Saturday, December 10, 2016


I went to prison today.

I am alternately feeling hopeful and extremely pessimistic. Our prison system is so careless; there are so many lives wasted. At the same time, I think it might have saved someone's life. Let me explain.

When I was teaching, I made a point to tell my students, many of whom had few stable adults in their lives, that they would always be "my kids." Today, that meant driving two hours (a friend drove me which was wonderful because I was really nervous) to Mule Creek State Prison to visit "Jorge" who has his own chapter in my book.

I am not going to go into Jorge's whole life story because he has his own chapter in my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. The very abridged version is that he was born to a 14-year old illegal immigrant who quickly developed a drug problem, if she didn't have one when he was born. He had to take responsibility for his family his whole childhood, and was mainly raised by his grandmother. He saw his friend murdered when they were 13, the police put him in danger and treated him like an adult perpetrator rather than a child witness who had just lost a friend and been traumatized, and he went off the rails. That's all in the book.

After I lost touch with him, I learned today, he started using meth and joined the Norteno gang. He said his initiation into the gang was for them all to beat him severely. He used meth up until he was arrested at 18, for shooting at a police officer, and got a sentence for attempted murder (thank God he didn't hit the officer).

Going to jail made him get clean out of necessity, and he spent I think almost two years at Santa Rita. I don't remember the order of the events, but two things were essential to him turning things around, at least in his mind and intentions. His mom died tragically in a fire, and around the same time, he was "jumped" while eating by a rival gang and no one in his gang in the prison helped him out. Something (if you know me, you know I believe it was God), gave him the strength to leave the gang.

I want to be clear: this is not a kid who has been used to making hard decisions for his benefit. He's the kid who friends would make hold the drugs when the cops came because he needed to belong and wouldn't stand up for himself. THAT KID left a gang in prison, putting his life in danger.

He said that when he made that decision to get out, he got put in "the hole" (solitary confinement) for two months, I believe until he was moved, for his own protection. Now he's totally on his own; he said "I'm my own man."

I'm heartbroken that this child—he's 21, feels like a child still to me—could be in prison until he's 37. He will have trouble for the rest of his life in finding a job or finding acceptance. I'm encouraged that he is growing up and making good decisions, in a time that most people absolutely do not make their best decisions.

I was nervous about seeing Jorge for the first time in eight years, in prison, with him as an adult. I shouldn't have worried. He's bigger, and his hair is really long, in a ponytail, and he lost a tooth in the gang fight at Santa Rita. But his eyes are the same. He has always had incredibly beautiful eyes and would probably be highly embarrassed by me saying that, but it's true. And he has a beautiful soul. He has always cared far more about his family than he should have to, and had to be their protector. It was too heavy for him, and you could see that when he was just a little kid.

I'm so thankful he's alive and I'm so sad he's in prison. It's a tragedy that he's in prison, but the route his was going... he probably would have died if he hadn't been arrested.

This is the child who asked his second grade teacher how he could learn to be good when he didn't have anyone to teach him. In third grade, he said to me, "Ms. Harris, I've figured out it. When your mom's on drugs, she forgets she loves you. She still loves you but she forgets."

I was really worried that he would not feel respected in the book. I did my best, but he was not an easy kid much of the time. He said I did well. And he was so proud of being in the book dedication. He said he was showing it to everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Due at least in part to the recent election in the United States, bullying seems to have increased recently, along with hate crimes.

I've heard a lot of parents ask what they should tell their kids and how to help their kids stand up against bullies. This is what I always told my students:

"People who bully others feel bad about themselves. Remember that. They treat other people badly because they feel so bad about themselves. That doesn't mean it's OK. You need to tell an adult* and walk away. But remember, that you didn't do anything to make them bully you. This was not your fault."

I knew it helped at least one child when she said to me, "It's so sad that that kid feels so bad about themselves and wants to make me feel bad too. I'm not going to."

