A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Courtby William Ayers
Author William Ayers has spent five years as a teacher and observer in Chicago's Juvenile Court prison, a system that epitomizes American justice for children. Through Ayers's brilliant portraits, we see young people telling their stories, analyzing their situations, and thinking about their futures. Dickensian in its tragic detail and dimension, Ayers's book still is hopeful and important for parents or anyone working with children and adolescents.
A former leader of the radical Weathermen in the '60s, Ayers (Teacher Lore: Learning from Our Own Experiences, not reviewed) has spent the '90s working with and observing young people and their teachers in the Chicago Juvenile Court. The largest such institution in the world, the court's original mission was to serve as "a kind and just parent" to those youths whose own parents were unable to properly care for them. Today it struggles to deal with hundreds of children and adolescents, predominantly African-American and Latino, many of them implicated in crimes, who have grown up in dysfunctional families in the grim public-housing projects of Chicago. That so many children end up in juvenile court is no surpriseas one judge, who on an average morning sees 30 cases, comments, "No jobs, no future, no familyand then all they have is guns and gangs and drugs to sell." Ayers reminds us repeatedly of the statistical link between abuse, poverty, and the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile. What's particularly perturbing to the author is the media's depiction of these youths as "superpredators" who are responsible for the majority of crimes committed in society, while youth under 18 actually commit only 13 percent of all offenses. When Ayers allows the youths to speak for themselves, they emerge as vulnerable and likable, despite their often heinous crimes. Their teachers too are, for the most part, caring, talented professionals who believe in their students' potential to turn their lives around. But the likelihood that few will do so is deeply unsettling.
Likely to challenge many of our preconceptions, this is a graceful and passionate vision of the criminal justice system.
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Read an Excerpt
1. Mr. B
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands and crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry and
a person for work that is real.
Juvenile Temporary Detention Center School it is also the official start of a new year. School has a predictable rhythm in our common memory: there is the opening in September, the holiday period from Thanksgiving through Christmas and the New Year, then the coming of Spring and graduation. The facts of life at Audy Home can overwhelm the familiar rhythms: court dates, students suddenly leaving, new kids abruptly arriving, transfers to adult prison. This opening, then, is neither as festive nor as promising as it might be: the school meets year round, the students are locked up in living units upstairs, and the break, never particularly restful for the kids, has been only a few days.
Mr. B is a big man with a square head and a chunk of body to matchmassive chest, huge arms, rugged shoulders, and thick neck. Horn-rimmed glasses perch on the outcropping of his nose, a full salt and pepper beard provides a forest surround. Dressed in his customary uniformdark slacks, flannel shirt, brown industrial apronand settled at his desk in the center of the classroom, Mr. B is a volcano at rest.
Mr. B nods a greeting to me and there is the hint of a welcoming smile, mostly in his eyes. Mr. B wastes no movement, certainly no word. As is customary for him, he has been here since seven this morning and it is now almost nine. He works along silently. I take my place at a corner desk and begin to get organized ... notebooks, folders, pens.
A slate-topped counter and storage island runs the length of the room and splits the body of the classroom from a smaller work area. Twelve indestructible plastic desks with matching chairsbright blue, yellow, greenare set in rows; two more are isolated off to themselves in front of the counter. Windows run high along the far wall, but the light is not quite natural; it filters through the metal mesh that muffles every opening.
To the right, one door leads to a toilet and sink, another to a larger anteroom that serves as closet storage area, weight room, and relaxation center. Posters of cities at night (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco), each outlined and set off with an African kente cloth pattern, dominate one wall. A large chalk-board, a classroom clock, student essays and artwork, a neglected American flag in one corner, all the trappings of the imagined typical classroom, share space with an emergency phone system and a heavily secured doora solid reminder that we are in detention. Temporary lockdown.
Willie BaldwinMr. Bhas been here since the school opened in 1973. In twenty-two years of teaching he has fashioned an identity and a routine that suit himsolid, genuine, predictable. Participating in a writing exercise with the kids, he lists his last name as "Baldwin" and his first name as "Mr. B." The word among the kids upstairs in the living units is that Mr. B makes you work but that he also lets you play, that he listens carefully to you and that he wants you to learn, that he is firm but fair. A teacher and his classroom can resemble one another, and this space is unmistakably Mr. B'sbusinesslike, focused, and orderly, with bursts of color and latent possibilities.
The brief school vacation, while not protracted, does mean a few long days of unbroken time on the units. With nothing much to do, everyone watches TV for hour upon houralmost six hours a day, twice the average for American teenagers. Boredom, depression, purposelessness, gloom covering rage accumulate. Twenty-two young men draped across chairs around the tube is an invitation to a collision, and everyone knows it. "I got in seven fights in ten days," laughs Ito. "Mostly I was locked up, which was OK with me."
