By Ben Neeser
I teach kids in jail. I don’t know what crimes they committed, and I really don’t care. They don’t know plenty about me, and we all deserve the opportunity to define ourselves by more than one thing we did or one characteristic. I’m more than a white guy; Isaiah is more than a gangbanger.
My typical student is a 17 year-old Latino (sometimes black) male who is appallingly behind his peers. More than you’d imagine. Even Native kids I meet often don’t know anything about how Native Americans came to live in the Americas much less how Columbus “discovered” it and the mad rush that was on after that (lasting to the present day). GED social studies curriculum covers all that. It’s fun to teach. For some reason, even “last ditch effort” kids are often willing to learn from me.
I’m a pretty high energy guy, I have weird facial hair that goes over well with the gen pop, and I put a lot of effort into coming across as approachable to these kids. I talk to them in their language. I share appropriately about myself: giving is usually necessary if you want them to get something back. Many of these kids are hesitant to share. I assume they’ve been let down before. We get to know each other over the weeks and months--four hours per week in two, two-hour sessions.
My job is to help them get their GEDs. The company I work for (Success4Life Tutoring Services) on my evenings and weekends outside of my regular job uses a data-driven approach based on pre-testing, reviewing metrics, and focusing our precious time on what I think will get a kid to pass whichever of the four tests he or she is working on at the time (from easiest to hardest: language arts, social studies, science, math). When our brains get mushy, I indulge whichever educational whims strike them throughout our lessons: “Why do compasses always point north?” “CUZ THE EARTH IS ONE BIG MAGNET, DAWG! Let’s Youtube it!” I consider teaching a Native, hip-hop lyric-writing, music-production-class-attending-kid about pow wow dubstep a reward for completing language arts lessons a job perk.
These are the kids who have always been behind their peers, the ones who reject educational opportunities in whatever form, who were jerks to their teachers, and whom most people don’t want to teach. In a classroom, I’m sure they’re a nightmare. They’re probably sharing air with a rival gang member. They are not going to read out loud. Learning takes vulnerability and trust. One-on-one, these kids crush it. They want me to be proud of them.
When I was new to this gig, I was really intimidated by what I guess I’d call the “shock factor” of going into correctional environments. I remember how I felt reading Miguel’s file and picturing a scary person.
They brought him to meet me in a small conference room with a table and a whiteboard and some children’s toys. I was shocked by how much he looked like a normal kid: 17, not quite right glasses, awkward posture and body language, and a bunch of crappy tattoos that looked like they were probably gang stuff. He was great to work with. Over the weeks, I found him to be a pretty typical 17 year-old kid: unsure of himself, worried about being an adult and standing on his own two feet, focused on girls (his “baby momma”), and all the other things that a 17 year-old is worried about. He was a nice kid. He’d ask me how my day was or followup questions about stuff I’d told him about, and he never failed to caution me to drive home safely from the halfway house they transferred him to, which was WAY up in the mountains of the Central Rockies.
Most of the students whose paths I’ve crossed pass a test or two while they are with me, and then either they get paroled, they age out of the system, or something bad happens. Running is common. Either way, I rarely hear anything of them ever again. My success rate is deplorable if you measure success in terms of “what percent of your students have gotten their GED?” like I do. It really gets me down. Sometimes, the job has a heavy emotional toll for me. Correctional environments are used to house victims of abuse. Kids quit because the barriers of poverty and being a single mom are too much. Etc.
I have a handful of people in my life who occasionally remind me that measuring “success” in this field needs to be more thoughtful than metrics around GED attainment. And it’s true: I try to teach my students how to be curious, pursue growth, and think critically. But even more importantly--as my friends remind me when I’m feelin’ down--I demonstrate confidence in them and help them learn how to be confident in their own abilities. I give them some individualized academic support and a lot of attention and praise and encouragement, and I let them show themselves that they can achieve things that they never thought they could: passing those tests.
Why should people care about someone who committed crimes when there's so much to care about?
What I want to say to you is that there's kids out there who want to break the cycles of hopelessness and abuse and bad decisions that they are trapped in. They’re kids. They’re kids who are owning up to what they’ve done and who just want to get their lives back on track but don’t know how. They need resources. They need educational services that meet them where they are at, and they need caring, sustained relationships with people who can show them what a functional, productive life can look like. They need mentors with whom they can relate and from whom they can learn about how to live an entirely different kind of life.
I think of it as a micro/macro thing: helping these kids is better for them and it’s better for society. And for me, spending my time and energy on the lil’ homies both feels like the right thing to do and it’s fun as hell. One more job perk: I know all the dopest slang.