*As adults, we need to tell the police, the ACLU, our elected representatives, etc.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Children's Memorial Grove

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit Children's Memorial Grove, which memorializes children killed by violence in Alameda County.

The memorial is at the end of a one-mile hike that overlooks a beautiful lake and is a lovely setting for a tribute to the children we have lost, but I just couldn't stop thinking, "We shouldn't need this."

 The memorial only went up until 2012, so I kept wondering if I'd know more of the names. The kids I taught would be at the most dangerous ages, statistically, in the last few years.

I felt panic every time I saw a first or last name I recognized, but the only child I knew personally was in 2009, and I've told his story before.

I'm sure I would know more from 2013-2016. And, of course, one of my former students was killed last year, but he was an adult. Barely.

 I don't know what we can do to make this obsolete. It's bad enough when kids die in any way, but to die violently? It SHOULDN'T HAPPEN. And yet it does. Frequently. And the families and kids left behind have to deal with the unimaginable.

No parent should have to go through this. No child should have to see their friend killed.

I don't know what we should do, but something. The answer is something.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Oakland Police: To Protect and Serve?

About a month ago, a friend who works for SFPD tweeted: "So work was crazy and shocking today and is going to be weird and different tomorrow." I looked at the news, and found that the San Francisco police chief had resigned after several scandals in the police force.

I didn't expect that Oakland would not just one-up San Francisco, but three-up them. It's actually astounding. Read it, and then come back here.

I'm going to say up front that I had a really low bar for the OPD. I've seen them in action (or inaction) many times, up close, and I really had very low expectations. What's the opposite of surpass? They have opposite-of-surpassed my very very low expectations.

When I was teaching, we had an attempted kidnapping at my school. A homeless person wandered onto the playground when the gate was open for the kindergartners to go home, and grabbed a fifth grader by his jacket, and tried to take him of campus. Fortunately, the student was smart enough to wiggle out of his jacket and escape. Several of us called the OPD emergency line, and they finally came... after 55 minutes. We weren't far from one of their stations; there was no reason it should have taken them that long.

Another time, some kids from the middle school next door came to our school with rocks and knives and started frightening and threatening our students. I called the middle school and they said they couldn't do anything and to call the police. I called the police and they said they couldn't do anything and to call the school.

Once my wallet got stolen from my classroom. The kids knew who did it, and the person used my credit card in over 15 different places. Two of the places had her on security camera and offered to give the footage to the police. I knew who had done it anyway. I called to make a police report and told them all that, and the officer I spoke to said, "What do you think we're going to do about it?"

My student who saw his friend murdered -- in front of him -- was taken by Oakland officers to the suspect's house, and asked my student to identify the suspect in full view of the suspect and his whole family so that my student and his family were then in severe danger. The next day they took my student -- who was 14 years old at the time -- in for questioning for hours without letting him have his mom there. As soon as a lawyer friend called to check up, he was released, but they kept him all night.

(By the way, that student's mother had called about the shooter the previous month and the officer told her that unless someone was dead they couldn't do anything. So they waited until a middle schooler was dead)

I was driving in West Oakland a few years ago when a man had very very bad road rage. Someone swerved into my lane, and I swerved so as not to get sideswiped and cut someone off. I knew I was cutting him off but I figured it was better than an actual accident. He became extremely angry, progressing to chasing me down at red lights, taking a baseball bat out of his trunk and swinging it, and then chasing me for miles, trying to pull in front of me and cause an accident. I called Oakland Police's emergency line and they put me on HOLD and then said there was nothing they could do unless he hurt me.

These are only the firsthand accounts that I have. This doesn't include the numerous reports I've heard from kids and parents about being mistakenly detained, because the description was "African American male" and they just found the closest one. This is not including my employees' stories about being pulled over for driving while black. This is not including all my coworkers' stories about calling because a parent with a gun came on campus (being told that if they didn't know the parent's first and last name, an officer wouldn't be sent).