"The place is a madhouse," says Mario, fine-featured with long, narrow sideburns and a soft pointy goatee, like a young Ahmad Jamal, "and I'm one of the lunatics." This is no vacation.
There is a palpable sense of relief as the students trickle into Mr. B's class. Coming back to school from their units is a break from the madhouse. There is nothing demonstrative, no lavish displays of affection, but Jeff seems incapable of not smiling at Mr. B, a big Cheshire cat grin covering his face, and Andrew, serious, low-keyed, likable, carrying a large look of sadness wherever he goes, has more energy than he's had in months.
"Bathroom, Mr. B," says Jeff, heading toward the toilet.
"Bathroom," responds Mr. B.
"Counter, Mr. B," says Freddie.
"Counter," comes the seemingly automatic response as Freddie slips behind the counter to sharpen his pencil. Rasheed and Mario hover by the door, watching eagerly as the other students come down the hallway to their classes.
Andrew has pulled out a folder at his desk and is leafing through his papers, settling on a piece that he reads thoughtfully. Jesus is applying paint to a plaster mask he made earlier, before break.
"Back room," calls out Mario, aiming himself toward the weights.
"No," says Mr. B in the same quiet register, low-keyed, flat. "No, Mario."
"Yo, Mr. B. Why I can't go lift for a bit?"
"Remember what you told me Friday before the break?"
"You said you'd finish your regular work for the day after painting," he says, referring to the ongoing, everyday assignments in math, science, English, and history he designs specifically for each student. "But your work isn't here. I want to see some work. I want you to finish your regular work, then take a break. Do you know what to do?"
"I ain't got my card, Mr. B," says Mario, pouting. "And that was so long ago."
"OK. It was long, long ago, but it's still got to be done. Do you know what to do?"
"Chapter twelve in science, I think. Chapter fourteen in history. Which numbers in history?"
"Do all the Roman numerals at the end. There aren't many in this chapter. Numbers one to three or one to four." Mr. B turns quickly to chapter fourteen. "Here it is. One to four."
"OK, Mr. B. I'll get it. Then can I lift?"
"Of course, Mario," he says, touching his shoulder.
The classroom is calmpeacefulfilled with a sense of quiet expectations. Ito has roused himself and is filling in a simple crossword. Rasheed has moved to a small utility table where he is working on a massive jigsaw puzzle that is only beginning to take shape. Jeff has returned from the bathroom, taken out some colored pencils, and is bent over a large piece of white construction paper creating what looks to be a vivid, flamboyant altar or memorial.
"Mr. B," says Jeff without looking up from his work.
"Help, Mr. B." It is neither a question nor a demand, but a quiet declaration delivered in the same tone as "Bathroom," "Counter," "Back room." Mr. B moves over to Jeff's desk and kneels down beside him, his steady hugeness highlighted beside the slight and discombobulated Jeff, their heads bent together over Jeff's work, their voices in quiet conference.
"Should the top of these flowers be red, Mr. B?"
"What do you think?"
"I think yes, but I don't know if it look right."
"Mr. B," says Ito from his desk.
"Just a minute, Ito. I'll be over when I'm finished with Jeff's question." He turns back to Jeff's project. "Well, I like the red set off by this blue, and if you think yes, then I guess I agree with you."
"OK, Mr. B. What about these letters here?" He indicates a row of ballooning graffiti letters: "R.I.P. Lary."
"Now you're making me do most of the work," he smiles. "I thought you had a plan for it." Mr. B. strikes a neat balance between nurturance and challenge.
"OK, Mr. B," Jeff smiles back. "It's cool. They're black."
Mr. B moves on to Ito and again settles on to his knees beside him, one arm around the back of Ito's chair, the other on his desk. He envelopes Ito, leans close and listens.
"What's this mean, Mr. B? A-S-S-E-T-S? I looked in the dictionary and they had `capital', `property' and `possessions'. I want a word that starts with `M'."
"Did you look in the thesaurus?"
"Try that and I'll check back with you."
Mr. B gets up and checks in with Mario who is working away. He looks over Rasheed's shoulder at the jigsaw, puts his hand to his chin and furrows his brow in concentration for a moment, picks up a tiny piece and tries unsuccessfully to fit it in, quietly shakes his head, chuckles, and moves back to his desk.
"Gentlemen," he announces in his deepest voice, "ten more minutes of free time, and then we'll be reading The Piano Lesson." He pauses. "I will assign parts for today's reading in ten minutes." Rasheed looks up for a moment and then returns to his puzzle; everyone else simply continues.
The Piano Lesson, a play by August Wilson, had been the focus of English class for much of the summer. "I had hoped to have it finished before summer break," says Mr. B, "but one thing or another interfered. We'll finish it this week."
