Program Director at Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program
“We’re bigger than we knew we were when we started teaching.”
Amanda talks about her work with jailed adolescents and the impact she hopes she is having on their lives.
I teach in Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where together with my friend and colleague, I run an arts and literacy program for young people who are locked up. I’ve been there for nearly ten school years. Primarily I teach creative writing and literacy. Our students come to us with very low print literacy skills in general. Young people who are in trouble with the law often, it happens, have very low reading levels.
Because of my family and community and my upbringing, I have a feeling of connectedness to a larger movement. Therefore, I feel that it’s important to think of literacy not only in terms of the ability to read and write, but also in terms of being able to think critically about the world, to be able to become authors of our own futures, to think of ourselves as organizers and people who can critique the society that we live in and change it. I think that has a lot to do with who I am and where I come from, how I came to be a teacher.
More than 90% of our entering students, both boys and girls, have a history of severe abuse or trauma. A huge number of students come to us with diagnosed mental illness, though they won’t receive much if any treatment while in detention.
We see kids who came to detention on very minimal charges, like petty theft or running away from their foster home (often for very good reasons). All our students are between the ages of ten and seventeen years old; our youngest students are ten, and they’re quite little, actually. You see little guys who are ready to crawl into your lap and read Dr. Seuss.
Think about this for a second. Imagine if you were sleeping on a one inch thick vinyl mattress with no sheets and no pillow, in a teeny room with just a little window at the very top that you can’t really see out of, just a slit. A toilet that’s also a sink. Filthy. Where everybody can see you pee and poop. Basically no privacy. You’re living and sleeping in those conditions.
Then you add to that the incredible emotional duress of being frequently in Family Court, finding out that your parents or your grandparents are going to lose custody of you because of some domestic dispute or worrying that you’re about to go to prison for a long time, some of them for the rest of their lives. This is emotional stress that teenagers, let alone ten-year-olds, are just not prepared for. And all this with no support.
You see a lot of really severe depression. You see a lot of girls who just can’t even bring themselves to talk because they’re so freaked out and scared. And for all those reasons, it’s an extraordinarily bad idea to put kids in jail. It’s just an appalling idea. It doesn’t help them change, even for people who’ve done terrible things; it doesn’t help them reconcile with the terrible thing they’ve done or get help with their psychological problems.
Many times a young person has been used in the commission of a crime, by an adult, by a predatory person. Or a young person has been prostituted by an older male, and now we have girls 12 and 13 years old locked up for this, when they are the victims of trafficking. Who would not be traumatized?
We try to provide a safe haven and a space for learning and for self-exploration and for connection in a very difficult and traumatizing environment. It’s even traumatizing for me. I don’t ever want to make this about myself, but as a teacher, the hardest thing about my job is just the physical conditions. The physical conditions of a very unhealthy building with no fresh air, no windows, a lot of bad germs. Guards every five feet in the hall.
Before working at the detention center, I went to South Africa and became interested in working with prisoners. It was a sobering time. Everyone I spoke to for months had been tortured in prison in South Africa or Zimbabwe or Mozambique. So my job was to interview those people and capture their stories. It was part of the continued work after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
So in a way, it’s very similar kind of work to the work I’m doing now. The principle of the project is that people can, through telling their stories, connect with a larger story of humanity, history. They can see themselves as not being isolated and alone but rather transformed in community with others– to understand that it wasn’t just me that this terrible thing happened to, but that it’s part of a bigger experience.
To think of it in a political way rather than in a just a personal way; to be able to ask, “Well, what are we going to do to transform this society so that people don’t get tortured anymore or that people don’t get put in prison for fighting for freedom or for doing the right thing?”
Here, it’s very similar. Maybe our students weren’t in prison because they were leading a freedom struggle–not usually, anyway, but it helps for them to start to understand themselves, in a Freirian way, as part of a community, as part of an oppressed social group. That they’re not in jail only because they stole a Snickers bar or because they ran away from their abusive foster family, but also because they’re black, also because they’re poor.
We think there is value in respecting our students’ autonomy and helping them to remember that they can make choices in a place where all those really essential identity choices have been taken away. We have to offer a lot of opportunities for choice making, to give kids a sense that we respect them and their choices.
It’s about the capacity that each of our students has to connect with other people, to heal, and to transform their own sense of selves so that they’re not being defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done, but rather by the things they’re capable of, that maybe they didn’t know they were capable of before.