All of the secondhand reports could be false. I wasn't there, I didn't hear it or see it, and it could be like a game of telephone. But the other ones... I was there for them.

The OPD has always had its problems. Right before I began working in Oakland, they had the "Riders," which is its own story. I've talked to cops who wanted to go in and make a difference, and they're now working elsewhere because the culture at the OPD was too much and there was no making a difference.

But three chiefs gone in nine days? And no chief now? That's impressive.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Power of Music

The kids at our after-school program come from many different backgrounds, but they are all extremely under-resourced in different ways. We have a variety of refugee students and I've been learning a lot anout how hard it is to be a refugee trying to navigate the American public school system, along with everything else that's new.

We have a student from Congo, who came to America two years ago. I'll call her Elizabeth. I don't know much about her family because her grandmother (who might actually be her great-aunt) only speaks French and Swahili. Her grandmother has been very slow to trust us, which may be understandable given what she's been through and the fact that she can't communicate with us.

Elizabeth had no consistent schooling until she got to the United States two years ago, when she was put into a grade that she was too old for, because her skills in English and math were so low. The school she was attending did not give her any help and failed her at the end of the year, making her the oldest in her grade the next year by two years. She switched schools this year to the one we serve with our after-school program, which fortunately has more resources.

I went to a meeting with Elizabeth's grandmother, who had mistakenly thought that the school would be providing a translator (the school was under the impression that she was bringing a family member who could translate). The only part of the meeting that her guardian understood were the parts I typed into my Google Translate app and translated into French, but that was more than she had gotten at the previous school. We managed to get her some services for next year, and I think everyone is feeling more hopeful, although as I watched Elizabeth's elderly grandmother limp away with her cane to the two buses she has to take home, I couldn't help but wonder how she managed to keep things together for the family.

Later that week, we were able to participate in a choir performance with an Oakland-wide youth choir. Our kids were excited and overly active and bored and difficult as they rehearsed the day before and a couple of hours before the show. We knew most of the parents wouldn't come for various reasons: transportation, lack of English, etc., but we got staff and volunteers to come so that they could feel appreciated and proud of themselves.

The kids did great - they weren't sufficiently practiced and ready, they missed some transitions, they scratched their heads during their performances, and they sang with their hands in their pockets. But they were beautiful and they made absolutely beautiful music. They sang their little hearts out.

Elizabeth had said that her family was coming, but so did about half of the kids and most of them did not show up, so I wasn't expecting anything. However, at the end of the show, Elizabeth's grandmother pushed through the crowd and found me. We couldn't actually communicate with each other, but I said, "She sang so well, you must be really proud!" Her previously standoffish grandmother smiled big and hugged me. In fact, she hugged me several times. I introduced her to my boss and got another big smile from the grandmother even though she didn't understand what I was saying.

When she left, she turned around briefly and grabbed my hand. She squeezed it hard.

I am so grateful that love for a child transcends culture and language. That woman could tell that I loved her grandchild. She didn't need to understand me to understand me.

Friday, February 26, 2016

It's Harder For Me

When you work with children, you sometimes run across child abuse and neglect. I have definitely had to make more than my share of calls to Child Protective Services, and every time is really, really hard.

(Clearly this is going to be a hard post to read. That's part of my point but if you can't handle it, don't read further.)

Some calls are fairly straightforward: "I saw a bruise that looked like a pinch mark on the child's upper arm; when I asked him about it, he said that his dad pinches him until he cries whenever he doesn't do his homework." Then I fill out a paper with my information, the child's information, what I saw, etc.

That's an "easy" call. That's one where I don't think the child's life is in danger, I've seen evidence, and the CPS worker is probably not going to argue with me. It's not usually that easy, and even that takes a lot of emotional energy, because I care for these kids and want them to be safe and not be hurt.

