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All The Way Down
Changing Hearts And Minds
By Robert W. Burnett
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2013 Robert W. Burnett
All rights reserved.
The hot morning sun beat off the cracked concrete as it peaked through the tall city buildings. It was a muggy day already, even though it had not yet reached nine o'clock. The Youth Study Center Building was an inner city fortress that housed young juvenile offenders, and its age represented few changes since the turn of the century. The large gray building was oddly shaped, rather narrow with a ten foot wall topped with barbed wire, and rested on the fringe of the "City of Brotherly Love." DJ Martin sat in the Philadelphia County Police van and pondered his future. He was a good looking youngster with dark skin, a million dollar smile and perfect ivory teeth. DJ could see his reflection from the inside of the van window, and noticed the waves in his closely cropped hair. His high cheekbones and dimples did not reflect his usual smile. The kid had nothing but time, and no where to go outside of the uncomfortable van seat. Seven other impatient male teenagers were sitting in boredom, looking out the window with their own speculation of what the future would hold. DJ had just gone through an emotional juvenile court hearing and would be placed in the Farmdale Youth Development Center, some 360 miles away via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. "Damn is it hot," he thought. "When is this van going to get rolling?"
DJ's mind flashed back to his previous placement at one of Pennsylvania's Youth Forestry Camps. The street-tough thug did not mind the hard work and discipline of the camp, and realized it was only time spent for another crime. Being in the woods and away from the inner-city, was a good respite from the dangers he had to face every day on the outside. He remembered coming very close to being released, but he let his street sense and toughness earn him a ticket back to the Philadelphia County Juvenile Court.
DJ had created some major problems at the camp and could care less about the repercussions. Another resident had disturbed him, and all he could think of was payback. Hell, he was eighteen years-old and would be released in about two weeks, but he felt he had to take some action to maintain his status. Retaliation would be thorough and swift. He remembered the next evening boiling a pan of water, and sneaking into his tormentor's bedroom, quietly tip-toeing over to the bed and throwing the water on the sleeping teenager. The scream was unbearable! The young man screamed in the dark, and threatened to "kill the bastard" who doused him! The pain prohibited him from pursuing his attacker, and enabling DJ to flee unobserved back to his bunk.
For DJ, stealing away into the darkness was a way of life. He never had a positive relationship with his father whom he seldom saw. The kid loved his mother, but she never was able to control him. His mom had problems of her own while trying to raise two young boys who were running afoul with the law. She was trapped with many other young inner city mother's. The trick was the balancing act of being a mother, living at the poverty level and maintaining a lifestyle that could lead to personal destruction. DJ was crazy about girls, jewelry, athletic gear, money, and basketball, but not necessarily in any particular order. He also became very proficient at burglaries, robberies and petty thefts. School did not interest him much. The streets of North Philadelphia were more exciting, and the playgrounds and gyms were always available to play basketball where he was king.
To DJ, owning up to his own responsibilities was not in the program. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and from an early age learned to deny everything.
When DJ's unit of the camp was questioned about the boiling water incident, he remembered that no one would admit to knowledge of the perpetrator. All of the residents by then, knew who the guilty party was, but "diming," or telling, would be taboo at a juvenile institution. His entire unit was put on a cottage freeze. Punishing all would serve notice that holding back would cost everyone. Every youth was required to be in bed by nine o'clock p.m. each night, could go nowhere, and would receive no privileges until someone confessed.
Tension began to build under the pressure of being locked down. The kids began to hate each other, the adults that had to supervise them, and anyone who had a problem would have to fight. After two days of the freeze the unit exploded. In the evening, the young residents began to throw food in their eating quarters. With only two elderly house parents on hand to stop the fracas, the situation escalated into a riot. Chairs were tossed about and were broken, the television was smashed, and in general the unit was out of control.
The house parents evacuated the area unharmed and went for help. The unruly delinquents were not interested in hurting people, but wanted to take out their frustrations on any and every physical item that was not nailed down.
After getting a complete report, the Camp Director knew who the ring leader of the unit was, and decided to call DJ out for a peace offering. The feeling of power and control was exhilarating to him. The Director point blank asked the kid to get the residents to stop.
"It ain't my problem," DJ snapped back!
He sat smugly on a soft leather chair in the Director's office, unwilling to budge from his hard line position on who did it.