Finding out that you’re actually a good writer is a powerful thing if you’ve never known you were good at anything before. We take it seriously and we expect them to think of themselves as writers. It’s really about the human relationships and the transformation of human relationships.
What’s the Goliath we face?
I think the extreme poverty of our public schools is one of the most evil and terrible things in our society. The prioritization of war and spending on every other thing except schools and those institutions that support young people. I would say that’s our Goliath.
We’ve got our priorities all screwed up. We’re willing to put so much money and resources into locking up kids, but we can’t seem to find the money to pay teachers adequately or to keep schools open in the evenings or to provide enough food for people.
I think on a deeper level, challenging racism is really the work of challenging Goliath, because those policies and practices have all come from really deep-seated ideas about who deserves to be educated and who deserves access to healthcare and who deserves treatment if they’ve become addicted to drugs and who doesn’t. Or who deserves treatment if they’ve been victimized and who doesn’t.
Racism is so big, powerful, deep inside of all of our consciousness, and at the same time, it doesn’t have to be scary or impossible. We can start funding public schools equally in the state of Illinois. That would be a huge start. So for me, being inside of the detention center is part of challenging the structures that give me privilege as a white person. I think the work feels meaningful because it is grounding my values in everyday practice.
I think I’ve learned the most about being in it for the long haul from my parents. Because they’ve been in it for the long haul, they don’t hesitate, they’re not afraid of struggle, they’re not afraid of sacrifice or hardship, but they also find work for justice and movement-building fun and interesting. This isn’t scary, you don’t have to be a scaredy-cat. They said to me, What’s going to happen to you in the detention center? Go, learn some stuff. Keep your mouth shut, don’t judge everybody until you’ve been there for a while.
I had a kid last year who was put on what they call Thirty-Six Hours. She was in isolation for 36 hours in her room for fighting, and a boy who had never met her before stayed in his room for 36 hours and read to her an entire novel through the floor tiles. You know? If he can do that, I should be able to put up with some crappy days. [Laughs]
As freaked out as I was at first, and I was really scared at first — I got a lot of nurturing and support –but I also got a lot of kicks in the pants from them. Like: Okay, enough self-pity, this isn’t about you. Get back to work. What are you excited about, why are you doing this? Don’t do it if you don’t want to do it. It’s hard to be whiny when you’re around people who have such a sense of commitment and fierceness and who’ve experienced so much and who’ve seen so much transformed.
I think of what my grandfather and grandmother did. I’m kind of in awe of them. I think of my grandfather walking across the Pyrenees in his teens to go fight fascism in Spain. I think, What have I done with my life? I’m teaching kids in the juvenile detention center. My life’s not in peril; I live in a very nice apartment. I don’t give up all my life’s pleasantries and goodness for the cause of ending youth incarceration, for instance. I think it’s something to reckon with.
I have to have a feeling of purpose on this earth that is my own. I do. If I didn’t have that, how would I even function? I just found out that one of my students is about to get sent to prison for sixty-three years, after I’ve taught her for five years every day. Sixty-three years in prison. And now I’m supposed to make some sense out of that on my own? What does that even mean?
So from a philosophical perspective, I feel like it’s clear that we have to know going into the classroom, we have to know what we believe about ourselves and about the world. We have to keep engaging that way as philosophers and pedagogues, not just as paper- pushers, not just collecting this student’s work and grading it, but really trying to continue making meaning all the time, together with our students and with our colleagues and with our families.
I’m bigger than I knew I was when I started, and I can hear more than I thought I could, and I can connect with more people than I thought I could. I have the capacity to understand more than I thought I could. I definitely feel like we have a responsibility and obligation to make a contribution toward social change, toward equality, toward justice, and teaching is my way to contribute.
And it’s an exciting time to do that. I think it’s just such an incredible moment to be a teacher. I mean, look at what’s happening! It’s so cool.
So, as my mother often tells me, put on your big girl pants and go get yourself back to work.
Amanda went on to lead a district-wide initiative at Chicago Public Schools, to support young people in returning to school after detention or incarceration. She is now a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She plans to return to Chicago and to work for increased access to education for people who have been detained or incarcerated.
See also my interview with Amanda’s father, Michael Klonsky.
My interview with Mike’s wife, Susan Klonsky, is forthcoming.