Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Show Me a Prison, Show Me a Jail

Ten years ago on a lazy Saturday morning in my Southern California home, I read in the newspaper that a 19-year-old man had murdered two teens in Washington, D.C. A chill passed over me as I recognized the name of the alleged killer: a former middle school student of mine--one of the brighter, more promising and charismatic kids I taught at my beleaguered urban school. He had earned the opportunity to attend one of D.C.'s best public high schools. He never graduated.

I do not know what happened in the space between Carlton, goofy 8th grader I knew, and Carlton, convicted murderer whose crime was cited in the "National News" section of my local paper.

But to a certain extent I felt that I'd come of age as a teacher that day. I had only seven years of teaching under my belt, and I came to terms with the fact that there was an escalator representing my career--an ascension of students through my life, up and beyond my science and humanities and English classes, into the unknown.

Ten more years later, and I've known former students to bear children, hit bottom, die, become famous and infamous, commit crimes, be victims themselves, marry and divorce, reinvent themselves, change the world. And I can say I knew them "when." For a brief shining moment.

Yesterday I accompanied a group of students to a correctional facility to participate in a program in which convicts "reach out" to youth by taking responsibility for their crimes, connecting their own fates to decisions made at a tender age, and advising audience members to make wiser choices.

Most of the inmates in the program were convicted murders. Half of them were lifers. I knew this going in. I knew very little else.

I've always wanted to visit prison. Part of that desire was natural curiosity; part was a sense that I had a lot to learn and many suspicions to confirm: among them, that there's humanity in prison. I grew up listening to Joan Baez trilling "There But for Fortune": Show me a prisoner... and I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why. Could be you, or I.

Or Carlton.

I hoped to be appropriately horrified and reassured.

I felt, mostly, awe. I was in a house that was not mine. I entered a foreign land within my own country, with unfamiliar rules and customs. Don't wear blue, or dark green. Don't share personal information. Don't buy food and share it. This was a reaching out program with a lot of holding back.

The physical boundaries were apparent: barren landscapes, razorwire, barbed wire, electric fences, buzzing gates and doors, cinderblock walls, metal detectors, signs prohibiting entrance and exit, warnings, ubiquitous memos posted, enumerating new policies. Dress restrictions designed to distinguish visitors from inmates.

But when the door to the dayroom opened and I walked through first, the inmates were our hosts, in charge. Tim greeted me and smiled and asked my name, printed it neatly on a tag. Mike directed me to a table for the adults in the back of the room.

And so began a day of listening. The only talking we did was asking. Our students were grouped at tables with individual inmates, who began to share their stories. One felon acknowledged that for us this was a field trip, like to the zoo, and he was like an animal, a specimen we came to examine.

Chris told our students that as with G.I. Joes and Barbies, they'd outgrow their attitude of "I have to be cool." Lee added that "problems don't wait for you to be mature enough to handle them." David pointed out that when you choose a lifestyle, you're choosing the consequences that go with it. We heard that gateway drugs aren't just gateways to worse drugs; they're gateways to bad decisions. Silvestre urged our kids to identify the reasons they're doing what they're doing. And talk to someone about it. David wished there were warning labels on the bad things he did.

Howard, 62 years old and sentenced to the remainder of his life in prison for a third-strike offense, put it bluntly: "Your parents didn't raise you so you could show your anus to a cop."

The inmates described the loneliness of youth, the bad influences of so-called friends, the fears of being teased and ostracized, the drinking and drugs, the stupid acts which ultimately led to mayhem and murder. Tim described how he used and abused--raped--the girls in his neighborhood. "How can boys respect you, girls," he asked the smattering of female participants, "when they don't even respect themselves?"

Students who were disrespectful or showed signs of apathy were taken outside for individual counsel. Parents who escorted their children to the prison stood up and explained what family turmoil brought them there.

We heard descriptions of the convicts' gang murders, drunk driving deaths, robbery homicides, drug deals gone bad, third strikes.

