When I first met Noél back in April of 2014, he didn’t give me the time of day. I’d been waiting in a classroom in one of two maximum-security units at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. Posters of institutionally approved icons—Jesse Owens, MLK, Barack Obama—adorned the yellow walls; the previous week’s math lesson was smeared across the whiteboard, a couple of cursory swipes having left the job of erasing it unfinished; the fluorescent lights buzzed like a nest of yellow jackets; half of the couple dozen desks were smashed against the back wall as though someone had shoved them aside to make room for a fight.
I leaned against the wall beside the whiteboard and waited. I’d learned that, to maintain my dignity and avoid losing the respect of the participants, it was best to leave the classroom in whatever state I found it.
Upon entering, the majority of the dozen or so participants, having gotten to know me over the previous months, greeted me warmly and began putting the classroom back together, while the tall, handsome kid with a pompadour and a noticeable limp made a beeline for the back of the classroom and arranged two desks so they faced each other. Another kid with elaborate tattoos on the backs of his hands took the seat across from him and the pompadoured kid began dealing cards.
As I was giving my spiel to new participants, the med cart entered the common area just outside the classroom. Half of my workshop spied it through the window, sprang from their desks, fled the classroom and lined up for medications that would, over the course of the next thirty minutes, glaze their eyes, slur their speech and roll their heads back on their necks.
A few months into my time with The Beat Within, a program that conducts writing and conversation workshops primarily inside juvenile detention facilities, the lead facilitator at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) asked me if I’d been into prisons yet. When I said no, she said, “Oh, man. That’ll be it for you. Once you get into prisons, you’ll never leave.”
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It didn’t take long in a San Quentin State Prison writing workshop for me to understand what she’d been talking about. After years of distance, when friends and family on the outside have been forced, to a large degree, to go on with their lives, prisoners become more absence than presence, more phantom than flesh. In the words of Angela Davis, “Prison doesn’t disappear social problems, it disappears human beings.”
But these men fight heroically—with words, weights, degrees, law, faith, art—to make something tangible of their phantom forms. To achieve themselves back into existence. So when we exit that space with their words in our heads and on our lips, their connections with us—the ones who shake their hands, laugh at their jokes, encourage and praise their literary efforts—can conjure their disappeared forms in the outside world. And when we return, it’s as if that message of their existence has rebounded off something solid in the outside world and they can hear the echo. And they beam like my son did the first time an echo returned the sound of his own voice to his ears.
Incarcerated youth are a different story. Unlike the men and women in prison workshops, their attendance is often compulsory. Unlike the men and women in our prison workshops, even if they’re recidivists, they’re more likely to have been locked up in a single facility than to have been shuffled through half a dozen remote gulags, and in this single facility they’re more likely to have had access to volunteer programming than to have spent months or years in solitary confinement. Unlike the men and women in prison workshops, they haven’t worked to get here; this moment has been thrust upon them.
While the pills were doled out, I waited, chatting with a couple of boys about recent court dates. One of them said his mom hadn’t been able to get off work and he’d faced the judge with no one but his attorney. The other complained about the D.A. Said he couldn’t understand why she hated him so much, why she insisted on calling him “a menace” instead of using his name.
The pompadoured kid looked up from his card game. “Yo, Mr. Clean”—my baldness was a routine source of ridicule, as well as a good opportunity to model the ability to laugh at myself. “How much they pay you for this shit?” When I chuckled and told him that I was a volunteer, he said, “Ah, trying to build that resume for grad school.”
“I already went to grad school.”
“A job then?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
He snickered, looked at his cards, folded his hand. “Sure,” he said, shuffling skillfully. “I see you.”
I smiled. I didn’t try to explain why I was there. It didn’t matter. At least not yet.
Of course, there’s always a back story. Mine involved reading people like Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, George Jackson; it involved becoming romantically involved with a communist and being pushed to interrogate all my assumptions about how the world functioned; it involved becoming disenchanted with the private progressive school at which I’d taught, a place that signaled and espoused the right kind of values but seemed uninterested in engaging with struggles to correct the injustices it decried. It involved the gradual recognition of my complicity in a system of apartheid.
So I’d found The Beat Within, a volunteer writing program that places facilitators in juvenile detention centers and prisons and publishes participant work in a bi-monthly magazine. I knew that it was yet another sign of my privilege that I could volunteer my time to work with incarcerated youth, but I also knew that I loved kids. All kids. And I felt I owed it to incarcerated kids to give them something the institutions deliberately withheld: the opportunity to be seen as kids as opposed to criminals.