The story is straight and simple enough to begin: Boy Willie and a friend have driven from Sunflower, Mississippi to Pittsburgh to Boy Willie's Uncle Doacker's house with a pickup filled with watermelons that they hope to sell off the back of the truck. Boy Willie wants to get enough money together to buy Sutter's farm back home. He has some money saved up; he should have just enough if he can add to that the money he will make selling watermelons, plus the profit he hopes to realize from his share of the family heirlooman elegant upright piano with legs intricately carved in the manner of African sculpture, standing in Doacker's parlor.
Here is the conflict: Boy Willie's sister, Berniece, lives with her daughter in Doacker's house. Berniece is proper, staid, and careful while Boy Willie is raucous, wild, and mildly criminal. Berniece distrusts and dislikes Boy Willie, indirectly blaming him for the death of her husband three years earlier; when some men stealing firewood were interrupted by the sheriff, her husband had pulled a pistol. She adamantly refuses to sell the piano, which originally came into the family that owned her ancestorsthe Sutter familywhen they traded Doacker's grandmother and father for it. Doacker's grandfather, in his grief, carved likenesses of his wife and son on the piano's legs, and then kept carving until he had etched in wood every detail of the family's historymarriages, births, deaths, funerals. Years later, long after formal emancipation, Berniece and Boy Willie's father stole the piano to "free the slaves." After he hid the piano, he was cornered trying to escape town in an empty railway freight car; the boxcar was set ablaze by his captors and he and four hobos were killed.
"Gentlemen," Mr. B breaks in once more just as Merce arrives from upstairs. "Gentlemen, put your things away. We'll be reading from The Piano Lesson now. Later this week we'll be viewing the video of the play."
Rasheed and Andrew straighten their desks and pull out their books. Jeff calls out "Bathroom" and heads for the toilet again. Mario detours past the door to the hallway and stretches a look before cruising to his desk. Ito is drooping once more.
"OK," Mr. B pulls the collective attention to himself, "let's sum up what's happened thus far."
"Sutter got drowned in his well," says Mario.
"And Boy Willie don't know who pushed him," he continues. "Could have been the Ghost of the Yellow Dog," a reference to the men burned in the boxcar, "or someone else."
"And now," says Rasheed, "Boy Willie needs to sell that piano to buy Sutter's land. But Berniece wants to keep it."
"Because of the carvings in the legs, and because people died in that piano."
"People died in the piano?"
"Well, they died in the pictures," says Rasheed.
"And her daddy died stealing it," adds Andrew excitedly, "which wasn't really stealing."
"Not the same as stealing, since the piano legs was carved by their family. In a way it was already theirs."
"And what are Berniece and Boy Willie to each other?" asks Mr. B. "Brother and sister," says Andrew.
"Uh huh," a chorus of assent.
"Mr. B, Berniece been mourning for her husband for three years. Is that too long?"
"Some would think so, and others would think not."
"It's not long," Antoine says quietly but firmly. His face, always tense, draws tight. "Three years is not too long if you love someone. You might mourn that the rest of your life. It could be a good thing. It could be good for her." Perhaps it is the seriousness with which Antoine asserts his position, or the fact that he rarely speaks at all, and now he has spread words across several sentences, or some shared sense of grief or rage, but no one disagrees. Several students nod, some to themselves, others openly in his direction.
"Yo, you right, man," says Jesus. "My little shorty's friend got killed more than three years ago, and I ain't never going to forget. Never. I don't want to forget him. It's a way of respecting him. Woo, woo, woo.
Mr. B points to a line in the play where Avery, the young man courting Berniece, asks her how long she intends to grieve for her dead husband and she responds: "I'll decide." Again a chorus of assent from the students. "Right," says Jesus. "Me, I'm going to grieve. Others can do what they want. Each one's got to decide for theyselves."
"So you agree?" asks Mr. B.
"Sure, Mr. B," says Andrew. "She can decide, and, like Antoine said, it might be good for her to go on being sad for quite a while."
The students have come to like Berniece, to identify with her struggles even as they see parts of themselves more vividly in Boy Willie. Boy Willie is bad, he struts and swaggers, but they no longer object to playing Berniece and reading her lines, in part because her role is substantial and provides major spotlight time, and in part because she is, in her way, vigorous and plucky and toughqualities they admire and long for. When Freddie had been Berniece he read in his labored way one of her rebukes of Avery:
You trying to tell me a woman can be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without mewithout a womanand still be a man. That's alright ... that's alright for you. But everybody gonna be worried about Berniece. "How Berniece gonna take care of herself? How she gonna raise that child without a man? Wonder what she do with herself. How she gonna live like that?" ... Everybody telling me I can't be a woman unless I got a man. Well, you tell me, Averyyou knowhow much woman I am?
As he finished he broke into a huge smile and exclaimed proudly, "Whom! She zooms it back on him! She's equal, right?"
Today Mr. B says, "Here, Merce," pointing to a piece of dialogue in which Avery pleads with Berniece, and aiming, I think, to complicate matters, "read this."
