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True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hallby Mark Salzman
Author Q & A
The boys in your writing class were classified as HROs (high-risk offenders). They were charged with such crimes as murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery, and all were facing, if convicted, lengthy sentences in adult prison. Even as they faced these dangerous stakes, the boys seemed to take to the writing assignments immediately and with relative ease. Why do you think that is?
I suspect it didn't hurt that they were bored out of their minds! Writing class provided a welcome alternative to being locked up in their cells. Even more than that, though, I believe that the kids were starving for opportunities to express themselves in some way — to prove to themselves, and to their peers and to adults like me, that they had something to offer. Every one of the kids I worked with felt he was a failure. Our writing class provided an excuse for reflection, self-discovery, and creativity without the pressure of knowing they would be criticized for poor spelling or grammar. The topics I assigned tended to be simple: describe a time you felt alone, describe a time you felt betrayed, describe a person who changed your life. The boys were delighted to be asked questions which they could answer immediately, and with real feeling, and doing so gave them a sense of pride and satisfaction.
People who have not been inside a juvenile correction facility might be struck by the lively sense of humor these kids have. Did that surprise you?
I was surprised by just about everything I encountered at juvenile hall, and that certainly includes the fact that the kids were able to maintain a sense of humor in that environment. One kid, after a terrible day at court, looked inexplicably cheerful. He explained that that morning, the chaplain had seen him looking discouraged and told him never to despair. "Just remember," he told the boy, "you are somebody!" The boy told me that this phrase changed his whole attitude. It made him realize that no matter what happened, no matter what anybody said about him, he was somebody and nobody could take that away from him. "I am somebody," he said once more — then he grinned at me and added, "Somebody awful!"
The humor surprised me, but what surprised me even more was that they were able to express fear, regret, love, confusion, concern for each other, longing for their parents, and respect toward an outsider like me. Not at all what I expected from, as one correctional officer put it, "the cream of the crud."
At one point in the book, you worry about whether it's OK to like the kids as quickly and as much as you do. Should you (and we) be more concerned with their criminal histories?
After teaching only a few months, I did wonder how I could have gone so quickly from wishing that all teenage criminals could be packed in crates and dumped into the ocean to feeling such affection for my students, and such pride in their accomplishments. I think the fact that they were, in fact, children — in spite of having been assigned to adult court — explains some of it. Their obvious longing for relationships with mentor or parent figures, their need for reassurance, their hunger for attention, their vulnerability, all made it impossible not to respond when they asked for help, and impossible not to feel cheered by the positive effect that encouragement had on them. As for their crimes, I came to feel that it was enough for me to know that they had committed serious offenses, and leave it at that. The full force of the adult justice system was being applied to determine their guilt or innocence and the manner of their punishment; my job was to make them feel that there was still some reason to believe in themselves, and in others.
Did you ever wonder if you were tough enough to deal with these kids?
Oh my, yes. The first time I went to juvenile hall as a visitor, I was terrified. The second time I went there, as a teacher, I was even more terrified. I wasn?t afraid of physical violence; I naively assumed that if a fight broke out, I could always curl up on the floor and let the guards save me. What scared me was the thought of being in a room full of kids who hated me, who hated everybody, and whom I would somehow have to win over by appearing strict but consistent. I am neither strict nor consistent, and I am about as tough as a robin?s egg, so I expected to be overrun by the kids and to have to leave the place in shame, with the sound of their derisive laughter ringing in my ears. Instead, I discovered that the kids were eager to like me; they were ready to like just about anybody whose life was not either imploding or exploding and who was not a direct authority figure, and they were desperate to be liked back. So I did not have to win them over at all.
As a weekly volunteer at Central Juvenile Hall, did you encounter any resistance from the regular staff?
When I first started the class, I got a cool reception from the staff. I couldn?t understand why they weren?t rolling out the red carpet for me; I was bringing free education to their facility, couldn?t they be more grateful? Then I saw how difficult their job was, and I saw how many volunteers show up at places like juvenile hall full of enthusiasm, only to disappear after a few weeks leaving the kids with a sense of being rejected, and I understood their reticence. After I?d been there several months, the reticence disappeared. But there were still moments when I was reminded that their relationship to the kids was different than mine. In one meeting with the superintendent of the facility, he commented that our writing classes made the kids feel special. I took that as a compliment, but he meant it as a criticism. If incarcerated prisoners feel special, he explained, it becomes more difficult for them to return to the group mentality that the staff wants to instill. He wanted us to debrief our students at the end of each class, to remind them that they were prisoners, so they would be properly submissive toward the staff.