What the inmates had in common with one another were years of incarceration, a focus on "programs" versus "prison politics," and a willingness to talk about the effects of their crimes on their families, friends, and selves. These men had spent years, in effect, working on themselves, many with no hope, ever, of release. I heard ruefulness but not bitterness. I heard regrets and apologies. I heard a few excuses, but not many. I heard hope. Particularly on behalf of our kids, not winding up where the convicts were.

"I had to kill someone with my car and my addictions in order to develop a positive relationship with my parents," Mike admitted. In the meantime, he noted, his victim's family has no such opportunity to grow with their son. Chris, also serving for second-degree murder in conjunction with an accident he caused drunk driving, took responsibility for his crimes as well as for teaching his younger brother to drink. "Take your parents' keys when they shouldn't be driving," he included pointedly.

The convicts running the program meet weekly to critique one another's testimonials and plan their biweekly program. A correctional counselor oversees their work, but it's clear that the commitment of these inmates to their mission and individual messages sustains the program's effectiveness and success.

At some point, through the cheerful willingness of the inmates to answer our many questions, the respectful and honest repartee between our students and their hosts, and the clear affection the inmates exhibited for one another (deference they can't demonstrate outside the program, where racial segregation rules), I found what I expected to discover: real people, serving real time.

I've always believed in the importance of judging a person more by his present than his past. Prisoners have choices in correctional facilities: hang on the yard, do drugs, and fight; or get jobs, stay straight, and go to meetings. As I heard the men describe their lives in prison and advise our students to stay away from gangs, drugs, and bad influences, I recognized those good choices are still a daily undertaking in prison. If you're in prison for life, why bother being good, anyway?

Some kind of dignity drove these individuals, and I respected it. I was even a little inspired.

None of my family members nor I are victims of violent crime. There but for fortune go I. So I submit the following with an acknowledgment that I view our penal system from a luxuriously objective perspective.

It's clear for every inmate reaching inward and reaching outward, there are more who don't care. For every convict with hope for himself, there are more criminals waiting to be caught or to make that fateful lapse in judgment.

I believe one can't work with teens and not believe in second chances. In prison I met grown adults who have served 36 years of 25-to-life sentences in overcrowded institutions for crimes they committed in their teens. They're now adults who have built meaningful lives for themselves--and even others--in a bleak environment. They're not perfect, but they're trying. Maybe harder than the system is trying to rehabilitate them. Upon release, they're willing to work whatever jobs we make available to ex-convicts in our society.

At school we tell our students no one moment should define them, unless they allow it. It's not what you did then, we say; it's what you do now that matters. Take responsibility, accept your consequences, make amends, and move forward.

Show us, we say. Show us you understand.

Note: For another view of Robert J. Donovan Correctional Facility, read this public radio producer's report.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mama Gaia

Ms. Earth, full of her planetary self, has been giving the serious whatwhat! to humans recently, with volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, snowstorms...and even rain and hail. In San Diego.

Our job, it seems, is to prepare for her spectacular volatility as best we can. In the absence--or in spite of--earthquake kits, lava-proof homes, and houses on stilts, we stand in awe of all that is majestic and destructive about her.

I have slept in the sand of Moroccan desert dunes, gazed at Equatorial stars, hunted for salamanders in backyard creeks, trudged through waist-deep urban snow, hiked alpine trails, swum in pristine tropical reefs, and lain naked in spring meadows. I am reminded to encourage and provide my children with these primal, soul-sustaining opportunities.

For many of us, Earth's mood swings produce mere inconveniences, cost us a bit of money. As I write, the Icelandic volcano's magnificent ash cloud has air travel suspended and European travelers stranded. The irony, perhaps, is that our global citizens closest to Earth appreciate her the most and are most victimized by her whimsy. Earth tumbles, sways, spews, rolls, showers, and collapses, and people die.

Savage Beauty that she is, Mother Earth is indifferent.

Happy Earth Day, Mama. Here's a poem I wrote years ago:

"Major Earthquake"

a rolling one, as if on a boat.

A picture of us, built up and moving blithely around on
the back of a turtle who every now and then takes a
step forward.

How elastic are our foundations.

The walls of our world are cardboard creations
constructed on quicksand.
Sometimes I am rueful when nature overrides
the importance of getting to work on time
or turning on the TV.

