What’s Really Tough about Teaching at a County Juvenile Detention Center…
Work obligations plus the generosity of family and friends gave me the opportunity to travel to various regions of America this summer. Frequently, the kind and interesting folks that I meet ask me what I “do.” When I respond that I’m an educator at a county juvenile detention facility, the response is either verbatim, “that must be tough,” or something equivalent. When I worked at other high schools in our urban district over a span of sixteen years, I would get a similar response. Then, I used to reply that kids are just kids everywhere. I would elaborate in an attempt to expand the person’s viewpoint with stories of my students’ brilliance and accomplishments against unimaginable obstacles. The past two years I have had a different reply:
Actually, no. It isn’t tough being a teacher there. I love it. I love the boys I work with. They’re just kids.
I feel compelled to explain that these young men, the majority of whom are black and brown and from environments designed by society to perpetuate poverty and oppression, are not the monsters that the corporate mainstream media and those dominant in our society would like us all to believe. They are kids. When I look at them, I see my own sons.
But let me tell you what really keeps me up at night…
- A country that has promoted and allowed for mass incarceration; a modern Jim Crow
- Prosecutors who care more about putting people in jail than keeping them out
- A system of injustice that treats a guilty, old, wealthy, white male much better than an innocent brown and poor young man
- A city that spends $50 million on the security of visitors for the RNC, but can’t find the money to protect our city’s children from violence in their neighborhoods or a policeman’s bullet
- A city that spends $50 million to renovate a public space downtown, but can’t find money to prevent 2,000 children from being poisoned by lead each year in their homes, or money to provide children with nutritious meals free from processed foods and full of fresh ingredients
- The criminalization of addiction or other health issues & the lack of services available to assist people in need
- Tertiary prison-for-profit businesses like “Jpay” who exploit the already desperate and disadvantaged families and their loved ones who are incarcerated
- Schools, districts and politicians who care more about scores and data than the humanity and potential that every child deserves to have recognized and valued
- Policies from politicians and public attitudes that have encouraged schools to be part of a pipeline to prison nexus, rather than conduits of knowledge and discovery
- A system that magically transforms juveniles into adults in order to bind them out of the juvenile system, and into an adult county system that doesn’t even provide students with special needs access to their federally mandated civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
It isn’t tough being an educator at a county juvenile detention center. It is tough to regain the trust of kids who have been hurt by dumb adults too many times. It is tough to plop spoonfuls of self-esteem on boys who are used to having it scooped away, and to hope that they embrace their own worth. It is tough knowing their stories of tragedy and childhood trauma or to read how they can’t stop seeing the violence they’ve witnessed replaying in their minds. It is tough when they tell me they’re afraid because I know they need more than what they’ll get from me. It is tough when I push them to graduate, and they tell me that they never thought they would.
Caring about the boys I teach isn’t tough.
Greedy corporations and plundering profiteers that value money more than people, and capitalism more than children, in addition to our corrupt political system, are a burden ON ALL OF US, which makes things tougher for ALL OF US.
Kids belong in school, not jails. More funding should go to liberation and education, not incarceration. The liberty of people’s bodies, minds, and souls should never be exploited for profit.