But I didn’t say any of that to the pompadoured kid. Not yet anyway. If I’d said, I’m here to show you love, I would’ve been laughed out of the room. Show Don’t Tell isn’t just a lesson we teach young writers. It’s praxis. And, by this point in my time at the Alameda County JJC, I knew well what showing up every week would create space for.
I led the workshop—reading aloud the week’s prompts, facilitating a discussion, then asking the group to spend about 20 minutes writing before sharing their work with one another. During that 20 minutes, I kneeled beside individual participants and praised the parts of their writing that caught my interest, asked probing questions and encouraged them to add details, always more details. More than once, I felt the pompadoured kid’s eyes on me. I let him be. The next move was his.
When I first began leading writing workshops for The Beat Within, I would leave the facility, get back in my car and yell and punch the steering wheel. It’s something about kids in cages. When I think about suffocation, about struggling to breathe, it’s the first place my mind goes.
When I’d exit that building, there’d be this tension tugging at my body like a riptide or the feeling that I’d forgotten something important. This tug located my soft places so that just walking out those doors, getting into my car and grabbing a burrito on the way home took practice—those first few times I did it, the food turned to rubber in my mouth.
Gradually, my insides hardened. Routine blunted the grief. I’d still recognize it from time to time in other, newer facilitators. Especially on those nights when the units were fetid with despair—when there’d been a fight, or someone was crying, or a young person was protesting a special program (euphemism for solitary confinement) by lying on the cold concrete floor of their cell and kicking the door over and over and over and over.
When I first heard that sound, I thought it contained just about all anguish and anger in the entire world. Maybe it did. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t become inured to it.
But these days when, at the end of the week, I sit down with my incarcerated students’ written words and type them up for submission to the magazine, liberating language from that cold building and dropping it into my warm home, the tension resurfaces so I feel it tugging again at those places I’d thought long since hardened.
A kid writes about the pain of separation from his girlfriend, due to give birth in three months’ time.
Another writes of gratitude—he says that if he weren’t locked up, he’d probably be dead.
A 14-year-old boy writes about his twin brothers, about the pain of missing their ninth birthday, about how he knows they look up to him and how he worries that they’ll make the same mistakes he did. As if it’s already over for him. Which, statistically at least, it is.
And the distance between me and grief collapses. And I’m right back in my years ago. And I feel, well beneath my bones, the truth of nothing ever changes.
But I push through because if these kids refuse to give in to despair, I have no right whatsoever to wallow in mine. I push through because I know the smile that waits to be unshackled, to stretch itself across a young face when I hand them the newest edition of the magazine and point to their words in print. I know that, through repetition, this validation can help unlock a belief in themselves that transcends cages.
By the end of the next week’s workshop, Noél stopped playing cards and listened. By the beginning of the workshop after that, he left the cards outside the classroom and turned his desk toward me. That day, I abandoned the whiteboard, had the participants make a circle, and seated myself amongst them. Some of the younger ones dropped any pretense of participating, turned toward one another and cracked jokes. The others took turns reading and responding to the various prompts: “My Last Memorable Meal”; “What Irritates Me”; “If I Could Take Back One Thing.”
I don’t wanna write about these,” Noél said after one participant had described the shrimp burrito he’d gotten a few months back from a Fruitvale taco truck.
I shrugged. “They’re just suggestions. I didn’t write any of them this week, so don’t worry about offending me if you’ve got a critique.”
He squinted at the paper. “I don’t like the one about the one thing we’d take back.”
I smiled because I’d felt the same way. The last thing these kids needed was to spend extra time thinking about and expressing regret. It went without saying that they’d take back whatever action landed them in detention. Of course, they would. But could they take back the conditions that led to that action? Of course, they couldn’t.
I didn’t say any of that, of course. Talking at young people never accomplishes much. If you want to help them write, it accomplishes even less.
“What don’t you like about it?” I said.
“It assumes I did something wrong. But what if there wasn’t no right thing? From where I was sitting, the wrong thing woulda been to do nothing.”
I smiled. “So, you’ve got no regrets at all? Not even about that time you ordered the shrimp burrito when the carnitas was clearly the way to go?”
