Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I was working on my computer today when I got a facebook post from a friend and former co-worker:
"Hey, I am watching this special on PBS hosted by Tavis Smiley. He is at the Alameda Youth Jail and I think I just saw Frank. I don't remember his last name but I knew him as soon as I saw him. He had the scar on his forehead. Isn't that your old student. They said he was 18. Does that add up"

Yes.  yes, it does add up.  Frank (it is odd to use his real first name, but he's on TV with that name) was a kid in my first and third grade classes, in 2000 (I came in January and they had had 6 substitutes before then) and then 2001-2002.  He was famous at our school, not least because he was expelled in second grade for hitting a teacher or something like that - I honestly don't remember.  He was brought back for third grade and I requested him again.  He was one of those kids who caused trouble everywhere he went and was so angry that it was just coming out of his pores, even when he was six.  He was also really smart and an excellent athlete, but he didn't have time to really devote to these things because he was always, always in trouble.  

This child would sometimes just melt down.  I was 24 when I taught him for the first time and was not at all prepared for a kid with these kinds of emotional needs.  I sometimes had to give him time outs at the class across the hall, where the teacher would teach him multiplication to calm him down.  I can still see him and how proud he was that he had learned 12x12 in first grade.  Sometimes he would climb up on my lap and cry, sometimes he would show off how he could read, and sometimes he would steal my supplies and throw up gang signs in class photos

In third grade, I tried to get him more help but we just had so many obstacles - ranging from his family structure to our turnover in principals - that we never got really far.  He got counseling from an MFT or LCSW intern for a while but we lost our funding for her.  I had some amazing volunteers that year - Cal athletes - and one of them really took Frank under his wing.  His name was Patrick and he was a tennis player but unfortunately, I don't still have his information.  I'd like to tell him how Frank looked forward to Fridays when he could see Patrick.  His therapist tried to teach him visualization techniques to calm himself down and his favorite one was playing cards with Patrick.  He'd try to calm himself down by sitting in the corner and closing his eyes, then dealing the invisible Uno cards - "one to me, one to Patrick."

Frank's mom went back and forth about if she thought I was helping him and if she was furious with me.  I'm sure she had a lot to deal with and I know she loved (and I'm sure loves) her son immensely.  It's a hard, hard place for black boys and black men.  

This documentary is about exactly that - how difficult it is for black boys and young men in this country.  I have only watched two clips but it would have made me cry even if I didn't know any of the young men being shown because it's so true and so hard.

This is the clip.  Frank is the second to last one to speak and you can tell he is thoughtful and intelligent and wants better than what he has and what he's done.  I don't know what he's been locked up for, how many times it's been, or what he's doing now, but I've been praying for him for 10 years.  He both breaks my heart and reminds me of why I am so grateful and honored to have had the chance to teach where I did.

I am going to buy this when it comes out on DVD and I hope it affects many, many people.  Anyone who's tempted to judge kids who are imprisoned needs to actually listen to them.  Of course they've made mistakes and made bad decisions - in some cases, really horrible decisions that caused a great deal of pain.  But there's always a reason and a story behind it.  I don't say that to absolve them of responsibility but maybe to put more responsibility on all of us to stop this cycle and help these kids out.  They're worth so much more than this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very moving. I think you were my daughters teacher.