Each Tuesday not far from Pasadena where I’ve dropped off my three children to see the day at green and glowing school campuses, I pull off the 110 freeway and roll up to a set of low concrete buildings in the shadows of the county hospital. People brush past, check phones, feed parking meters.
Only today my destination, my hands-down favorite in every week, is surrounded by metal — concertina wire, chain link, heavy steel gates. I stop at one checkpoint to hand over my ID, another for a body scan. I greet familiar security guards, clip on my visitor’s badge, and am inside Los Angeles County Central Juvenile Hall, the oldest facility in our nation’s largest juvenile justice system. Past more tall gates and thick doors that buzz loudly and slam closed with guillotine-like certainty, everything is kind of gray… an expanse of struggling grass, concrete buildings, a basketball court.
Hundreds of other people’s children will see the day, and night, here at “Central.” While I’m inside, some of them will hand me the painful details of their lives, the fears and dreams in their hearts — in writing and in frank conversations. I volunteer with The Beat Within, a program that brings writing workshops to detained juveniles in many states and a few other countries. In Los Angeles, we volunteers visit classrooms, spending an hour in each one to prompt the kind of free, creative writing that asks kids to share — and examine — who they are at their core. Inspired by the chance to see their work printed in one of The Beat’s biweekly publications or just by a spark of an idea, the kids I meet create something remarkable with pencil and lined paper.
Our allotted time falls away with much besides writing, too. The teenagers (actually some as young as 11) squirm or loll in their county-issued uniform of gray sweatshirt and loose black pants. The kids make their unique personalities known. They have a lot of questions: Didjall bring candy today? Why you wanna come here to hang out with us? How old are you, Miss? You know my judge?… I got court tomorrow.
They may have just arrived, stunned and scared, or often they are jaded on their third or fourth lock-up in a cycle of release and “re-offense.” They are all experts on the topics of drugs, street violence, family dysfunction, and the chances that lay ahead for them in the system. We talk about the siblings they miss, favorite foods, career goals, how life could look different after they’re out.
After a noisy thirty minutes in one classroom, a graceful girl named Shyann hands me her jotted work:
I am from violence and forced smiles. From no clean dishes and dirty towels. I’m from blue tears and red blood. From empty kisses and lost hugs. I’m from raise yourself and learn fast. I’m from wear shoes, there’s broken glass. From if it’s yours guard it quick. From defend yourself with balled fist. I’m from keep quiet but talk loud. From do for yourself because no one else will be proud.
I read her words again on my way back out the huge gates toward the green world and think, “I don’t know, Shyann… I’m sure proud of you.” And humbled by your ease with poetry and your self-awareness. And so, so hopeful about what is on the other side of these walls for you.
The Beat Within needs more good listeners to volunteer. Come discuss this program and ways to bring light to kids in juvenile hall on Wednesday, November 12, 7PM – 8:30PM in the Forum.
For more information contact Norma Sigmund: email@example.com or 626.583.2734