He laughed. “Shit. Maybe I got a few.”
“Fuck this question,” I said. Noél’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. “Title your piece: No Regrets. Write about why you don’t regret doing the thing that everyone says you should.”
Noél smiled and nodded. At the end of the workshop, he told me he was taking his papers back to his room with him. The next week, he said he was still working on something, but that he was excited to share it soon. The week after that, he limp/sprinted across the common area, greeted me outside the classroom door and thrust half a dozen yellow legal pad pages into my hands. “That’s my story,” he said, his eyes stuck to the pages like a proud parent to their infant child. “My philosophy, I guess.”
I turned the pages over, noted his impeccable handwriting filling the front and back of each page. “I can’t wait to get home and read this.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “You could read it now if you want. I’ll get the workshop started, get these knuckleheads writing.”
I smiled. “Deal.”
I walked into the Unit 2 classroom in possession of two things: Noél’s essay and a reminder of the most valuable lesson I’ve picked up in all my years as a teacher: the most essential thing we must give young people is not our knowledge but our attention, which is to say, our love. The question is not only how we’ve managed to build a system that withholds love, but how the system we’ve built has been capable of convincing us that the act of withholding somehow makes anyone safer.
Like most human interaction, in March of 2020, Beat Within writing workshops went virtual. Facilitators’ two-dimensional faces, along with our bookshelves, artwork and unmade beds, remote as they may have been, offered workshop participants—kids who hadn’t seen grass, sky, sun or clouds in weeks or months—glimpses of the world beyond concrete walls. Some would ask me to turn my computer around and point the camera out the window so they could admire the gnarled oak tree that showers leaves onto my back patio.
Many of the kids in the maximum-security unit went more than a year without touching, smelling, or embracing their family members. In place of in-person visits, through the magic of video conferencing, they were transported into their family’s living rooms and cars, onto their balconies and stoops. But these communications, while essential, also inflicted an injury. Nestled within these glimpses of settings from which, like malignant growths, they’d been surgically removed, was a crystal clear vision—life going on without them.
We cannot grow in love unless we are immersed in love. And we cannot imagine the selves toward which we strive if the clearest vision afforded us is our absence. But the system cannot teach incarcerated youth to practice this kind of imagining, because to do so would mean hastening its own demise. Because love requires the dismantling of cages. Because a cage makes our absence feel inevitable. Which is ultimately what this system seeks to reproduce: their un-being.
We must facilitate a cultural growing-up. This begins with doing some imagining for incarcerated youth. It begins with naming and fighting for the world we must give them a chance to build bell hooks reminds us that, “What we cannot imagine cannot come into being.” So, it falls to abolitionists, then, to imagine and speak this new world into existence.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition is not about absence but about presence,” reminding us that we are engaged in a process not of destruction but of creation. So it falls to us, then, to build life-affirming institutions from the ashes of those that have long extinguished it. It falls to us to fight as though the possibility of life and love hangs in the balance, so that we might manifest, for our young, a safe and sustainable world, and so we might realize, for us, relief from the ignominy of having shepherded such unspeakable violence.
It’s been more than seven years since Noél penned “To The Understanding,” and I’m sorry to say that, while I’m still facilitating workshops for The Beat Within at the Alameda County JJC, I lost touch with him long ago. If I could talk to him now, at some point in the conversation, I’d answer the first question he ever asked me: Why are you here?
In Noél’s essay, he writes, “We are the state’s cash cows, the reason why more prisons are being built than schools…The sooner we accept this reality, the sooner we can change it. After all, it is us who live under their control, us who kill each other, us who refuse to learn—but it’s their traps into which we fall, it’s their tools of death we’re using.”
I’d tell Noél that I was there because I was becoming an abolitionist, developing the kind of ties that would compel me to risk something real, and to convince others to risk something real, so the trap into which he fell and the tools of death he was taught to use might be melted down, forged into something generative.
I’d tell him that, beyond giving him my attention and my love, I was learning what we all must do in love’s name.
We are all prisoners of a dream that was manufactured to pacify us, to encourage us to accept the smallest conceivable lives, to inhabit our smallest possible selves.
I’d tell Noél that I was there to know the hurt inflicted in the name of our mythology, so I might help persuade others to dream creatively, joyfully, expansively, lovingly, together, and inhabit larger selves than our cages could ever hope to contain.
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