07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Behind the Wall

I'd never been accused of wearing revealing clothing until my first day working at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles County. A tomboy at birth and a lesbian since, I tend to dress down, which often made me the subject of impromptu makeovers by my mother and sister.

I had taken great lengths to dress appropriately for my first Saturday to teach journalism to a dozen or so teenage boys behind bars: hair tied back, gray T-shirt and jeans and black loafers. I'm 30 but look younger (when I teach college-level classes, I'm often mistaken for a student), but I wanted to look plain and relaxed. After all, the guys would be wearing T-shirts and orange prison-issued shorts. I doubted they'd try to make me over.

I was working for a nonprofit, which, for several years, has been offering classes -- like acting, music and even meditation -- and programs, like GED, to youth offenders. The guys at this facility are lucky: For the most part, other centers just let kids sit in cells.

My job was to help them create and publish a 12-page-or-so booklet about life on the inside that gets distributed around the center, as well as to juvenile judges, lawmakers and, I'd heard, even to some political heavyweights like the Clintons.

The black-and-white publication was a collection of poems, sketches and stories, as well as a few photographs (with bars over the youth offenders' faces so they can't be identified). Article topics ranged from Obama winning the election to why the guys didn't read the L.A. Times (my full-time employer) to whether they would break the law again once on the "outs."

I'd done this before -- taught journalism and design at community colleges -- and I'd made my living as a writer for six years. But this, of course, would be different. I knew the subject matter, yes, but to the students I seriously ran the risk of being just another ignorant white woman.

I arrived at Camp early, large coffee in hand, to prep for the 9:45 a.m. class, which was to last two hours. The guys were in the dorms so things looked quite still on the gloomy May morning. Once in the trailer where I'd be teaching, equipped with a few desks, chairs and a white board, a couple of veterans -- one had taught the class for several years; the other was a program director -- gave me some tips.

"Be sure to introduce yourself and shake the guys' hands when they come," said the former teacher. "They need practice with this interaction when they go to court."

"You can do that," said the other, "but wash your hands. The guys have their hands down their pants all day."

Ten kids filed into the classroom, all with shaved heads, all Hispanic.

I shook their hands.

I had a lesson planned -- my standard ice-breaker for the first day of class. The guys interview each other and then write a short profile. I was warned that guys planned fights in new teachers' classrooms -- sometimes they'd even smoke pot. At least my college kids had the courtesy to smoke up before class.

When I started to speak, an exceptional amount of nervousness had me tripping over my words -- I couldn't even explain what a profile was. The guys looked at me blankly. "You know, like, a story about what they say, how they grew up, stuff like that, you know?"

Despite my inarticulate instruction, the guys took to interviewing each other and writing. Of course, their stories were very different than my college students -- college kids don't talk about their criminal records during class.

The first exercise went well -- some of the guys agreed to stand up and read their stories aloud. Even the former teacher was impressed. "I just have one piece of advice for you," he said after class. "Wear a bigger shirt."