Matthew Lickona 7 a.m., April 24
- Community Blog
- From 4220 feet:
Doing Time in the Tank
"Cover!," the guard yelled. Everyone fell to the ground and covered their heads. I thought it was some kind of drill and started to do the same but the probation officer who issued the command touched my arm and said," not you, ma'am." So went my first week in the tank with the violent offenders in a boys' prison.
For the past two years, I have been teaching incarcerated youth at a place called Camp Barrett. I don't know that it changed who I am but it sure got my back up. I have never been around such predators before. Some saw me as an ally and tried to show me the ropes. Others tried to break me.
Some showed me their darkness. A few informed me that they were Satan. Ouija boards were a common amusement for many of these young men. The stories I heard about their drug experiences made me wonder how a society can deal with these lost souls. Each had a story. The snippets I heard about their early-on experiences made me wonder how to get these boys re-connected to a world where their potential for harm could be contained.
One day, I was scheduled for a review by the principal (who never liked me to begin with) and as she approached my class, I asked the boys to back me up. As soon as she walked into the room and sat down in the back ready to evaluate me, the boys went into gear. I have never been so tickled as watching them try to help me look good for my boss.
I made every mistake a newbie could. Being called out for 'inappropriate touching' after I shook hands with two new inmates that were brought into my class almost made me sick. One day, I wore a red, orange and black dress-gang colors-and had to wear another teacher's overcoat while I taught. Don't even say the words 'panty lines' to me as my dress and slip failed to cover them one day and I was almost sent home. A fruity bath wash got me called out again by probation officers that said something that smelled like oranges was over-stimulating the boys.
But on this day, the Barrett Boys had my back. "May I read next Teacher Daniel?" one boy with a swastika tattooed behind his ear said. "May I please read after him, ma'am," another said. One gang banger raised his hand and announced," You inspire me to teach." That episode cost me the rest of my Diet Coke. "Don't drink from it first next time," one boy said," your lipstick tastes funny."
Those boys asked me to debate the Illuminati. They introduced me to Wiz Kahlifa, Dr. Dre., Snoop Doggie Dog and even led me to see Tupac in hologram. One song on my teacher computer was the price I paid for a quiet audience on lectures about World War ll, the Cold War or the Holocaust. I introduced them to Einstein, Galileo and the Kennedy influence on our country.
They were the baddest of the bad. "What are you doing here,?" I asked some of them. "Don't acclimate. You do not belong here," I said to so many. "Get out of here and make your mother proud. "Smoked out, locked up or dead" was the response I got when I referred to mothers. Thank goodness grandmothers had stepped in or some of these boys would not stand a chance against a society which feeds on a person's history.
I bless those boys for what they brought to my life. In explaining myself over and over again, I remembered who I was. Texas Baptist will be my defining phrase until I'm done. I don't always do it right but at least I know how to. My people are clean-living Christians. I never saw my mom beat up by her drug dealer as some of my students have.
Everytime they share their horrors, I live them and ask why God let this happen. I think it is to build soldiers with warrior energy that may save us all. I believe our country is in a spiritual crisis. We don't know who or what to believe and our current government is less than inspiring. The church message stays the same. "Fear not," is what my people believe and it is all that I am to stay with that thought.
So many of the detainees fell for the ploy of running drugs across the border. Five thousand dollars was the payoff for having drugs strapped to one's body and successfully evading the border patrol. I could not find one boy who got the payoff. Each was caught on his first run.
I may go back into the tank one day. It would have to be after more training specifically designed for the needs of these young men. A psychology degree would probably be more valuable than more courses in education. It is hard to penetrate the angry barrier that many exhibit. My best guess is that about 40 percent have mental issues. Quite a few told me that they hear voices that tell them what to do. I shudder to think what those voices are saying.
I am Teacher Daniel