As I read about prison over-crowding and the inability of our states to pay the bill for incarcerating so many humans, I am reminded of the children who have passed through my classroom on their way to jail and the lessons I've learned from them.
Much has been made of the connection between schools and prisons -- spending formulas and cause-effect relationships. Success in school probably does decrease the likelihood of criminal activity. I think it's fair to say also that the incarceration -- justified or not -- of so many men in some communities and their absence from the lives of their children has an impact on what goes on in the schools.
The preoccupation in many urban public schools with security -- driven by fear and the obligation to keep our children relatively safe -- has sadly forged the strongest school-prison connection. Anyone who has ever seen a high school race riot or a food fight turned ugly or gang violence understands that security concerns are not imposed arbitrarily. I have been in a number of these sadly oppressive institutions and have seen educators who really care about children swept up into the authoritarian imperative. Worst of all, any opposition to authority -- something almost essential for real intellectual growth -- is often met with heavy-handed punishment.
My first week as a full-time teacher, a melee broke out near my classroom and part of it spilled through the doorway. A campus police man chased two combatants inside and when one wouldn't submit, restrained him with his night stick in a choke hold. I recognized Kenny (not his real name). He had assembled a rag-tag basketball team that I and another teacher had agreed to try and coach. Now I thought he was going to die right in front of me. Students were freaking out all around me and I was freaking out; I almost tried to pull the officer off Kenny. Instead, I whispered in the young man's ear, "We love you, Kenny." I said it over and over. It felt silly but I was desperate -- and it worked; he calmed down enough for the cop to let him breathe.
Our school had one of those zero tolerance policies for fighting -- and pretty much everything else -- and so Kenny and the other grapplers had to be "opportunity transferred." Kenny told me that he had been a gangbanger from age 11 until a few months ago when he'd been jumped out. He'd been incarcerated from age 12 to 14 for an attempted murder he told me he hadn't committed, though he admitted he'd broken the law enough times to justify the jail sentence. Now he was trying to turn his life around but didn't really know how to be a non-violent person. And we were going to leave it to someone else to maybe help him. He also said he would probably drop out because none of the other schools in the area were safe for him -- renouncing gang membership apparently did not end feuds with the rivals of his former gang. So I challenged my new boss. I told her that zero tolerance was mindless and morally lazy, that she ought to be willing to make tough choices about an imperfect young person's future. She waved off my idealism and agreed to OT him to a school far enough away that he would be safe and allowed him to return to our school the next term if he stayed out of trouble until then.
Today, Kenny is a hard-working middle-class father who hasn't been in trouble with the law since those younger days. If you asked me back then if I believed this possible I would have been doubtful -- he was so full of anger and so unable to manage it or see a future for himself. But I never shared my doubts with him at the time and so I think he thought I believed in him and that probably helped him save himself. I tried to get him to focus his anger on social injustice and other things worthy of contempt. I could never tell if he was getting the message. During his senior year he told me that he was sure he would die before his 18th birthday because his father and all his older brothers had died young. I told him he would rewrite that history -- and hoped I'd be right. I got to know some of his childhood friends from the neighborhood -- they would come to our basketball games and hang around afterwards and sometimes help clean up -- and I watched some of them get caught up in the street life and a few years later took Kenny to visit a few of them in jail. Somehow Kenny made it.
I credit that mostly to his own inner-strength and self-will but he has always insisted that he owes his life to our school and the few of us who took the most interest in him.
Meanwhile the other three guys involved in that fight with him years ago were unceremoniously kicked out of our school with no provision for returning and no words of encouragement. I saw one of them, Jamal, a few years ago working at a U-haul rental lot. He still remembered the fight and its aftermath. He said he'd done four years of a six year sentence for armed robbery. He was glad to be out and have a job. He was also glad to know that Kenny was doing well. He mentioned one of the other combatants from that fight twenty years ago. He'd seen Coleman in jail. I asked if Coleman was out now. He said that Coleman had died of HIV in a prison hospital.
Which is why I keep thinking about all this -- because I know we can do a better job in at least encouraging our young people from self-destruction. And I want to do a better job myself, whatever that means.
To that end, here are four measures to which I'm committed:
1 -- Never give up on a student, no matter how hopeless he seems. Accepting a young person's criminal destiny can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2 -- Never stop preaching the value of hard work and integrity, no matter how foolish and naïve that feels. If a young person finally hears those messages then the thousand times before that he rejected them won't matter.
3 -- Figure out ways to show the most at-risk students that someone cares about them. Self-respect is the nucleus of morality and self-respect can be instigated by the knowledge that we matter to someone somewhere.
4 -- Encourage all students to question authority; and teach them how to select the appropriate time and manner.
On a larger scale, all schools need to find ways to enforce security and discipline without becoming the very prisons from which they ought to be trying to steer children away.
The lockdown model of education with oppressive rules and blindly inflexible enforcement is a failure. Let's find a way to replace punishment with inspiration, dispassionate control with tough love. Let's build character instead of failing to achieve obedience.