By Jessica Grande
We live in California where there are more prisons than anywhere in the world, and I have been writing to friends and family in jail since I was 12 years old. I started teaching at Central Juvenile Hall six years ago as an idealistic 26-year-old who believed I could save all my students. I didn’t even know what “fighting your fitness” meant. I thought it meant they did well in physical education. Now, I know that a “fitness hearing” can determine whether one is tried as a juvenile or an adult.
Currently, I write to four students who lost their fitness, were tried as adults and are now serving time in state prisons. When I first met these young men, they were 13 year-olds in Unit GH. One of the students won’t be released until he is 32.
And still, among the heartbreak of long sentences and sadness, I can’t stop going to Central on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I have tried to take breaks, but these classes are what I most look forward to each week. I believe in REDEMPTION, the possibility of CHANGE, and if one student is transformed through writing, I want to be there to witness it!
I am just the facilitator; they are the wordsmiths. My students fight shadows in their subconscious and shed light on lined pieces of paper. Their humanity seeps out and it saves their own lives, as well as mine. I continue to believe in MIRACLES and HEALING because of my students.
I have seen anger become compassion and gang-banging stop at the classroom door. The hardest…become willing to show soft hearts. The confused…realize the prison-industrial complex is not playing when it comes to sentences. The lost…find themselves in a mirror called paper.
And I, the teacher…continue to be the best student by learning from the youth in GH, GC and the Elite Family units.
Jessica Grande was born in El Salvador and raised in Los Angeles. She is a poet and a credentialed 7th grade English teacher at Los Angeles Leadership Academy. She has dedicated her life to working with the children of immigrants and incarcerated youth. For the past eight years, Jessica has used education as a means of empowerment. Jessica holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from UCLA. She has lived and studied dance in El Salvador, Brazil and Mexico.