A Different Kind of Commencement
July 20, 2011
David Chura is the author of I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. He has worked with at-risk teenagers for the past 40 years. For 26 of those years, he taught English and creative writing in community based alternative schools and in a county penitentiary. His writings have appeared in the New York Times as well as other scholarly and literary journals. He blogs at http://kidsinthesystem.wordpress.com/.
Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.
It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.
Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping. That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.
When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail. The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”
And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.
When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.
I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name). Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you). Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.
It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.
I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.
It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.
Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.
I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.
Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible. Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.