Destiny’s story is a recitation of pain. Total rejection by her father, his refusal to believe she was his, her mother’s refrain of “you can’t make a grown man do what a grown man don’t wanna do.”
Juan’s also, of his parent’s divorce and his move to a Hispanic neighborhood where everyone speaks Spanish but him; that, and he doesn’t look Hispanic, though his father is from Venezuela and his Hispanic mother, Minnesota. Where is he to fit in? Where will he find friends?
Trey’s, of being 12 and sitting at his friend’s house, a knock at the door, men with guns looking for his friend’s older brother; their beating and tying up the mother who kept saying, “please don’t rob us.” A week later, the older brother is gunned down. “And that ain’t the worst,” Trey says from beneath his hoodie. “I can’t tell you the worst.”
Kyle’s story is more optimistic, for he has an idea for his future: he’s going to get one friend to become an electrician, another a plumber, another a drywaller. He’ll go to college and get a business degree, and by the time he’s 25 he and his friends will be living in, renovating and flipping houses as he helps them each establish their own business. “Because, you know, these are my friends for life, and they ain’t got nuthin’ else to do.” Big smile.
Shaina has a real story, beginning, middle and end; a great first line: “My cousins would steal bikes, and I would sell them.” Then a bike ride with her cousins amid a pelting, windswept rainstorm, her thinking she could drift her way around a turn, “’cause we always be driftin,’” and wiping out, and her older sister’s welcoming comment as a great closing line: “I told you it was gonna rain.”
These are the stories of my current crop of students in the storytelling module of a theater tech work-study program. I always enter into these classes with trepidation, as if these young people won’t open up. But with patience, and leading with the most talkative first, which relaxes the others, and letting them comment and talk and laugh, they open up. They are kind to one another. They listen attentively. They follow directions: say what you like about the story, say what you’d like to hear more of.
And they debate: is the notorious housing project Trey lived in in Brooklyn really a lot worse than the one he’s living in in Maryland? “Couldn’t be.” “Wait, you live where now? Aw, man, that’s as bad. That’s bad.” Everybody empathizes with Destiny, for none of them have fathers at home. One is in jail for life; another served four years and is out but not around; another is not interested; a stepfather – “oh, man, I hate him. I can’t tell you. I hate him.”
I listen and encourage and don’t judge. I’m just so happy they’re talking. They’ll be telling their stories at a showcase next week, and I’m not worried about whether they really grasp the rudiments of crafting a narrative, or how well their delivery is. I am, however, worried about them, and about the kids who have already come through my storytelling module.
The same morning as this storytelling class, I went to a meeting of a group called Just Kids, which is trying to change the laws in Maryland, enacted after 9-11, which can automatically put a child 14-17 into an adult detention facility for any of 33 possible, alleged crimes. Children are held in these facilities, often in solitary confinement to protect them from other inmates (you read that right), for months or even years without a hearing.
When they finally get a hearing, the charges are most often dismissed, or they are put on probation and released, and only a small percentage is convicted. Meanwhile the damage has been done, psychological, emotional, physical damage that can’t be undone, and a criminal record that often can’t be expunged without help they don’t even know to ask for is affixed to them forever.
When I was 15, I got caught shoplifting. I got sent home to my mother. If I had been black, even then, I would have been arrested, of this I have no doubt. And today is worse, since there is so much fear surrounding these young people. God forbid they should be a six-foot-two, 17 year old black male, like Trey. Almost any infraction and they are put away. Stealing a bike is wrong. There should be repercussions. But put in an adult jail before even having a hearing, and for an indefinite period of time, perhaps in complete isolation? That ain’t right.
I’ll lobby for legislation to repeal this automatic incarceration of children as adults. And I’ll continue listening to these young people, and hopefully helping them see they can raise their voices, and they can be heard. Their stories might be heartbreaking and incredibly sad and speak of a crisis in our country that is so far from being in the white public’s consciousness, and in the consciousness of those most able to change their circumstances, that it isn’t remotely funny or entertaining. But for now they are young and vital and resilient, and there is hope. There has to be some hope.
*All names were changed.