Hurting young men put pen to rage

A writing teacher who works with juveniles sees familiar pain in the diary of Eric Harris.

Published October 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week I read excerpts of Eric Harris' diary in Salon. The week before I read the essays and poems and letters of young men doing time in my local juvenile hall. This week, next week, the week after, I will read more of these young men's writing and will, as always, be struck by how complex they are and how their words can tell us everything and nothing about how they feel and who they are.

I am confident, at least as confident as anyone can be, that the 20 or so young men who give me their writing for a juvenile hall newsletter are not capable of terrible, terrible violence. Eric Harris is still a complete mystery to me. But his writing is familiar and haunting.

Every Friday night, I spend a couple of hours teaching, coaching, cheerleading, bribing -- essentially doing whatever it takes to inspire young men in detention to write something for the newsletter, which circulates to other juvenile halls in the area. We -- I and the other workshop leaders -- assure the writers: Spelling doesn't count. Poetry doesn't have to have "thou" or "'tis" to be real poetry. Use your own voice. Write your hopes, your dreams, your fears, your memories, your hates, your truths. Write what's on your mind.

The young men in the hall write free verse about their mothers, their children (at 17, many of them already are fathers) and family -- exalting in the good times with June-moon-spoon types of rhymes. Often, they write laugh-out-loud raps. They tackle a current political situation with the most thoughtful street analysis. They give heartfelt advice to others who are incarcerated, give voice to their dreams of a better life and make poignant vows to leave the vida loca.

Look thru my eyes and see the want; The want to change, but not knowing how to do so. The want to be something other than a statistic, a number, a felon. The want to become a better decision maker for myself, my family, my race Yet somehow I feel trapped in the hands of time, Replaying the same tune like an old record that skips. Trapped.

They can be meticulous in their descriptions of past crimes, enlarging and romanticizing themselves. They are the Robin Hoods of their 'hoods. Their poetry, in particular, can run its cold finger down my spine. It goes unflinchingly into the void:

It's not the thought of dying. It's the thought of being dead. That's the fatal thought I dread. The thought of living underground for eternity. The thought of living underground. With no one to remember me.

"Are you really feeling this way?" I asked Jason, the boy who wrote the poem.

"Sure," he said.

"Really really?"

"Naw," he said. "I'm doing all right."

I wonder. I worry. These young men seem to change week by week, sometimes minute by minute. I am often left questioning what's real and what they put down for shock value. I don't know sometimes if these young men know the difference between the two. They can follow a poem about death with a love letter so gushy and hopeful that I almost blush reading it.

As I look at you from head to toe,

I can tell there's something about you that people don't know.

As I dream of your body next to mine

I still can tell there's something about you that people don't know.

As I dream of rubbing your body down with the sweetest oil

I still can tell there's something about you that people don't know.

As I dream of you kissing me and me kissing you

I still can tell there's something about you that I don't know.

Over time, I have gotten used to their contradictions. They have the remarkable ability to hold fast to two opposing realities with equal passion. The Latino kids write proudly of their commitment to brown pride. They make serious political points about how difficult it is to be a person of color in white America. Then, they end their idealistic pleas for solidarity with vows to "kill every Norteqo." When I point out that the last time I checked, Norteqos also had brown skin, they look at me as if I am nuts. But maybe, just maybe, it makes a dent.

I remember one boy, blue-eyed and quick with the one-liners. On occasion, he wrote a line or two about white power, which made me squirm with discomfort. Still, I couldn't help but enjoy being around him each week. He was so smart and crackled with energy. One night, I saw him looking at me, carefully studying my frizzy brown hair and the map of the shtetl on my face. "You Jewish?" he asked. I took a chance -- You have to choose your "teaching moments" carefully around here -- and told him. "Yes, full-blooded as far back as anyone can remember." I prepared myself for the reaction: taunts, jeers, a cold silence?

I wasn't prepared for a cheer. "My mother is Jewish!" he announced proudly to the entire group. Then he raised a fist into the air: "Dreydl power!"

I figured he was putting me on. He wasn't putting me on. The following week when I brought him a dreydl, he taught his Latino buddies to play "this cool Jewish gambling game."

And just when I think I've heard every possible, convoluted prejudice, someone like Jeremy, a 17-year-old who has been in and out of the hall for years, gets creative. Jeremy is one of the really fine, write-from-the-gut poets in the group. When things are slow and no one else is writing, I can always count on him to whip up a rhyming couplet or two. Last week, he handed me his latest epic:

I want to express how I feel about people changing the English language. People who say "Wolfin" [slang for lying] and other stupid words like that really piss me off. It's the stupidest word I ever heard. People that can't talk right really piss me off.

