Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Something You Don't Have to Guard Against...Repaint the Canvas...

March 30, 2010

Something You Don't Have to Guard Against

As someone who has educated youth for over 20 years I have had the pleasure of celebrating many of their great joys and successes. Alternatively, I have shared the pain of their tragic losses and equally tragic missteps. It is a tragic misstep that has me blogging today, entering into a type of rant about my personal philosophy that we should not give up on youth, even when they lose our trust.

My students have, more often than not, become my children. I care about them, they matter and I have never ever adopted the “just a number” approach, despite what the media may tell you or make you think about teachers. There are less of that “just a number” type and more of my type than the uninformed would have you think.

When my “little darlings,” as I call them, have made mistakes sometimes this has manifested in the form of incarceration, which then lands me at some sort of correctional facility where I visit them or attempt to support them in some way.

In our community we have a correctional facility that houses youth and I have long volunteered as many resources as I can over the years in connection with this institution. This has been in the form of book donations, money put on account for inmates, visitations and letter writing. This particular facility I am going to talk about today houses males. It is our young males that I am most concerned about, particularly in view of a recent interaction I had with one of the guards, let’s call her, for lack of a better term. She may be a correctional officer who never guards anyone, but she certainly was guarded, guarding against taking a chance in believing in rehabilitation.

So, I arrived clean, polite, and wearing untattered clothing with a look of inquiry upon my face. While I have donated materials before, I needed to leave off a book I had purchased specifically for a young man who is currently incarcerated. This was a hardback book or as I now call it, “Exhibit A – Potential Lethal Weapon.”

As I inquired of the female guard about leaving the book for my friend we entered into a circuitous conversation that eventually led to this answer, “No, you may not leave off that book for him and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a hardback book or not.” Okay, so I could work with that, although I have to admit, I think it’s a mighty stupid rule.

After we ran that race the next event found me saying that I wished to put money on the young man’s account. It was at that point that either I made a mistake or she did. As she snippily informed me that she would now have to provide me with a receipt I told her that my husband and I try to mentor young people to which she replied in the snottiest, most callous, disbelieving tone, “Good Luck!” Keeping my cool, with my hardback book death-gripped into my hand, I informed her that we had, in fact, had quite a bit of luck and then I wished her a nice day, taking my receipt, angry retort and hardback book with me.

Here’s my open letter to her and to anyone who has given up on a young person or who has been (maybe) given up on. I wrote it in my head as I was leaving the building:

Dear Guarded,

I am a mom, teacher and woman who has been disappointed many a time, both in myself and others, so I understand the pain associated with disillusionment. We’ll leave this as the simplest of statements as to why I am qualified to empathize with your experience.

As I visited my young friend today I had a vision of him when you and I were interacting. The image was of this beautiful little boy when he was about four years old, sitting in his mom’s lap. His soulful brown eyes would have been looking up at her lovingly and he would have been holding onto her for dear life because he’s affectionate and loving. When he was with his mama, as a toddler, I am absolutely sure he never looked up at her and said, “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be an addict.” You see, that is never anyone’s dream, but the pain of life, the intractability of genetics, and the space of circumstance sometimes lands us there, never as our Plan A.

When you treat everyone as scum they will never disappoint you because this summation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will find scum everywhere you float on the human pond of life because we often embrace the expected, not the unexpected and, let’s face it, the unexpected is what allows hope to grow in that seemingly unsustainable pond.

I’m asking you not to give up on all of them. Oh, I know, so many are foul-mouthed, rude and they lie like a Persian rug. I don’t necessarily want to spend my time listening to them or their tragic stories about how the law “has it in for them.” But let’s not paint them all with the same brush, but rather allow for a canvas that may begin with a certain picture, but which may end with a completely different visualization, perhaps in part because of our ability to see that canvas differently.

The next time anyone approaches your glass-protected wall, please don’t judge that young woman with the baby on her hip, that middle-aged woman with her ponytail askew, that older guy with his fading tattoos as damaged goods that are not worthy of your respect. Instead, please look at them, really, really look at them, and notice the character of their faces, the love that brought them here to visit, the determination in their demeanor, all of which add up to not giving up on those they love. They deserve your respect and they have mine.

Sincerely yours,

A Member of the Sisterhood of Caring

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