The large Black man let DJ know that although he could not prove the kid was the cause of the problem, he could make it very difficult for him.
"Do whatever you have to do man, it ain't my problem," DJ repeated again!
In a sense he recalled, it enabled the Director to make an easy decision. Send him back to court, forego his release home, and recommend a different placement for his failure to adjust. For DJ at the time, it was no big deal. He had been on the wheel of juvenile institutions. He had been committed to two previous placements prior to the Youth Forestry Camp. One more place was just part of his teenage life.
DJ remembered being somewhat surprised when the judge gave him some options of juvenile placements. He had failed at every place he had been. When he asked the judge where Farmdale was, he was pleased to find it was the entire length of the State away from Philadelphia. In his mind maybe distance would help him. Getting away from Philly and his "home boys" could be the best thing at this time.
DJ's mind came back to the present, as the van lurched forward from the Youth Study Center Court parking lot, on it's way to a much traveled long journey. The massive tall buildings of Philadelphia began to shrink in the distance as the van headed toward the turnpike. He thought of his six-month old baby daughter, and his girlfriend whom he was almost able to see except for his own stubbornness and insubordination. As they passed through the streets of Philadelphia, and by the many asphalt playgrounds on this warm August day, he saw some of the same guys he used to play basketball with and against, picking up a game. The problem DJ faced as he gazed through the glass of the van, was the metal grating on the windows. It gave him that closed in feeling. It was much more confining than the chain link fence of the playground.
* * *
I had spent 18 years of my life working at Farmdale School. When I arrived as a history teacher in 1970, I was very unaware of juvenile institutions and the educational programs that they provided. I had arrived at the sprawling campus of the Farmdale Youth Development Center with my wife Janice, who would start out teaching remedial reading for her first full-time job. If there was such a thing as the perfect black young couple, we appeared to be it. We had met in college, got married in our senior year's, and had a child before we graduated and started teaching. The financial problems of just me teaching, and Janice substituting, were not conducive to the lifestyle that we wanted. Being materialistic, we wanted it all. Of course we wanted that house with the picket fence, the two car garage, two kids and maybe a dog or cat. I had left the Allison School District and a position of teaching junior high history, and was looking forward to starting a history program for the underprivileged court committed youngsters at Farmdale School. I had also served as the junior high football coach at Allison, but I now felt ready for new territory.
Being black, and identifying with poor white and black kids, gave me a feeling of power through sensitivity. My love for teaching and coaching this kind of student made me feel that was needed, and appreciated by the young residents. Over the years, I had put in many years of coaching at my new school. I would coach anything that was available; football, basketball, track or baseball. Any sport was a challenge with juvenile delinquents, who rarely had any previous experience at the organized level. I had spent many years in the trenches coaching some crazy and bizarre kids, while dealing with the frustrations of many emotional problems that they brought with them. There were more losses than victories, but when we were competitive or actually victorious, there was no better feeling. When I finally took over as the school's principal in 1981, I knew that I would miss coaching. Attending basketball games as a non-participant, was more difficult than coaching. When coaching at Farmdale School in the past, I had to take my teams all over Western Pennsylvania because the school was not in a league. Who wanted to play against juvenile delinquents, unless it would be a sure victory for a school that needed some wins.
I dreamed of my teams some day belonging to a league and winning a coveted championship. Jail kids were not supposed to compete with regular public school kids for championships, according to most law-abiding citizens. When the doors were locked at juvenile institutions, these kids were not supposed to exit until their release. With the negative attitudes of many, we were lucky to be playing against any schools. There were schools that needed victories however, and what easier way to get one, than to play a group of kids that did not know the fundamentals of a particular sport. As a coach, I campaigned for the school to belong to a league, but the administrators would always discourage my attempts. Being in a league would mandate more responsibility for them, as well as a commitment to attending after school athletic events. I had always wanted to be a principal, and when the opportunity came, I applied and could not allow it to slip away. Finally as the Principal, I took the initiative to campaign from a position of power.
After a year of hard work and persuasion, I was relentless in convincing my boss and the Clinical Director of the Center, to join the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. Belonging to this organization, would insure the school basketball team of local participation in the local league as well. This would mean local games, short trips, and a chance to win a championship. This was my dream. I always thought that if these kids had a chance to compete for something meaningful, they would perform at a higher level.