Harris, too, seemed to have a thing against people who misused English, like those who said "pacific" for "specific." It's almost bizarre how intolerance falls into predictable, and mundane, categories.

"So what do you think of my article?" Jeremy asked.

"I think I understand how you feel," I tried. "You're a writer. Writers respect the language. But you know, not everyone here writes as well as you. They need to feel free to write in the way they feel comfortable."

I decided to stick with only one teaching moment and not point out his own grammatical desecrations. He thought a minute. "Yeah, but they really piss me off." He did, however, seem just a little less pissed off than before.

When I first started coming to the hall, I had readied myself for a steady dose of gloom and doom. I don't have what anyone would call a light and sunny personality. If there's a reason to feel down, I'm usually down with it, claiming it as my own. An evening with mouthy, depressed, powerless, over-empowered, abused and abusive delinquents sounded like a prescription for a weekly crying jag to me.

But Friday nights are often one of the high points of my week. We laugh, we share moments. I typically leave in better spirits than when I arrived. It's not that I'm fooling myself with some save-the-world fantasy. In the big picture of alleviating social ills, I know that I am about as effective as a gnat against the hide of an elephant.

Yet every week, there's something to hold on to. Jeremy tosses off a great metaphor. Someone who has shown no previous signs of life writes a life story that makes me inhale sharply. A young man who has done nothing but blame others, writes: "I can't believe I had forgotten all the things I worked for and all the people who love and care for me." An angry boy who has always filled his paper with violent rants suddenly writes: "I feel sad."

I like setting goals for myself. I often target the boy who is the most resistant to writing, the one who snorts at the mention of writing, the one who makes life miserable for anyone else who is trying to write.

I homed in on Miguel because he is so large and silent, the kind of leader who can change the entire atmosphere of the room just by cracking a smile. He never caused trouble in the workshop; he was more of a passive protester. He just sat there staring down at a blank piece of paper. One week, it dawned on me that maybe he didn't know how to write or he was embarrassed by his spelling. So, I offered to be his personal literary assistant. Nothing. But after three weeks of offering my secretarial services, he finally said, "OK, you write what I say."

I was ready, pencil poised.

"You said get real, so write, 'bitch.'"

I wrote, "bitch." He nodded his approval. The other guys at the table became very interested.

"Write, 'whore.'"

I felt them watching me to see if I would blush or launch into some schoolmarmish snit. I wrote, "whore."

"Write, 'rich cunts.'"

When he was done, we had, I believe, the complete edition of terms for female genitalia in several languages.

"So what am I supposed to do with this?" I asked him.

"Publish it in that newspaper," he said.

I don't know what made me say it, but I did. "Miguel, did you just break up with your girlfriend or something?"

He looked down. He didn't have to say a word. The following week, I sat with Miguel and he dictated a lovely, melancholy homage to his hometown, a place he had not seen since his father abandoned him.

Week after week, the young men come and go. Sometimes, they are released to their families and I never see them again. That's the good news. Others write essays about how they are getting out soon, how they will never, ever be back. Their words are so strong and sincere. We all want to believe them. But for many, juvenile hall is part of the revolving door they call home -- the streets, a group home, the streets, back to the hall and I am reading their words once again.

At first, my part in this pattern used to depress me. Until I realized that this workshop was respite. Here, for a few hours, they can let go of other identities -- gangster, fuck-up, loser, delinquent -- and become writers. Just writers.

Usually, I don't make a point of learning too much about why these guys are in the hall. But six months ago, when a boy named Frank arrived, it was impossible not to know his crime. Every detail of it -- the unbridled anger behind it, the mind-boggling heinousness of it -- was all over the front page of the local paper. Before I even saw him, I knew what he was capable of. I also knew about the crimes that had been perpetrated on him: by his family, by the systems, by living on the streets.

At first, he was a bright-eyed young man who seemed right at home. Two weeks in a row, Frank didn't write anything, but he seemed to enjoy listening to the others.

Then, suddenly, he stopped coming to the workshops. I saw him in the dayroom playing ping-pong and when I approached, he snarled at me. Then, more and more, I saw him sitting off alone by the TV. He seemed to shed every façade, every illusion of hope.

"Don't ask me to write again," he snapped at me one night. "I don't write. It's a mistake I'm in here. My lawyer is going to get me out. Next week, I won't be here. It's a mistake."

The day before, there had been another newspaper article about Frank. The evidence against him was solid. The prosecutor had gotten his way. Frank would be spending at least a year in the hall before his trial. Then, he would be tried and sentenced as an adult.

