When students walk into my class, it can be the first time in too long that they are called by their own first name. The double takes I get show that it can feel unexpected after so many weeks or months going by last names or street names. But using those first names is a subtle insistence that this class is a place where they write — and figure out — who they are individually, separate and apart from gangs, the street and even family.
For many, these classes are a place where students give themselves permission to live — to really live. They set their sights on something more ambitious and plot paths on sturdier ground after so many mistakes. For some, that means recognizing that some of the deepest ties they have in life are with people who helped lead them astray with false promises and poor choices. Recognizing those people, and sometimes cutting ties with them in their writing, can be painful as students write a new future for themselves. Sitting next to other students writing a similar story makes it easier.
Without really noticing at first, students start to regain dominion over their own lives and the space around them, even in a place like juvenile hall. The door is closed on the staff and other boys outside, and the stories they write generally stay among themselves. Friends ask me if it’s stressful managing behavior in the class, but it’s usually the time of the week when I let my guard down the most. When one student acts out, the others take the lead putting him back in line. The class belongs to them.
But even stronger than the bond among students is the attachment between the writers and their work. I recently asked the class to borrow their best pieces to make copies, and the students said we’d have to figure out another way. “Garrett, we love you,” Aeron said, “but these notebooks are our most important things in life. We can’t part with them.”
Garrett Therolf is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. He lives in downtown Los Angeles near the spot where his great-grandparents once lived in tenement housing on Bunker Hill.