Whenever the Senior Detention Service Officer visits my class, she reminds the girls that their incarceration isn’t permanent. Some face more time than others, but eventually they’ll be released. I often wonder if it’s hard for the girls to envision getting jobs and housing, attending school, fitting in with people who have no idea what it’s like to be locked up.
I started a voluntary exchange between my IOW class at Central Juvenile Hall and my creative writing class at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. Every week, each class responds to a topic that the other class generated. Topics have ranged from “new beginnings” to “love at first sight” to “he said I’m nothing without you.”
Often people ask me about the differences in the pieces. After all, what can girls in juvenile hall have in common with artsy, privileged kids from the Westside? Misty expressed frustration: “Sometimes I don’t understand what [the Crossroads students] mean, and they’re not here for me to ask. So, it just bothers me.” The Crossroads students’ pieces can be abstract and esoteric; the IOW students’ pieces tend to be raw and intense.
But both are wonderful. My goal is for students — be they from Crossroads or juvenile hall — to look past each other’s differences to identify and empathize with the emotion at the heart of another person’s writing. I hope Crossroads kids will understand that young people in the system are, in fact, kids. I hope the girls in IOW will know they can be accepted.
“[Crossroads students] see how we feel and where our minds are at, and we see where their minds are at and how they feel,” explains Janesha. “Whatever we say, they respect that, and we also do the same cause it’s a two-way street.”
One of the first things Alan did after moving to LA was to get involved with IOW. He first learned of the program in Colorado of all places, where he taught an alumnus at the Eagle Rock School. Alan’s writing has appeared in The Sun, Gulf Coast, American Literary Review and The Los Angeles Review, and has been rejected by many other fine publications.