When you began teaching at the juvenile correctional facility, you were trying to complete your novel, Lying Awake, and you were experiencing some writer?s block. How did the kids react when you admitted that your own writing wasn?t going so well?
At first they were shocked to hear that I could have difficulties with writing. I was a professional, wasn?t I? I was published, wasn?t I? How could I fail? Many of these kids see the world as being composed of two kinds of people: winners, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and losers. If you are a winner, you triumph all the time and you get all the money and all the women you want and you get to rub everyone?s noses in it every day. If you are a loser, it?s over; you suck and your whole life is going to go down the toilet. I believe it was encouraging for them to learn that someone whose life was not going down the toilet could still struggle, could still have setbacks just like them, and could feel that there was reason to hope for better days to come. It made them feel that maybe their own lives were not entirely lost after all, that they might one day recover from their mistakes and come out from their present struggles as better, wiser people. But when they heard that my editor had rejected the first draft of my novel, they went ballistic. The boys were very protective of me; anyone who criticized my work was their enemy. Reviewers, take note.
After you finished Lying Awake and the novel was published, did you continue teaching at Central Juvenile Hall? When and how did you tell the kids that they were the subject of your new book? Were they hesitant or eager to participate?
I did continue teaching at Central after Lying Awake was published. I ran the class for four years altogether, then passed it on to another writer after my daughter was born and I became a stay-at-home dad. I consider myself on sabbatical until my daughter is able to change her own diapers.
When I decided to write this book, I tracked down all of the kids who had been in the class (all but one is in adult prison), described the book I wanted to write, and asked if they would give me permission to include their work in it. They did give permission, and in their letters back they made it clear that they are very, very happy to know that something they did, which they made valuable through their own efforts, will be shared with others and may even do some good. And they are all still writing.
Having worked with these kids for so long, do you feel now that trying juvenile offenders as adults and sending them to adult prison is the right thing to do?
Certainly, the kids that I worked with needed to be incarcerated. Their lives were completely out of control, they had to be prevented from causing further suffering, and they had to be held responsible for their actions. Personally, I feel that most of them could be rehabilitated, but I recognize that to do so would require an enormous commitment of time and resources — more than I expect to see earmarked for that purpose in the near future. In my ideal world, these kids would be sent to places that would incorporate features of our best mental health facilities (clean, attractive environment; daily counseling and education opportunities; sympathetic but authoritative professional staff) following the discipline model of a well-run boot camp. I am convinced that the high cost of such facilities would, in the long run, be offset by lowered rates of recidivism. Until my ideal world becomes a reality, however, I would like to see more attention focused on early-intervention programs for at-risk children and their families — programs designed to help children who are just starting to show signs of troubled behavior, but who have not yet committed any serious crime. The success rate for these programs has been terrific, and they deserve our full support.
How do you think crime victims, or the families of crime victims, will react to this book? You don?t romanticize the kids — it?s obvious they are deeply troubled, conflicted people — but you don?t withhold your affection for them or your pride in their successes, either. Will some people be offended by that?
I?ve been the victim of several crimes myself, including being mugged, and I?m still angry about every one of those crimes, so I certainly wouldn?t blame the victim of a violent crime for objecting to the idea of a book like this. I wouldn?t want that person to suffer any more than he or she already has, so my recommendation would be: if the very idea of the book makes you angry, don?t force yourself to read it. Life is too short. But I do hope that if such a person were to go ahead and read the book anyway, the experience of meeting these kids in print would have some of the effect that meeting them in person has had on me, which is to make me feel less angry. Knowing something about these kids, and understanding a bit better why they do the awful things they do, has made me feel less fearful of the violence in our society, because the unknown is always more frightening that what is known. And meeting them has made me more hopeful, because as long as some traces of humanity and conscience and aspiration still exist, there is hope that those qualities can triumph over their opposites.
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