Merce reads haltingly: "You got to put all of that behind you, Berniece.... Everybody got stones in their passway. You got to step over them or walk around them. You picking them up and carrying them with you. All you got to do is set them down by the side of the road. You ain't got to carry them with you."
The passage alludes to the great bluesman Robert Johnson's "Stones in my Passway," a reference these kids will miss. Still, the theme is apparently potent for them, for several voices rise up at once: "He right," "Yeah, but he's forgetting her pain," "Sometimes it's true."
"Merce," Mr. B interrupts again. "Merce, what do you think of what Avery says there?"
"Well," Merce frowns deeply, pulling the book close to his face. "There are some things you need to forget and there are some things you need to remember. It depends on the person, and I say let Berniece decide for her, and let Avery decide for him, and I'll decide for me."
"So which is it, gentlemen?" asks Mr. B. "Should you bring the past along with you or should you leave it behind?"
"You can't really leave it all behind," says Mario. "Because whatever happens, it's part of you. You got to deal with it some way."
"Naw," says Freddie, "you got to get up each day and say, `Here I am world, a brand new day.'"
"In your dreams, man," Mario responds. "In your dreams it's a brand new day, but you're waking up in jailthe same old thing and what you did sitting right there with you."
"Yo," says Freddie, feigning hurt, "why you got to bring that up? I told you I didn't do it."
"Man," says Jeff quietly, "let's leave the past behind. Let's go on."
"Alright, let's leave it at that for now," says Mr. B. "Let's see what parts we need for today's reading."
Mr. B assigns parts quickly and the reading begins. Mario is Boy Willie today, and he reads with flair and style: "She trying to scare me. Hell, I ain't scared of dying. I look around and see people dying everyday. You got to die to make room for somebody else.... See, a nigger that ain't afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the white man. He can't hold that power over you."
After the reading I ask the students to write a short poem or poetry fragment focusing on themselves. I give them a structure to help them get started: the first line is your first name; next, write three words to describe yourself; then list in sequence something you love, something you hate, something you are afraid of, and something you hope or wish or long for; the last line is your last name. I give an example: Martin / courageous, nonviolent warrior / I love all people / I hate no one / I am afraid of war and violence / I hope for freedom / King.
This is how Mr. B responds: I am Mr. B / patient, observant, sincere / I love fishing / I hate meetings / I fear shortsightedness / I hope for success for all my students / Baldwin.
Merce, whose name is short for "Mercedes," "a sharp car my father hoped to buy one day, but never did," writes: My name is Merce / dark and tall / I love my freedom / I hate being locked up / I'm afraid of going back to the street and do what I was doing to get locked up / I wish I was out in the world and I hope for mercy / Hall.
And Rasheed: Rasheed / handsome, brave, silly / I love my family / I hate people telling me what to do / I fear death / I wish to be rich / Coburn.
Everyone reveals extravagant dreams for a future that is surely shrinking before their eyes: fame, fortune, fantastic moments. And just as uniformly, everyone fears the almost inevitable: conviction, time in prison, death.
Andrew / small, black, nice / I love my family / I hate fish / afraid of getting found guilty / I wish to go home / Johnson.
Ito / I love to girl love and be loved / I love freedom / I hate being down / I don't want to die in jail / I wish to be free / Lopez.
Oscar / I'm real quiet / I love my family / I hate being used / I'm afraid of nothing but guns / I wish to go home soon / Streeter.
The students feel the hold of history over their lives, live with ghosts and debts to be paid. The dream of going home soon is a constant companion, but its extravagance is measured in a simple fact: less than five percent of the scores of students who have passed through Mr. B's class in the past five years have gone directly home. They've mostly gone to "Little Joliet," to Cook County Jail, to Statesville, and to Menard to serve hard time, but not home, at least not right away.
These youngsters are all awaiting transfer to adult court, some petitioned by the state's attorney for transfer to adult court, others as automatic transfer studentsor A.T.swhich means they are fifteen or sixteen years old and their charged offenses are felonies that the state of Illinois deems too serious for a juvenile proceeding; they warrant, instead, an automatic transfer to adult court. Until a few years ago such charges were murder, rape, armed robbery; now, with the list seeming to grow longer each year, dealing drugs near public housing projects, carjacking, carrying a gun to school. Going home? They seem at this moment to have a better chance of winning the lottery or being hit by lightning.
Here is Jeff: I am Jeff / Black, scared, nervous / I love my mom / I hate being locked up / I am afraid of being long in prison / I wish for freedom / Baron.
THE TWO WORLDS OF THE Baroness de Pontalba
By CHRISTINA VELLA
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 1997 Christina Vella. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
William Ayers is a longtime teacher and activist, award-winning education writer and reformer, and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, live in Chicago. They have three sons.
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