Dear Concerned Mother

My writing students in juvenile hall -- addicts, thieves, gangbangers -- have great parenting advice. All you have to do is ask.

Published November 26, 2001 8:05PM (EST)

It was a Friday evening, and my 15-year-old son and I were at each other's throats. Most of the time these days, he is what my Yiddish-speaking grandmother used to call "farbissen" -- sharp and sulky. He can find fault with the sky just by looking up. Between us, nothing is not an issue: his room, his grades, his behavior around the house, his friends. I harangued him a little more, let him get in the last word and headed out the front door, fuming.

On Friday nights, I run a writing class at the local juvenile hall. Most weeks, I am unrelentingly earnest with the incarcerated boys. I sweep in with my papers and books, and commence acting like everybody's dotty but ultimately harmless aunt. I wax poetic about the healing powers of writing. I show them intriguing words in the dictionary as if I am pointing out jewels. I gush over their work, frequently some of the most funny, sad, troubling, surprising, insightful and silly bits of writing you can imagine.

But when I was buzzed into the hall that night, I felt sapped. I had not one iota of patience left for mankind -- especially mankind of the 15-year-old, wispy mustache, smart mouth, smelly feet variety.

"It's been a real full-moon day here," a weary-looking staffer said. Great, I thought, just what I need to cap off the week -- a room full of moody, pissed off, sullen gang members, addicts and thieves. My class would be smaller than usual since many of the young men had had their evening privileges revoked and were locked down in their cells. Participation in my writing program is considered a privilege, though you wouldn't have known it by the response I got when I greeted the half-dozen writers-in-waiting.

"Oh no! I'm not gonna write. Why should I write?" said Josh, a handsome boy who likes to dabble in White Power philosophy.

A young man who calls himself J-Money greeted me in his usual taunting manner. "I'm gonna write about being down for my gang. I'm gonna write about bitches and pussy. "

"I have nothing to write about!" complained a boy nicknamed Storm. Storm and I often joke about how I -- as much as anyone in his life -- have watched him grow up, from a scared and scrawny 14-year-old street kid to a broad and buff 17-year-old with a huge dagger tattooed on his forearm. Storm, who always claims to have nothing on his mind to write about, is scheduled to stand trial as an adult for a well-publicized murder.

Soft-spoken, pasty-faced Gabe is another boy I often worry about. That night, I noticed fresh white bandages wrapped around his wrists. In juvenile hall parlance, Gabe is what is referred to as a cutter. No matter how frequently and thoroughly the staff searches him and his cell, he always manages to squirrel away a razor, a staple, the point of a pen, anything capable of carving into his flesh. Gabe also happens to be a remarkable and prolific poet. But even he was now determined to put me through the ringer: "I'm not writing tonight. That's final."

Without comment, I passed out paper and pencil and announced the evening's topic: Fear.

"What is your definition of fear?" I asked. "What are you afraid of? How do you handle your fears?" I tried putting some oomph into my voice -- "Be honest. Get real with your words" -- but even to my own ears I sounded flat and uninspired.

They didnt even give the topic a halfhearted try. J-Money, the king of posturing, wrote, "I ain't afraid of nothin'." Storm dashed out one poorly spelled sentence, "I'm afraid of Ben Laden and Anthrix," before pushing his paper aside. For most everyone else in the country, this would be a perfectly valid answer. But for Storm, I knew it was bullshit. He knew I knew it was bullshit. When you are 17 years old and looking at the probability of spending the next 25 years in San Quentin, even terrorism is a comfortable abstraction, a way of running from the truth.

Normally, I would have attempted to move the boys, word by word, into examining their past, present and future. But I just couldn't muster the energy to steamroll over any more adolescent negativity. When I threw up my hands, it was not just at them, but at all teenage boys, especially the one who lived in my house.

"So don't write," I said. "Just sit here and give me a lot of crap. Waste your time."

I couldn't believe I was saying this. I knew I sounded vaguely hysterical. They stared, trying to figure out whether this was some new kind of motivational trick that I had up my sleeve. Josh finally decided that my funk was for real. "Whooo! Mama! What's the matter with you today?"

"Nothing." I said. This time, I was the one who was petulant, slumped in my chair like I didn't have any bones.

"Something's bugging you. Come on."

"Problems with my son," I pouted. "You're not interested."

But I could tell by the sudden buzz of alertness in the room that they were, in fact, extremely interested. I have always made it a point to leave my own moods at the thick metal door when it slams behind me. I figure that these kids have enough problems of their own -- heroin addiction, incompetent public defenders, raging hormones, girlfriends who don't write, homeboys who have ratted them out, staff members who are always on their case -- without having to endure mine.

But now, why not? So I laid it all out, the full banquet of bad grades and self-destructive attitudes. I even mentioned that I had found a pipe in my son's room the week before and it scared me.

"That's what my fear is," I confessed. "I'm angry at him a lot, but I'm also afraid for him, the choices he's making."

A boy named Bobby smirked the entire time and I felt like smacking him. "Uh-oh," he said, "The Writing Lady's son be smoking the weed, doing the doob, getting high. He's gonna be in here before long. Don't worry, Writing Lady, we'll take good care of him."

"Thanks a million, Bobby," I said sarcastically. But then, Josh jumped to my defense. "Shut up, Bobby, what the fuck you saying? Don't you see this is serious?"

