An Author Visit at a Juvenile Detention Center

Today I went to my first juvenile detention center. I’ve been to a couple prisons before, adult male prisons, medium and low security, when I was doing a radio journalism piece on AIDS in the prison system, but the juvenile detention center surprised me by how different it was.

Before heading there this morning, I went for a hard run and did a little yoga to calm my nerves and find a sense of peace. I felt nervous, but not because I was going to a detention center. I always feel a little nervous before talking to a group of teens. I want to connect with them, inspire them, and make some kind of positive impact. I remember what it was like to be a teen and I know what it would have meant to me to have an author come talk to one of my classes.

I also know that if you put on any fronts or act like something you’re not, they’ll find you out. Kids sniff out dishonesty faster that a bloodhound sniffs out blood. If you aren’t true to yourself and who you are, forget it. So before I go in front of any group, I need to center myself and get really solid in who I am so that I can give them my truth. That’s all most teens ask for from us adults. Something real. Not a pack of lies.

I drove to the detention center, twenty minutes from my house and parked. The receptionist unlocked the first door from a little booth inside. Then the next door clicked and I was in. I could be wrong about her being a receptionist, but she sure didn’t look like a guard. She was a middle-aged African American woman dressed in regular clothes. She smiled and welcomed me to the facility and said I’d just need to wait for the principal to figure out which book I needed to sign in on. I sat down in one of the two padded waiting room chairs. There was an article on the wall about medical school students who’d recently come to the facility to talk to the kids and I started to read it. The principal came through a set of doors, again a softer sort of person than I’d expected. Really, she looked like a regular teacher, like my daughter’s teacher, wearing a green sweater and pants, medium-length hair, reddish blond, the color of sunflowers.

I expected to go through a metal detector as I had at the other adult facilities. I’d expected to have to leave valuables somewhere. Nothing. I shook hands with the principal and we went to meet the kids. We walked through a series of doors, which she unlocked and locked herself, with no guard. I learned that the guards stay wherever the kids are and at that moment the kids were in the school area.

We walked through a sitting area where some repairmen were standing on a ladder, fixing something, maybe the TV. Then, we continued through the dining area, which consisted of five or six long picnic-like tables with stools attached to them. The principal asked if I’d like to work with the kids there or in the classrooms. I said I’d go wherever they were comfortable. We continued on past some work-out equipment and a pool table.

The principal told me she was a little harried from having an incident with an eleven-year-old kid just minutes before, but she assured me he wouldn’t be there.  Eleven years old. I didn’t know they had kids that young.

When we got to the school area, it looked very much like any other classroom, though with fewer desks. There were two classes going on, about 6 kids in each, all of them teenagers, mostly African-American and male. One of the classrooms had several computers – over ten. This classroom had paper on the windows with masking tape. A giant green and red Christmas bow still hung on the door, as well as some other decorations around the room, even though it’s January and I thought there was something sweet about that, not so much laziness about cleaning it up, but more a desire to keep the brightness of the holidays around a little longer.

I left my bag in the principal’s office and she moved all the kids into the computer classroom. With thirteen kids and about six supervisors or teens, the room was packed. The guard sat in the middle, keeping an eye on a couple kids. He was a kind-faced man, but large, someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. I could sense the kids respected him.

I talked about the research behind my book, read a couple pages and then waited for questions. There’s always a silence with teens. Nobody wants to be first. But if you wait, and if you don’t mind a little silence, someone always puts up their hand. On this day, it was a teacher. I answered her question. Then one of the boys whispered his question to another teacher and she said it out loud.  I answered it. Soon they were all asking questions. I talked a lot about human trafficking and how teens get sold for sex. After I told them thousands of American kids are trafficked, sold for sex, one of the guys said, “That’s not happening to me.” I said, “Probably not. Usually it’s girls, but all of you have sisters and cousins and friends who are girls, so it affects you too.” One guy near the front murmured, “Them girls want it.” They want it. I liked that he spoke up and said what was on his mind. I talked about how it’s different because these girls are being sold, they don’t get the money and they don’t get to choose who. I was glad he said it because I wanted to address this misconception. It’s more common than you’d think.

I moved on to a writing experiment. I talked to them about details in writing and got them to look around the classroom and tell me what they saw. I asked them what made it unique. “The walls are yellow.” “It’s got brick.” “Computers.” “It’s a jail.” That last sentence. Yelled out. Angry.  “It’s a jail,” I repeated. “Now that’s something different from most classrooms. What makes it look like a jail?” “A guard,” someone answered. Funny thing was he didn’t even look like a guard. He had on a black sweater, black pants. Besides being big, I wouldn’t have thought he was a guard. Maybe he had a badge on his pants. To me, he didn’t look like a guard with a full uniform and a hat, but it didn’t matter. They were aware of where he was at all times.

We talked about using your sense of smell when you write. They told me smells they loved: pizza, sours, jolly ranchers, coffee, cheeseburgers. I asked them for smells they hated: body odor, shit, bad breath. The usual suspects. I handed out index cards – they’re great because they don’t feel so much like school and kids like writing on them. I asked them to write about a smell they loved for two minutes. A couple of them kept talking, but most of them wrote. Afterward I asked if anyone wanted to read. I expected crickets.

Immediately, one of the kids in the back put up his hand and read about strawberries. After him, kid after kid read. Some of them got someone else to read. One of teachers wrote about a vegetable dish she makes with peanut sauce. I told them I wanted to be a better cook, but I wasn’t great. I asked if any of them could cook. Several of the guys put up they’re hands. “Yeah, I like to cook,” one of them shouted out. One girl at the front who didn’t look at me the whole time held up her index card. She asked me to read it, but not to read it aloud. It was beautiful. I can’t tell you any more than that because she told me, “Just you.”

It was time to go. I gave them one of my books to read and handed out bookmarks to all of them. They clapped and I stepped out of the room. I stood in the hall talking to another guard, very solid, a little shorter than the first.  He said he was going to buy my book, but he wanted me to sign it. I said I’d be back next month. He said maybe he could get his picture with me and my book. We laughed.

The taller guard stepped out of the room, ahead of the kids, walking backwards, watching the kids who were following him. One kid came out of the classroom, shouting about how another guy had just hit him in the head. He was a larger kid and had been teased a couple times in the classroom about it. The guard asked who and began to deal with it. I followed the principal to her office.

Their lives went on, but maybe I made an impact. I don’t know. It was cool to talk to them anyway and see them writing. It would be pretty exciting if one of them emailed me something they’d written.  I’ll have to wait and see.

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