the stories of kids like Darquel with his life long scars from sexual abuse, or Ray, who lived most of his life in group homes, juvenile centers, or homeless shelters.
Digging a bit more, I realized that I also was drawn to the idea of giving voice to the voiceless. Many young people are inarticulate. The teens I taught in the county jail, however, were at a greater disadvantage. They didn't have the tools other teens have to express themselves nor the opportunities to do so. Besides, of all the lessons life posed for them the one they really got was that no one listened, so why bother.
But then I saw that I was wrong: They weren't voiceless. They merely spoke a different language, the language of rage. They didn't speak about their lives through words but through the things they did. Those acts of rage committed against society were their only way of accusing the world of the injustices they had lived with since childhood--violent, decaying neighborhoods; failing schools; families (when they had families) destroyed by poverty, disease and racism. But those acts of rage were also against themselves because on some level they knew that they would be caught and punished not only for the crimes they committed but for being the very failures we as a society have consigned them to.
Jason is a good example. At 17 he was addicted to every drug there was. He rarely went to school. He hung out on the streets. If there was a fight he was in the middle of it. He robbed the corner bodega; sold drugs; smashed car windows for the hell of it, and hung out with the neighborhood hookers. He loved provoking the cops and enjoyed the ensuing chase. Not surprisingly, he'd been in and out of jails where he was caught making hooch, smoking black market cigarettes, trading in girlie magazines, and starting fights even with guys he knew could beat the crap out of him.
When I met him he was in the county lockup waiting to go to state prison to do some serious time. But that didn't bother Jason. He'd been there before. It was one more act of rage to endure, one that he would meet with his own acts of rage.
As painful as it was listening to Jason talk about his life, I found it hard to like him. His swagger, his defiance, his seeming indifference to everything most of us hold dear didn't help. Until I remembered that standing in front of me was a 17 year old, a boy whose 15 year old mother had used crack, smack and booze while she carried him, and that his own addictions were all she left him when she disappeared; that the aunt he lived with, the only family he had, died of a heart attack on the living room floor because the ambulance never came; that he had seen friends and cousins, some younger than he, killed in the streets. Rage is a hard thing to be around. But it's even harder to live with, and that, I saw, was what Jason's life was all about. His life was one long, frustrated cry of rage and outrage.
Thinking about the many Jasons I had taught over my ten years in an adult county jail, I finally understood the deeper reason why I wrote I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine. I saw that my job was to translate this language of rage with the hope that people will hear and comprehend just what society's young throw-aways have been trying to tell us all along.
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