I watch the human scrambling and
exasperated frustration with nature's inconvenience,
when we accept that there are forces
more powerful than intellect.

While we are crushed under the weight of our own insulation
from nature,
She simply dusts herself off
and moves on.

Monday, April 19, 2010

In Honor of National Poetry Month

Writing in my middle school classroom.

This is how it happened:

Can you give us three objects, Miss Fer?
Who has the rhyming dictionary?
Do we have to write on the topic?
Can I sit on the bean bags?

Heads wag to music,
Pencils poise above blank, expectant spaces.
Giggles rise and recede like the tide.

Turn your screen so I can see it, please.
I’m thinking
I’m looking for inspiration

And words slowly emerge from
The carpet at your feet dots on the ceiling gunfire ashes in the air loneliness divorce
mothers and fathers and stepfathers and stars and sports
Camels, donuts, soldiers,
and the pain of writing poetry

She’s giving me feedback
He’s reading my story

Shhhhhhhhh, I’m writing.

Notebooks of adolescent experience:
She eats lunch alone and you notice
He writes about himself, an enigma
A tribute, a diatribe, a memory
Angry words, happy words, pleading words,
Safe words.

Would anyone like to share?

Friday, April 16, 2010

In Medias Res

I've been thinking about how the flapping of my butterfly wings at work and at home is capable of generating tornadoes or soothing breezes.

There are the events I know about--tornadoes that make the news and gentle puffs for which I am thanked. I receive some feedback on a daily basis, what with the flipped fingers on the freeway and the occasional nasty--or grateful--email.

But I am left to imagine just how many tropical storms actually die out over the ocean before they're detected on my radar. And how many full sails lead ships to safe havens. At least in part, because of me.

When I have been in a meeting at work with contentious factions, felt the stress of the participants, and then played a role in successfully mediating a productive outcome, I can't help asking, "I wonder what would have happened if I weren't there?"

But I also go home and question the collateral damages my children suffer as a result of being...well...my children.

In my first year of teaching (oh, the innocence!), I once woke myself up in the middle of the night recalling that a child had asked me earlier for some tape, and in the chaos that was my classroom (not a theory!), I told him to wait a minute and then, forgot. I forgot to give him tape, and he was the kind of kid who would have waited, silently and patiently, until 12th grade.

He's currently adhesive-deficient, and he's out there somewhere coming unglued.

Honestly, I don't give myself that hard a time, but, like all of us, I muddle along without the benefit of an omniscient judge chiming in with appraisals like, "Congratulations, you have gracefully managed to avert disaster at a crucial juncture in a young learner's life! He will go on to confidently manage a company of 300 satisfied employees because of your wise intercessions," or, "Your angry outburst and the Time Out you prescribed Little Sis effectively isolated her and weakened her confidence. She will ultimately regain her self esteem, but will suffer from post-traumatic stress in her twenties and an aversion to seats in the style of the Naughty Chair."

So I rely on my own sense of confidence or lingering guilt as a barometer, and continue to suppose I could have just really mucked that whole thing up. Or, alternatively, made someone's day.

When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The books were usually set in exotic locales, with the plot lines interrupted by crossroads for the reader to contemplate: "If you decide to take a rest in the shady grove and drink water from your canteen, turn to page 10. If you decide to follow the green dragon into the deep abyss, turn to page 99."

It didn't take a genius to figure out that choosing the lower-number page usually meant prolonging one's "life" in the book. But the true fun of choosing "Your Own Adventure" was that you could go back time and again and assess all the possible outcomes of each fork in the road. Hindsight was truly 20/20: twenty pages of different endings. Choose the most favorable.

Wouldn't that be nice?

A friend of mine characterizes those big "What Ifs" in her life as Sliding Doors moments, a reference to the movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film demonstrates how one moment at a subway stop and one variable--missing or catching that train--creates two possible and divergent life paths for the protagonist.

The big What Ifs are pretty darned scary. You've got the "What If I Had (or Hadn't)"s and the "What if I Now"s, and the consequences of exploring either can be daunting. "What If I Hadn't Taken This Job" can sometimes inform "What If I Now Jump This Job Ship," but we don't get to turn to page 39 or 56 to preview the ramifications.

