Great doc on Baltimore
I went to Barnes and Noble and bought all the composition books they had. The man at the cash desk cracked a joke, or at least tried. “Is this some kinda Freedom Writers thing?”
I guess it’s not far off. Although I hope I don’t fit into any cliche just yet.
Today was our first class back at the BCDC after the summer, and my first lesson since the assault. We are starting slow. Today was an introduction class to get our new interns used to the ins and outs of prison. I felt like an expert removing my bobby bins and shoes and passing through the scanner.
Of our two new interns only Mike could join us today, he will be teaching with me in the juvenile section when we start in a few weeks. Shelby will be working in the psych ward with Megan. Today we went there to do an introduction.
There were more familiar faces than I had hoped to see. I thought if I went away all summer most of my students would have been released or moved to general population. Some are still waiting for trials. Some have been released and sent right back.
We started with food. Name. Hometown. Favourite food. I said poached eggs. I always do. The conversation was easy and we transitioned to a piece of poster board on the wall. It read, “Community Guidelines.” As a group we came up with the rules to create a safe space for art making. Everyone signed the paper in the margins when the list was finished.
After that everyone filled out a worksheet with the statement “Something you don’t know about me is__________.” Answers ranged from “I love to dance” to “I am a believer in God” and “I collect unusual fridge magnets.” We posted those on the wall alongside last year’s artwork.
As always, we handed out journals before we left. It was a good start to a good semester. I wouldn’t feel anxious if I knew I would be working with this group. I have been warned to expect ‘hazing and harassment’ from the students in the juvenile section. I will have to earn the respect of these guys. This terrifies me. Right now that feeling outweighs my excitement. What else is there to do but try?
My work has come to an unexpected halt.
The week before classes started back up at MICA I attended Baltimore College Town LeaderShape; a weeklong intensive leadership conference. One activity called for us to write headlines we want to see in the newspaper. Mine read, “Art Behind Bars; State of Maryland calls for Art Therapy in all Correctional Institutions.”
The week left me feeling energized. I feel overwhelming support for the work I started a year ago. The conference helped me organize my intentions for the year and really consider the kind of teacher I want to be. My supervisor, partner and I are ready to expand our program for more interns. In the coming weeks, art classes should be starting in the women’s and juvenile sections in addition to men’s pretrial.
Last Tuesday I went for a walk with my friend, Chetan, in Federal Hill. On our way back to his car we passed a group of four young men. Out of nowhere, one punched Chetan in the face. Two more joined in beating him when he fell to the ground. I turned to run and was grabbed by the neck and forced to the ground. Almost all I can remember is hearing Chetan scream, “What do you want? I’ll give you anything” and feeling the strap of my purse tugged off my shoulder. They threatened us with a gun and ran when neighbors came to our aid.
My relationship with the criminal justice system is complicated to begin with. I felt disgusting in the back seat of the cop car as they lined three of the four men along the highway, handcuffed, pulling their heads back so we could see their faces. The American caricature of ‘bad cop’ in the front seat demanding to know who did it. I think of Bob Dylan singing Hurricane. I have no idea what they looked like. The men in front of me are my age. They look terrified. I didn’t want that power.
I should be angrier. I should be able to separate myself from empathy. In my mind I can’t tell the difference between them and my students. I feel stupid for being so warm with the men I teach. I feel weak not being able to muster up any fury for the men who left a handprint on my neck.
They keep us in the police station until two am and put Chetan in an oversized red shirt because the blood on his polo is evidence. The detectives and cops are jaded and talk about how pathetic these guys are. They want to lock them up for life. Try them as adults. Maybe it’s just a matter of not living in Canada anymore, but it is likely their sentences will be longer than what the man who killed my father served.
I miss teaching but I am so frustrated that three people are going back into a system that I don’t believe will fix them. How do I walk back into a classroom full of men who are guilty of similar crimes? How do play victim when I spend so much time on the other side of the bars?
Our last lesson started with Shelby and me sitting at a table, madly cutting words out of magazines in time for our class. We wanted to make collages, and the only way to do that was to cut everything out ahead of time so our students wouldn’t have to use scissors. It is always a struggle getting materials through security at the detention centre. We once waited an hour for the Chief of Security to approve a sponge before we were granted access.
For this lesson we spread words out on each table. Mostly they came from the titles of articles from my old issues of Real Simple and Bust Magazine. The goal was to find meaning in the words in front of you. Our students shyly reached into the piles of words and pulled out things they liked.
My favourite moment was explaining what the word “whimsical” meant.
Once again my students impressed me. Even when they are given the chance to make work that expresses the reality of where they live, the work is usually hopeful and optimistic.
Some created interesting poetry made from collections of words they liked the sounds of. Some were intricate prose that made complete sense. We taped the final pieces to the walls of the common space.
Black Press’ 2012 Milestone Women
Get the kids out of the neighbourhoods. Maybe if they see more they will want more.
Our past two lessons have focused on writing. Two weeks ago we did a a variation of a game of Exquisite Corpse and had the guys write down anything they wanted and pass their paper along. The game followed a discussion about what was wrong with Baltimore. I almost don’t remember how the discussion started, but a few students lead the conversation. In the minds of the twenty-or-so men, whats wrong with Baltimore… America… the world… is that we don’t remember what it means to be together. We have forgotten how to have neighbours and be members of a community. One of the things we talked most about was the lack of recreation centres in the city.
On man told us about how he used to take art and music lessons at school and then go play sports in the afternoon with his neighbours. He complained that kids don’t have those options anymore. He wasn’t surprised how easily kids today fall into bad situations. There’s nothing else for them. Another man nodded and said, “Get the kids out of the neighbourhoods. Maybe if they see more they will want more.”
The tone of the discussion carried over into our writing exercise. many of the pieces talked about rec-centers, home, growing up, god… Here are a few examples of what we ended up with:
"I would like to go home today / I would like to go home too / We all can’t go home / Shit, why can’t we, my brothers? / The proof is up to you."
"During the night you are like my shining star / In the morning you are my sunshine / Why are we doing this? / Because they say it’s fun / Because its good interaction skills."
"God loves all of us so much he gave his only son to die for our sins and Sunday is the day he rose / That is why we keep the Sabbath day holy / I liked the movie on friday / But I’m living with no one beside me."
"Slavery was a big thing, why didn’t we get paid in the end for it? / Maybe they ran out of money / Because now we are free but we still let them imprison us / Slavery of the mind is worse / I will never know what the slaves went through."
We lost togetherness. We lost what it means to be for each other.