The metal door slams shut behind me at the juvenile detention center. The locks snap into place. The guard is going down the checklist, clicking his pen. Sweat is dripping past my collar. His steel baton has got chips in it from cement or teeth, it’s hard to know. He looks like every cop I ran from before I hit 18.
He’s already checked my record to make sure I’ve never been caught for anything exciting. This is my first week teaching writing work-shops at this juvie. A non-profit sent me here because I’ve taught in jails before, but juvies are different. In here, rehabilitation isn’t a taxpayers joke yet. Some of these kids might still escape a future written out in the penal code, but for most of them, this only a prologue to the penitentiary. I’m here for every writing class that kicked me out, for every teacher that sent me to the school shrink, for every preacher who told me God was the only one who’d listen.
The guard pats me down for weapons. He nods behind him at the “wall of shame”: a glass case with every kind of confiscated contraband mounted like trophies: a paper clip heated into a blackened knife, toothbrushes with razors attached to the end, a tattoo gun made out of a 12 volt battery and a Bic pen. The guard says he wishes these kids found better uses for their talents than making pipes out of a toilet paper rolls.
“But that’s why you’re here, right?”
The truth is, this is my own personal penance for every crime I got away with.
He reminds me no pens are allowed.
“One of the teachers lost a pen three months ago, and we found it a week later sticking out of another kids neck. So now we keep a good count. Pens have too many parts you can cut someone with. In here, a pen IS a sword, know what I mean.”
Where was that?
Pine, he says. Most people get stabbed in Pine.
Each wing of this juvie is named for a different tree. The girl’s wing is Fern, the boys wings are Oak, Redwood and Elm. This is my seventh day and I’ve done every wing but one. Pine is for serious crimes, mostly murder. Their teacher is Miss Krystal, and the guard tells me she’s been here 20 years. She runs a tight ship. She has all the killers in one room and today is the first day I meet them.
My guide opens three doors to get inside and we’re in a circle of steel, guards above us in a catwalk, empty all-white cells surrounding us. Fifteen kids sit in chairs bolted to the floor. Miss Krystal sits at a desk, her heavy, jowled face unsmiling.
She clears her throat.
“We’ll be doing creative writing today. You know the rules. No cussing, no threats.” She writes Safe Space on the board in all caps and underlines it.
There’s a freckle faced redheaded kid in the front row, grinning like a hyena waiting for a punch-line. Next to him is a white boy with a fresh black eye and the way he’s flinching in his seat makes me guess it was from the biggest kid in the room, a square jawed giant of a 17 year old who sizes me up with the flat eyes of a shark. He’s picking a scab off his fist.
I introduce myself as a spoken word artist and ask, Are any of you writers?
Like graffiti? One asks.
Sure, that can be writing. But poems, raps, stories? Some shrug. They ask if I’m going to perform, but today isn’t about me, it’s about what they want to say. The giant snickers. “Yo, no one wants to hear what we’ve got to say.”
We’ve all got stories, we just have to find out how to tell them. It could even be a career someday.
“A career? Oh yeah? Better than making license plates? Sweet, I can be a success like you, and hang out in juvie?”
The way this kid laughs at me reeks of bully. Miss Krystal shushes. The guard unlocks a cabinet and hands out pencils from a steel box. The ginger starts drawing circles immediately, the beaten boy writes his name JIMMY at the top. Today we’re going to start with a metaphor warm up. I write love, hate, and school on the board.
So a metaphor isn’t what it’s like, it’s what it IS. Try for three images of what would represent that theme to you. The giant crosses his arms and stares at me.
We stop for examples. The ginger says ‘Love is a Rose.’ Great. Another kid says ‘Love is Swallowing’. Ahem. Moving on. Jimmy says ‘Love is a straitjacket you’re waiting for someone to tighten. Hate is handcuffs being your first kiss. School is learning every verb it takes to write a life sentence.’
The other kids whistle and nod in approval. Every class has a kid like this, a kid who hides his talents like contraband. Next we move into a personification exercise, taking an object important to you and giving it life. They begin. The redhead is laughing to himself. Ten minutes later, I ask for volunteers.
I’m surprised that the giant asks to go first. “Mine’s short. Alright. ‘I get torched every day. I get hit for no reason. I’m fat and I’m brown and I’m what you want, my name is Swisher Sweet and I’m a blunt.” Miss Krystal stops him with a sharp glance.
Another kid says, “I’m an AK-47, I bust back on my enemies all day-“ and Mrs. Krystal cuts it there. The redhead throws his hand up, grinning wildly. He begins, “Don’t worry Mrs. Krystal. I’m a safe space.”
Miss Krystal nods approvingly. He continues, “I’m the shower, I’m the bathroom, and if I’m lucky I’m the bunk on the top, I’m a safe space, I’m anywhere I can jerk it without getting caught.” He jumps out of his chair in triumph. The room erupts into applause. In here, being a class clown can save you a beating. I pretend not to notice Miss Krystal glaring at me.
Jimmy asks to go next. He holds his page close, squinting through his black eye. The kids go quiet. “I’m a pencil in the pen clenched in a fist/ I bleed onto white to prove I exist/ I can be dull I can be sharp I can stick out of your throat/ I can be a death threat, a love letter or a suicide note/ but they want me erased/ white as my face/ to be blank as a page/ that’s why they keep me locked in a cage/ and I’m the sharpest point in my pack/ I can write rhymes but can’t beat my own rap/ my sentence is written until the day I get out/ but I’m a pencil and in this hand, I’m my only escape route.”
He sets down his page and stares at it.
The giant whistles, “Yo, this kid’s got bars! I didn’t know you got down like that, homie. Why didn’t you tell anyone you was an M.C?” Miss Krystal stands up abruptly and signals the guard. Lesson’s over, and it’s time for the pencil count. Jimmy walks up to me, asks if I’d ever give him feedback on his rhymes. Miss Krystal interrupts and says I’m not allowed to take anything with me. I tell him how to find me at my open mic night if he ever gets out. He walks back towards his cell with kids slapping him on the back. Now the giant is asking Jimmy if he’ll write letters home for him.
In here, most of these kids are only a last name and a docket number. Many of them will get tried as adults, but today they had a half hour to be kids again. I’m walking to my car, clutching onto the glory of that moment when my cell phone rings. It’s my supervisor.
I start to tell him about Pine, about this sick emcee Jimmy and this redhead kid who’s kind of a smart ass and reminds me of me, when he interrupts- and tells me I’m fired.
Apparently Miss Krystal stated I encourage poems about masturbation and marijuana use. They’ve decided to go with the watercolor class instead. Another writing class I’m kicked out of. I sit numb in my car in the parking lot, adding up every bill I can’t pay off. I think about all the words they’ll never write, about all the stories I’ll never hear.
Two years later, I’m outside the Oakland Metro open mic with a sign up sheet when a bleached blonde kid with freckles walks up. He says, whattup man? Remember me?
I just smile, searching his face. I wish I could remember him but I can’t.
“Juvie like two years ago man, you came in with that object thing, remember? I used to be a redhead. Safe space? Top bunk?”
It’s the ginger. He tells me he’s got a new job, back with the parents.
I’m scared to ask. Hey, whatever happened to Jimmy?
“Aww Jimmy? He got a wack judge man, he’s doing 15-20 now. But hey, I got some crazy stories man, I’ve been writing too.”
Well, that’s what we wanna hear.
“Sick man, how do I get on?”
I hand him the pen and say, all you gotta do is sign up, and the mic is yours.