“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”
– Steve Jobs [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]
On the days I question my sanity and purpose in working with the minds and hearts of criminal youth, I try to take a step outside of myself. My experience, this chapter, this dot in my life has compelled me to reflect, analyze, write, and finally research the outrage that shuffles into my classroom every day.
I believe, or persist in believing, that a few changes in my state’s communities would drive down the numbers at my facility, nearer to 150 than the 220+ we house. We will never fully eliminate criminals of any kind, but we can effect these numbers. No, not numbers, lives.
There’s more to this story. For Christmas I received the book, Raising Girls by Dr. James Dobson because I have two beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful girls to raise into wonderful women. In explaining the significance of the task before me, Dobson summarizes a few problems with our boys. None of the information he presents should surprise me, but I had never seen the data. The questions, “Who will my daughters marry? Who will even be worth consideration?” have plagued me ever since and propelled me into an unanticipated research project.
With my computer gasping and finally succumbing to some mysterious ailment, I took the opportunity of living in the dinosaur age to clear my library’s bookshelves of anything that had to do with boys and education. A few days later I attended a prestigious conference on Special Education in my state. Coincidence? If my computer had to die I’m glad it went that week.
Usually these conferences the state pays for us to attend provides a change of scenery and allow us to dress nice. I almost feel human for the day. Aside from that I absorb information that would help me in a public middle school, but helps me not at all in prison. A renewed sense of purpose propelling me along, I ended up in Gender and the Brain by one of the most respected speakers. That morning she spoke about the science of fitness, movement, and the brain. Fascinating stuff, really, and it supported suggestions from boys adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax. I knew my school would do nothing with the information, but I mulled it over as I learned about new partnerships and expectations in schools to deal with mental health.
In Gender and the Brain our speaker asked us to break into groups of three of the same gender and talk about “something important.” Eighteen seconds later she stopped us. We had done exactly what hundreds of studies reported we would. She shared, “Here’s how the males react:
- They make no eye contact and stand at a 45 degree angle;
- They immediately make fun of the assignment and then the authority figure who assigned it;
- The important topic has to do with doing or action;
- Finally, they insult each other, physically and verbally.”
If you’ve ever taught boys, you’re smiling. This is my classroom, every class period, every day. “Hey Miss, this is stupid,” they’ll say as soon as I’ve given them an assignment. On frustrating days, I am stupid. After a few minutes they’ll do their work anyway. Then they’ll call each other “trash” and start poking one another. Every day. Every class.
She didn’t specifically explain how to redirect this series of events, but I had all weekend to think and another couple hundred pages to read.
If you haven’t gathered this yet, I am extremely introverted. By extreme, I mean that on every MBTI test I have ever taken (which are several) I have averaged three points in the extroversion column. I’d have to be mute to score anything less. Like many introverts, but not all, I suffer from shyness too. If I’m not careful I can destroy a good idea for the classroom before I even get in the door; thus, I drank three cups of coffee Monday morning. Trying anything new with this crowd makes my knees shake, but with a jolt of caffeine I was ready.
Hyped up on caffeine I wrote two poems in black ink on the board and then showed their forms in red. My creative writing class moseyed in expecting another day of writing a page on the topic of their choice. That was bad enough, but then I hopped around talking about poetry which was worse. Then I introduced two important changes:
- Competition–the most creative poet will receive a prize
- Movement–students were welcome to write directly on the board rather than at their desk
Only one in four chose the board option, so I made the other three copy their poems onto the board afterwards. In my afternoon class of two students, I had each one stand up and recite his poems. Miracle of miracles, no one complained about the assignment, me, or each other. One wanted me to hang his poem on the wall, and throughout the day my first period students stopped by to ask about the competition. Could I repeat this success?
In English 9 we took a break from grammar so I could experiment. We tell our boys to leave violence, bloodshed and weapons, out of their writing. To them, what does that leave? In prison we cramp their style even further by eliminating gangs, sex, and drugs from their writing. My syllabus contains this reminder like it should, but I’m not sure how I feel about it anymore. Can I really expect these young men to write without some mention of the taboo?
I tried to think like rated G Hollywood. “Write about a boy meeting a girl. You have fifteen minutes,” I instructed. I didn’t know my students yet, and I knew this could go horribly wrong. “Switch papers,” I told them after fifteen minutes had passed, hoping some Romeos had hooked up with Juliets on the college ruled paper. “Now blow something up,” I shocked them. Confused, they exchanged glances, but sent a rocket to space, killed some boredom with a bomb in the desert, and enjoyed some fireworks. And so on. Ultimately they had to decide whether the boy got the girl which also seemed to confuse them. You should have seen the faces of students when I referred to “the one who got away.” Do we live in the same world? Anyway, I had them revise their writing for sensory details. Their stories ran off their pages with action and pulled the reader in.
Their eyes suggested I was just a little different, but they didn’t complain either. The math teacher stopped by during lunch, and seeing some of the stuff my students were writing, accused me of turning them into pimps. That’s the first time I’ve had a teacher complain about me getting my students to write well. I just can’t win.
These small changes are significant, largely because we don’t make changes where I work, but also because they’ve re-energized me. Can I find fifteen weeks worth of inspiration from the ideas I’m learning? There’s a question.