And then, in imitation of every psychologist who had ever interviewed him for court, Josh leaned in and looked at me with earnest, intelligent eyes: "Just don't go nagging him. Nag, nag, nag. That's what's drove me crazy with my mom."

"So what I am supposed to do?"

"Back off him like my mom finally did me. He'll get it on his own."

I mulled this over. "I don't mean any disrespect, Josh. But you've got a serious drug problem and your life isn't exactly doing so hot. I'd rather he doesn't wind up in here while he's figuring things out for himself. "

A half-dozen voices joined in with comments. I had never seen all of them so charged up at once before. It dawned on me then how I am the one always dishing out advice to them, not just about synonyms, but about how to deal with drugs, how to do better in school, how to make productive use of the endless hours they spend alone in their cells. The pattern is the same with all the adults in their lives, from parents to probation officers.

But how often are these young men -- so often scolded and lectured, so often in the wrong -- asked for their advice? How often do guys with names like Storm and J-Money get asked what they think, what they know about the world? How often do they get to give their expertise? And on the subject of troubled, uncommunicative teens, they are definitely the experts.

"Let's scrap writing about fear," I suggested. "Instead, let's pretend you are all advice columnists in the newspaper and I have written to you with my problem. What would you tell me?"

With little coaxing, they got to work. A half hour later, they read their columns aloud. I sat in my chair and let their answers wash over me. Their opinions, like a lot of their writing, reflected a desperate eagerness to be heard and to help. I felt their support and their solace. I could see their pasts, so much of what was right and so much of what was wrong. In their words, I also got some meaningful and some seriously twisted parenting advice.

A quiet 15-year-old named Omar spoke for the first time ever in class: "Dear Concerned Mother. You got to do something with him. I used to think nobody should tell me nothing. But now that I'm a dad myself, I tell my girlfriend we got to draw some lines with my son. My mom never drew lines and look at me. Don't listen to what Josh says. You should take things away from him. Lock him in his room. Ground him. Slap him across the back of the head if you have to."

At that, Gabe shouted "No!" I don't know the details of Gabe's family life. He never writes directly about it, but I once asked a staff person who replied, "Anything awful you can think of has been done to that boy by his parents."

"Whatever you do," he read from his paper, "don't, don't, don't hit him. That's child abuse. Hitting will only make a kid more frustrated and scared. That's a reason kids run away."

Others continued:

Dear Concerned Mother,

I feel that your son can't talk to you because of the way you react. You must be judging him. Lecture him but don't ever hit him. At the same time, tell him that it's his life and he has to do what he wants. If he makes the right choice, let him know. If he makes the wrong choice, ask him what he has learned from it. His choices will be a learning experience. If he has to learn the hard way, so be it!

Dear Concerned Mother,

Treat your son with respect. Buy him anything he wants. Don't yell at him. Don't hit him.

Dear Concerned Mother,

It's not your fault that your teenager is like that. He's going through a state where he thinks he's this person, but he's not -- if you know what I mean. You could try to help but he'll just turn it down. He probably doesn't feel comfortable talking to you because he thinks you don't understand. Get to know him. Study the way he is and then get him to trust you.

Dear Concerned Mother,

He's going to try drugs. That's just the way it is. You could put him in sports to occupy his time. When I was playing football, I didn't have time for drugs. That was before I messed up and landed here.

Dear Concerned Mother,

Don't take him to a therapist. God forbid! He'll just sit there. It'll go in one ear and out the other.

Dear Concerned Mother,

Don't lock him in his room and duck tape the door shut like my step-mother used to do.

When it was Storm's turn, he began:

Dear Concerned Mother,

Your kid probably has a lot of stress right now. In elementary school, he only had one teacher and one class, right? Now he's got six classes and six teachers who are on him all the time. That's hard on a kid. Give him some space. You need to point out when he's doing something good -- not just when hes messing up or only if he gets straight A's or wins the whole damn science fair.

And don't throw him against a wall and then throw him out of the house. Thats what my dad did and how I wound up on the streets.

Oh yeah, and take him places. Take him miniature golfing. Have fun with him. You don't want your kid to learn from other people because he'll learn to steal and do things like that. You want him to get as much fun from YOU as he can. Tell him to dress punk and then say, "Guess what? We're going to a concert, you and me." I would have liked my mom to do something like that.

When Storm got to the end of his advice, he looked away sheepishly, caught with his tough-guy demeanor down. "But that's just my opinion," he added.

The writing workshop was over. They handed in their papers and left me with a lot to think about. Josh stayed behind for a few minutes.

"Good luck with your son," he said. "Did it help?"

"I think so. Yes, it definitely did."

"I got one more question for you. Does your son have a dad?"

I nodded yes and recalled what Josh had told me about his own father, how he "runs a prison." I knew Josh didn't mean that his dad is the warden. A longtime con, his father is the one who calls all the shots -- from drug dealing to revenge killings -- among the prisoners.

"Is he like a regular dad who does stuff with him? Baseball and shit like that?"

"Yes," I say.

"Well, you don't have to worry then." He patted me lightly on the shoulder, a wise old soul reassuring someone just getting her feet wet in the teenage parenting business. " Maybe he's doing some wild shit now. But hang in. Anyone who's got you and a dad around is going to be OK. "

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.

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