Holidays in the Halls
The holidays are filled with emotional highs and lows that serve as memorable placeholders for the rest of our lives. Most of us do our best to treasure what we have, though we often obsess about what we do not.
This feeling is intensified in the insulated and isolated world of L.A. County juvenile halls. The IOW teachers who enter these facilities once or twice a week note a range of observations about student morale during the holiday season. Yet all their comments remain in the same, limited spectrum – depressing. Gina Loring, who has taught for over two years said, “The energy of frustration, sadness and unhappiness from many of the students is year-round.” IOW Case Manager and alum, Jimmy Wu stated a definite difference, “The worst three days being locked up are always the same – your birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas.” I asked current students at Central about these two observations and was given a direct answer, “You wouldn’t notice during the day, Miss. The crying happens at night.”
Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season and the reality of being locked up is layered with additional notes of frustration and regret. There is just enough “normal” disruption in the students’ daily schedule to reinforce that they are in a place that is anything but normal. Classes are not in session; some units watch holiday-themed movies and students overhear staff talking about their own plans for the season. Time, which already moves at a glacial pace, comes to a tortuous standstill. Students reflect on the absence of freedom and family, which ultimately leads to reflection on how their own actions have led them away from both. From the perspective of many students, even a troubled home is more of a home than juvenile hall, and the overwhelming majority of students miss their homes and family, no matter how damaged or broken.
Attempting to fill the void, religious charities sing Christmas carols and mass is held on Christmas morning. Probation staff ramps up programming and invites celebrity guests, holds special events and issues holiday themed meals. The supervising staff in each unit has the option of doing something a little special for the holidays. Other volunteer organizations seek to do more but the traditions of the season clash with juvenile hall rules and policies in place for the safety of staff and students. Few items are approved as gifts and nothing can be wrapped. Though school is out, the kids still stick to a timed schedule that can’t be disrupted without advanced approval.
IOW believes the best thing our teachers can do is show up. The majority of those who remain in town during the holidays opt to teach their class. One teacher, Ken Mirman, created a cherished memory in the girls unit where he teaches by sharing a meal with them on Thanksgiving. Each December, IOW provides a mini-comp book and candy to all students. This year, thanks to a generous donation by IOW teacher Noel Anenberg, we will also be able to provide a paperback book to our long-term students.
Still, the staff often leaves with the same feeling as volunteers: It’s not enough. The students are the first to counter this sentiment. So many have been raised on “not enough” that they appreciate any considerate gesture. It is not a cheery thought, but it is humbling in a way that can be uplifting and affirms the decision to go into the halls on another Thanksgiving, on another Christmas and throughout another year.
-Leslie Diane Poston