Other calls are much harder. I didn't have to report the child who had a fork mark burned into his forehead - it looked exactly like someone heated up a fork over a stove burner and held it to his forehead, and that is probably what happened, but he was in someone else's class. It was a friend who had a young child in her class who had his hand held onto a stovetop burner as a punishment. I have had to make a few physical abuse reporting calls, but most of mine have been verbal/emotional abuse and/or neglect.

I had one child who was constantly being told by his father that God had made him (the student), "special," and because of that, he must be tested. The father explained that this testing would involve setting the child on fire. As long as he was in my class, the dad didn't act on it, but they moved and I don't know what happened. I reported this every time the child told me, and on one of the calls, the person taking the report began to cry. I don't think she probably lasted very long at that job.

The authorities did check out the family, and I know this because the child handed me a note once, which just said that he couldn't talk to me any more because he was in trouble for telling anyone.

Another child, "Johnny," told me that his mother's boyfriend was scaring him. When I asked further, he said that the boyfriend wanted the mother to move with him to another state. She mentioned bringing her kids and he said, "If you bring your kids, I will kill them and feed them to my mother. I will kill them, chop them up, and feed them to my mother." The third grader overheard this and was understandably frightened. That was one of the only calls where I saw the result. CPS came to the school and talked to the child and the next week, his uncle came to me with tears in his eyes. He said he was Johnny's guardian now (as well as guardian to the younger sister) and that he had never had children but he loved them and he would do anything for them and would keep them safe. I really hope things turned out well for them.

Neglect is perhaps the hardest thing to report because it's tough to quantify. I've had to call on kids who are left home alone overnight, especially when they are young and having to take care of a baby sibling. I've had parents who won't take kids to the dentist for major problems - one child had a bleeding ulcer in his mouth and I had to send him home several days in a row because he was bleeding all over the classroom - even when I find them free dentists. I had one student who came to school (when she came - she missed about a third of the total school year ) reeking of marijuana every day. Her mother would not come get her when she was sick, EVER, and often wouldn't pick her up from school period.

I had to actually talk the person on the CPS hotline into taking my report, as she wasn't convinced it was a problem. This wasn't the first time - I had one time that the person refused to take a report because it wasn't bad enough. I asked him for his name and he said I didn't need that. I called back to talk to someone else and she said they only had one male staff member at the time so she'd pass it on to the supervisor.

I realize this is a hard job. I honestly don't know how ANYONE does it. The social workers working for CPS have a very high turnover rate and that is not surprising AT ALL.

I also realize that it's hard to hear about. I'm betting that a lot of people didn't finish reading this, so if you did, thank you. In my new job, I've had to make a few CPS calls, and they seemed to come all at the same time, making it hard for me. I love these kids and I worry about them, and it is exhausting to deal with this. I cry a lot after making these calls, and I get tired and achy and sick and irritable.

When friends ask how things are going during this time, I tell them. Things are really hard because I've had to make several child abuse reports. I get a few different responses.

One is the person who just doesn't understand and thinks it's easy to keep work and work and not be bothered by it after I make the call. I don't really know how to even talk to this kind of person and fortunately, I have few friends who are like that.

The second is the person who can't hear about it. They can hear "I had to make a CPS call," and then they tell me they can't hear anything else. It's too hard, they say. I have a really hard time with this. OF COURSE it's too hard. But if it's too hard for everyone, then I have to carry it alone. And that's much too hard. I am there every day with these kids and their struggles and sometimes their abuse. If I can't get supported, then I can't support the kids, and of course, things are hardest for them. If I can't get support, I can't keep doing this. It may not be fair, but when people say it's too hard to hear, I want to shout, "If it's that hard to HEAR, how do you think I feel being in the middle of it?? How do you thin k the kids feel who are abused?" Again, not super fair. But it's how I feel.

Fortunately, the third kind of response is the wonderfully supportive friend. I have friends who are really truly supportive, and that is very helpful. But sometimes not enough.