We all really just want to know if, on the last page, we're gonna be happy.

How I would love to peek at the pages after "If you attempt to have/adopt a third child..." and/or, "If you decide your life is fulfilled with your husband and two daughters..." Just how upset would become our apple cart? Or how augmented? What other unforeseen upsets is our apple cart subject to? And/or which enhancements?

No crystal ball, alas.

I'm connecting the dots, instead, between the minor adventures I choose on a daily basis, and my own happines and the happiness of others.

In the adventure series written about life in our family, the plot line in which I am the protagonist can sometimes sound like this: "Your daughter is whining incessantly about various injustices. Your husband is going out of town but forgot to do this, that, and the other thing before departure. If you decide to hiss at your daughter to knock off the whining and give your husband a silent guilt trip, turn to page 82. If you decide to step out outside and take the dog for a walk, turn to page 41."

I am coaching myself to choose Door #2 more often.

"If you decide to take on more than you can handle and become exhausted and stressed out, turn to page 76. If you decide to be honest about your limitations and offer genuine help where you can, turn to page 24."

"If you decide to blame your job for your poor eating habits and lack of time to exercise, turn to page 101. If you decide to work on balance, and make time for exercise and stop eating all that junk, turn to page 16."

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that choosing the lower-number page probably prolongs my life, even if there are no guarantees or sneak previews. And decisions that make me happier likely make others happier, too.

Ultimately, it seems like: if you're willing to forgo instant gratification, well...keep reading.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Restaurant Relief

Our daughters' performances in restaurants have been inconsistent this year, and critics have weighed in with more than a few rotten tomatoes. Big Sister's tendency is to whine and sigh; Little Sis refuses all menu offerings and then changes her mind. In the second act, she cries loudly, and dramatically. Finally, she is scooped up for a hasty exit, stage left.

Sound fun?

The answer is Take Out.

Except, NO! I want to eat out, darn it! And yes, sometimes with the kids. Sorry to you, YOU, and you at tables nearby. I promise you we're working on the nuances of our characters. And bringing props.

So, I am over at Gearhead Mom today, waxing poetic about some bendable sticks (which got us through breakfast on Sunday).

Check, please!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Still in Wonderland

My daughter's spring break was last week; mine is this week. The inconvenience of mismatched vacations forced me to skip a few days of school (darn it) so we could take our family trip, but having kids in school while I am not has created some rare opportunities. I will be teaching a poetry lesson in my daughter's class on Friday (yikes?!), and today I chaperoned the First Grade Field Trip to the Cinderella Ballet.

Seventy-five first graders watching a no-words, two-hour ballet! Turns out intermission was the most challenging act. But some smarty arranged for one adult per three munchkins, so we wrangled them back into their seats for the second half and waited for the clock to strike midnight.

The kids were awesome. Also super hungry by curtsy time.

We streamed out of the theatre en masse to a park and playground to eat and run around. A dad and I sat down at a table with six first-grade girls for lunch and the highlight of our day. The girls busted their lunch bags and boxes open and welcomed us briefly into their little world. The virtues of Doritos versus Cheetos were examined (But what if there were Cheetos in Doritos flavor? That would be So. Cool.). Juice boxes were compared (OMG! We all have Capri Suns!).

The girls took advantage of their adult audience to tease fellow first grader, B, who "never eats her healthy stuff first." B blushed, big time, and then rather kindly pointed out that her friends had no say in what she ate first, last, or middle.

This is B of lunchtime fame, the sweet, grinning, innocent-seeming first grader who introduced our daughter to the gateway drug of nutritionless food: Wonderbread.

In retrospect, I should have wondered why there hasn't been talk of that soft white confection in our home for a month or two. I thought the fascination had passed. I should have known better; I should have recognized the signs.

Halfway through lunch, I watched my daughter duck her head down and nibble something, almost under the table. At the same time, B declared herself done with her lunch. I smelled something fishy, and it wasn't a tuna sandwich.

"What are you eating?" I cocked my head at my daughter. Her head popped up, mid-chew. In her hand was a half-eaten little square of sandwich. I recognized plushy white bread, stained with peanut butter.

