Teaching In The Tank

My students were inmates (they prefer detainees) in a boys’ prison (aka Honor Camp) governed by many guards (or probation officers.) I learned much in the four years I taught there. At their ages (15-18), the state is still required to educate them.

Through many gates, under razor wire, to an enclosed camp for felony offenders, I taught U.S. history to kids who had never heard of the Holocaust. It wasn’t an easy program to teach so many different levels of knowledge at once. Nor was it easy to avoid chaos in the classroom. They could be so volatile and break into fights at any moment.

Vocabulary among the boys was so limited we could not play board games until I allowed Spanish or slang. “Tuff is not really a word,” I had to explain. “It’s really spelled ‘Tough.’” “As long as you know that ‘uno’ isn’t English we can allow it.” I refereed during one game. Games were only allowed with “back-up” which was one or two officers in the room at the time because boys would fight over the outcome. Losing caused intense frustration and anger in some.

Hopefully, I expanded their vocabularies; they sure expanded mine. “Sharks” were big boys with mental issues, “Shanking up” meant taking things from my classroom to put in a sock later and using in a fight. A “single digit midget” was a kid with less than ten days left to serve on his sentence.

For a few, I saw little hope. Short of breaking his spirit completely, the student who answered “suck this, Teacher Daniel,” every time I spoke to him, I see little chance of him ever blending smoothly into society. I could have told him that he became the thing that went bump in the night because it terrorized him; he either had to become it or overcome it and he chose the former. I don’t think it would have made a difference to him.

My musical tastes tend to run in the country and western area so Wiz Kahlifa, Dr. Dre, Snoop the Lion (fka Snoop Doggie Dog) and Tupac, be he dead or alive, has never caught my ear. But I “traded” a reading assignment (which involved them checking out a book at the new library on the grounds) with my going home and watching a video. I did stop at the Julian Library and used a computer to watch “Tupac in Hologram” at a place called Coachella and it was fun to discuss it with them the next day. It was fascinating to watch actually, except for the foul language.

There was utter darkness but plenty of light in there. Some gave me a cold chill. One insisted on telling me everything his Ouija board was saying about me. “It’s how I talk to Satan,” he explained when I asked what drew him to such a macabre game. “He wants to know why you’re here with us,” he informed me. More than once I told him I was praying for him which was probably not allowed but neither are satanic communications on school grounds I figured.

I worked for the county and was moved me around between 3 facilities-all juvenile offender camps. My recurring thought when I visited these ‘campuses’ was how to move some of these inmates into the taxpayer file. Caging all these warriors at $30K per kid, per year, is always going to run at a deficit. There are too many of them and the numbers are growing. Classes were beyond capacity when I left.

My thought was that if I could inspire just one kid to ideate himself as something beyond a criminal, he could shift from being a burden to a taxpayer. Maybe then he could become the asset he was sent here to be. The painter, singer, builder, doctor-whatever the original cards dealt. I doubt the universe sent anyone here to be a thug.

One student announced that he had killed a guy and didn’t understand what he was doing still alive. He pointed to a new inmate that was being escorted in by guards and said, ” I killed that guy!” “Me and a friend wrapped him in a carpet, tied the ends and threw it in the Escondido reservoir,” he explained.

Later, that boy was in my class. I asked if he knew people thought he died and he said, “I did die. I drowned.” “The nurses brought me back and showed me the water they pumped out of me. It was filled with beetles and grass and it was nasty,” he told me. “I was underwater and my dead grandfather showed up and took me by the arm. He led me to a place ‘above’ my mother’s apartment and he pointed down into it and said “Don’t leave my daughter here. Go back and get her out of there. She is not safe!’” the boy told me.

Then he said “my old dog showed up and tackled me and while we were wrestling, I thought “Okay Grampa, I’ll go back.” “At that thought, I woke up in the hospital and my mother was there crying and the nurse said, ‘Welcome back!’” He said that he felt so good, so happy and peaceful that they didn’t understand. He said he hasn’t told anyone about seeing his grandfather.

“It’s called a ‘peace which surpasses all explanation’ son and it’s what my people aspire to experience. We live for it in fact. Thanks for giving me more hope that it is real,” I told him.

At the end of the day, I saw more hope than darkness. There’s far too much talent and raw energy in there to waste by ignoring it or hoping it will die down over time-while caged and learning all kinds of new ways to break laws. I hope we don’t lose these young men and we preserve some of that raw potential.

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