For several sessions after that, I didn't see him at all. Staff had their reasons for locking him down in his room: He wasn't following the rules, wasn't getting along with the other kids. He mad-dogged everyone, went off at the slightest provocation. He drained the already weary staff of energy and humor. The details of his crime and of his life had leaked out and the other young men were using them against him.

Whenever Frank was out of his room, they taunted him. They began writing poems with thinly veiled references to his shocking life. Of course, I refused to publish them. In Frank, the white, black and brown kids had found an equal opportunity scapegoat.

"I feel bad and everything, but it's chaos when he's around," one staffer, a particularly caring and patient woman, told me. "But he brings a lot of this on himself. I've never met one like him. The other kids, I always see hope. There's a sweetness in them. Frank's different. He's a really scary kid."

A couple of weeks ago, as I was walking across the basketball court into the workshop room, I heard a voice calling me: "Hey, you. Writer lady." I followed the voice to a barred window. I couldn't see him, could only hear him. "I wrote a poem. Read it. Tell me if it'll get in the paper."

Staff allowed Frank to slip the poem under his door and I felt his eyes through the small window as I was reading it. It was jarring, raw, even by juvenile hall standards. "Do you understand?" he asked. "Do you know what I'm writing about?"

I didn't and I did. Taken as a whole, the poem didn't make a lot of sense, but individual phrases -- "luxurious darkness," "untrusting fear," "suffering into emptiness" -- held so much pain that I felt my eyes brim with tears.

Last week when I got to the hall, I was eager to show Frank that his poem had made it to print. Staff wasn't sure I should be allowed to talk to him. For the past few hours, he had been screaming and pounding at the door. The medical staff had placed him on suicide watch. It was a really bad week, a staffer told me. "He's really melting down."

They finally agreed to let me see him because he knew it was Friday night and he had been asking for me. When they unlocked his door, I felt myself recoil involuntarily. Frank was shirtless and folded into a fetal position, his tattoo of a dagger bold on his arm. He was sobbing uncontrollably like only little kids can sob. He was rubbing his eyes with hands that were black and blue, swollen from trying to punch his way out of his room. "Take them! Take all of them!"

Sheets of paper were scattered everywhere.

"Poems! I can write poems all day!"

I felt limp and useless in the face of such misery. I sat on the cement floor of his small room and silently gathered up the papers. It was something to do. I noticed I was holding them gently, as if they would fall apart or explode at the slightest breeze. There were a dozen of them, many decorated with montages of photos clipped from magazines. Pictures of wounded children, a menagerie of skulls, missiles and bombs exploding.

Next to a picture of a man being shot, Frank had written: "This is my thought. A guy getting shot. He must be happy. No more worries." On another paper: "Today, I hope I don't hurt the staff. All I want to do is make them laugh." Next to a picture of a mushroom cloud: "This is my mind in a riot. With all my anger, I shut out the quiet. Why?"

"Why do you do this?" he blurted at me.

"Do what?"

"Write. Why do you tell me to write? I write and it's still there. The pain is still there. Fear! It doesn't go away. What good does writing do?"

That is the question, isn't it? I thought of all the answers that I have given to other kids who have asked this same question, the answer to why I am here on Friday nights. I thought of the answers that I give myself when I wonder why I am spending a good part of my life in front of a keyboard.

I could have told Frank that writing can help sort through the chaos of your own mind. It can bring order to a world that so often feels like it is whirling out of control. I could have told him that in writing, you can be as angry as you want, full of hatred that goes inward and outward. It's better not to hate so much, but if you have to hate, go ahead and hate on paper. Paper doesn't bleed.

I could have told him that writing is a way to say to the world: I exist. And everything I feel, you have felt to some degree at some time in your life. I could have said writing makes you not so alone.

But none of these were the answer that Frank was so desperate to hear. He wanted his writing to save him, to release him immediately. I know that it is possible, but there are no guarantees. He would need to make the leap from ranting to truly writing, from blasting outward to looking inward. It was not time to tell him that he would need more time and that he would feel more pain and more fear.

I didn't know what to say. So that's what I said. "I don't know why you should keep writing. I just know it's what you have right now. So keep writing."

He didn't say anything. He watched me make his papers into a neat pile. "You'll read them?" he asked.

"I'll read them," I said. "And I'll see you next week."

By Jill Wolfson

Jill Wolfson is a co-author of "Somebody Else's Children: The Courts, the Kids, and the Struggle to Save America's Troubled Families," and she reviews books for the San Jose Mercury News. She lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Jill Wolfson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Robin Hood