"Whose sandwich is that?" All eyes focused on B.

"B, did you give her your sandwich?" She nodded. "Aren't you hungry?"

"Nope!" she chirped.

My daughter spoke up defensively. "Mom, I try to give her my food, but she never wants any of it..."

"Ummm....how often do you eat B's sandwiches? Like...EVERY DAY?"

My daughter and B looked at each other.

Busted! My little addict has resorted to filching her friend's food for her fix. No wonder she has been bringing home soggy uneaten wheat bread PB&Js. Some poor unsuspecting mom is making my daughter lunch. B, offered oranges and apple slices in exchange for manna from heaven, is getting the raw end of the deal.

We're planning an intervention.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I love making curry; I love eating curry. Yum, yum, YUM, CURRY!!!

My parents cooked curry from time to time when I was young, and even made their own green mango chutney. In Kenya I learned to make several variations on the curry theme; the recipe below is my best version, although every batch I make is slightly different. I love making a pot of vegetarian and pot of chicken and having a Curry Party: folks only need to bring beer and contribute a condiment* and you've got yourself a yummy meal!

I apologize in advance that I do not measure things (in the list of ingredients below my friend "Aitchpea" has kindly added her approximations). Since I usually make this for a large crowd, the quantity in this recipe will be large. The key to curry is to keep tasting it to decide if it needs more tomato, more coconut/sweet flavor, more "heat", more 'curry' flavor...or more or less "broth"--I like mine soupy enough to appreciate the rice, but thick enough to be very flavorful.


butter/ghee [1 stick]
black (or yellow) mustard seed [about 1-2 TBS]
ground black pepper [maybe a tsp?]
Patak's mild or hot curry paste [half a jar] OR curry powder--many tablespoons
garam masala [TBS] (garam masala is a spice combo of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, ginger--add more of any of these spices to your own taste )

cayenne pepper or chili powder for heat
potatoes [4-6, cubed]
onions [one large, diced]
garlic [4-5 good-sized cloves]
chicken[1 package of breasts or thighs, cut up into bite-size pieces--~1.5 lbs]
peeled diced tomatoes [one large can]
coconut milk [one can, but maybe more]
chicken or vegetable broth [one can or carton]
lentils and water
turmeric [tsp]
V-8 Juice [to desired taste]
other veggies: green beans, cauliflower, garbanzo beans (I've even used sweet potatoes)
Basmati or jasmine rice

Start with a STICK OF BUTTER (or equivalent amount of olive oil or ghee, depending on how authentic you want to be). Melt in a large pot and add some BLACK (or yellow, if you can't find black) MUSTARD SEED. Add GROUND PEPPER, GARAM MASALA and PATAK'S CURRY PASTE (this is way better than any curry powders I've tried--you can get it at Cost Plus/World Market). The idea is for the spices and butter to simmer together awhile. Before the butter burns/browns, add diced POTATOES, CARROTS, diced ONIONS, GARLIC, and CHICKEN (if you're making non-vegetarian). Saute for awhile--let those spices soak into the main ingredients).

Add a big can of PEELED DICED TOMATOES. Add a can of COCONUT MILK. Add a can or carton of CHICKEN or VEGETABLE BROTH. If you're making veggie curry, you might add LENTILS and water. Let this cook awhile and taste. If the curry flavor is there but it's not yellow enough, add TURMERIC. If you need more liquid, add a can of V-8 JUICE and/or coconut milk. For sweeter flavor, add pineapple juice (but condiments add this element, too).  Add SALT to taste.

Add your GREEN BEANS and CAULIFLOWER about an hour before serving so they don't overcook. I usually let the curry simmer at least four hours (crock pot!). Serve with BASMATI or JASMINE RICE.


Friday, April 2, 2010

During Picnic Lunch on Hotel Room Floor

Four-Year-Old: Does anyone eat dogs, Daddy?

Daddy: Other cultures sometimes eat dogs.

Four-Year-Old: Oh...then crocodiles must be cultures! Are you a culture, Daddy?

Six-Year-Old: Rolling eyes, shaking head.