* * *
Ed Henry, was the tall, bearded, blond young white head coach who had been the assistant coach to me, until I took over as the Principal. We had gone to college together, and had become friends long before we became colleagues. Ed was in his latetwenties, loved basketball, and always had dreamed of being a high school coach. I hired Ed to work as my assistant years before, and trained him to take over the team in order for me to concentrate on other endeavors. When Ed was handed the reigns of the team, he was often referred to as the "White Shadow," after the 1970's television show. Rarely would a white player be on the team, and the predominant team membership was inner city black kids.
Ed had achieved success with the team, and had made the playoffs for two out of the four seasons we were in the league. Yet, the team had difficulty finishing above .500 against tough competition. Ed and his assistant coach, Dave Miller, had produced plenty of outstanding ball players, but the stars always seemed to be "head cases," and could not maintain good attitudes. At the beginning of the 1987-88 school year, Ed and I had something in common. Our marriages had collapsed! He had just gone through a divorce, and had part-time custody of his two small children. I was then separated from my wife, and was encountering numerous court appearances over child support, custody and the divorce settlement itself. Yes, we had achieved the status that we had always wanted.... the house with the beautiful yard, the two-car garage, and two kids and a cat. But as fifty percent of the married couples in America find out, things can go dreadfully wrong, and if you don't get help soon enough you find yourself on the outside looking in.
Janice, now a guidance counselor, was in the unenviable position of working for a husband who she was in the process of divorcing. She was a beautiful woman, about five-feet tall with long flowing hair. She had put on a few extra pounds after giving birth to two children, yet remained very appealing. This woman could out-dress almost any other female, and had a gift for fashion. Of course other men found her very attractive, and she enjoyed the attention. Janice was confident, witty, yet cunning in how she could deal with people. As things got worse in our marriage, I found out how vindictive she could be. We had two beautiful and innocent children that did not deserve to have to go through the turmoil that half of America's children endure. Our two teenage daughters were torn between whom to support, their mother or father? Our working relationship had deteriorated to intolerable.
Unfortunately, Ed's misery connected with my own as it centered around the women in our lives and basketball. During the summer prior to the start of school, Ed came to me and with his best non-expression and said, "My-ex is coming back from Indiana, and I will have my kids again for at least three or four days a week. I can't coach this season and try to manage my kids too. Besides, I think I'm burned out and need a break from coaching. I've reached the point where I don't want to go through a season again with some of the headaches of coaching these kids."
"Look Ed, these may be some of the best athletes I have ever seen at Farmdale," I said. "Don't let whatever she does dictate what you do! You are one of the best coaches in the area. Matter of fact, very few people can handle this team. Plus, you need the money, and coaching may keep your mind off of your problems."
"Naw," Ed said. "I just don't want to do it this year. Maybe never again. I just want to kick back, play some golf, and drink some beer. Just relax! It's too hard to get babysitters for practices and games. Besides, I want to be home when my kids get home from school."
I never backed down from a challenge. I had an unreal sense of confidence that I could sell any person on anything. I pushed on.
"Why don't you think about it?" I said, "If you really want to quit entirely, you can make that decision when the season is over. What you should do is take a year's leave of absence from coaching. When the season is over, you can decide whether you want to hang it up or not."
Ed was not an argumentative person, and felt that he should placate me with a positive response if that was what it took.
"All right, I'll hold up," Ed said. I'll write Dr. Francis a letter for a leave of absence for this year. If he accepts my letter, then I will hold my decision. If he doesn't, my only choice is to quit. Forever!"
"I only have one request Ed," I said. "I don't mind getting back into coaching for one year. If Dr. Francis ask, tell him you recommend that I take over the team for one year while you are gone."
"What about Dave Miller," he asked? "What if Dr. Francis suggest him?"
"I've got to be here anyway Ed," I explained. "I've got to watch the kids until Dave gets here for practices from Oakland High School, and I have to attend all the games. Hell, I might as well be coaching. How do you think Dave would feel if he took the head job for one year, and then had to step down to assistant again if you came back? Dave can work for me, and then if you don't come back he can step in!"
Excerpted from All The Way Down by Robert W. Burnett. Copyright © 2013 Robert W. Burnett. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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