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October 1, 1997

I Walk with Delinquents

To tough kids in terrible places—as to all kids—we must convey the message "You can change your life."
<POEM><POEMLINE>You felons on trial in courts,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>You convicts in prison-cells, you sentenced assassins chain'd</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>and handcuff'd with iron,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Whom am I too that I am not on trial or in prison?</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Me ruthless and devilish as any, that my wrists are not chain'd</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>with iron, or my ankles with iron? . . .</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Inside these breast-bones I lie smutch'd and choked,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Beneath this face that appears so impassive hell's tides</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>continually</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>run . . .</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>I walk with delinquents with passionate love,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>I feel I am of them—I belong to those convicts . . . myself,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And henceforth I will not deny them—for how can I deny myself?</POEMLINE>—From Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman</POEM>
I have walked with delinquents myself these past several years. I am a volunteer teacher in the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, the notorious Audy Home, where I watch, listen, question, sometimes participate, always record what is going on.
The Juvenile Court of Chicago is the oldest court for children in the world. It was founded in 1899 by Jane Addams and the energetic, hopeful women of Hull House, who were convinced that "the existing court procedure has not fitted a child's needs" (Ayers 1997). The court, they proposed, was to act as a "kind and just parent" toward children in crisis. Today, the Audy Home houses more youngsters under lock and key than any facility in the world, and the court struggles with the massive numbers of families and children who come through the doors and grapples with the crushing complexity of the problems they bring. What I hope to add to the large discussion of youth and crime and punishment are the voices of young people themselves.
Kind and just parents—and many judges and teachers and case workers in the court today fit the description perfectly—are both firm and fair, compassionate and demanding. They try to see each child as unique, each with a distinctive face and set of circumstances, sacred and brimming with possibility. Although it is often difficult to do—and almost impossible when overwhelmed with numbers and starved for resources—kind and just parents, even in this saddest of places, resist one-dimensional, connect-the-dots approaches to guiding and teaching children.

Mirror of Myself

Most of the juvenile delinquents I meet are mirrors and shadows of my own three adolescent boys—the occasional tough-guy swagger, the posturing, the surprising sweetness and shyness, the illusion of indestructibility, the normal narcissism.
I walk with delinquents, and, not surprisingly, I also run into myself constantly. In part this personal confrontation is in the nature of teaching. Intensely collaborative and rapport-driven, teaching changes teachers; we are forever being shaped and remade and humanized in our relations with our students.
But in another sense, like Whitman, I feel I am one of them spiritually. And more: they provoke intimate memories, some long forgotten, of a boy who today would almost certainly be labeled "at risk" or worse. In a particular moment, caught in a specific snapshot, I fit the description: peer-influenced, gang-involved, drug-abusing, entangled in criminal and violent activity. The only missing dimensions of the stereotype are that I was born neither poor nor black. That means, in our predictable structures of privilege and oppression, that I was offered a second chance, a third chance, an opportunity to recover. Today we are denying our youth—those who commit crimes, certainly, but also huge numbers of children born into poverty and isolation—the way up and out of a life of scripted failure.

Lord of the Flies?

An angry backlash against the young is loose in the land. Influenced by our fear of crime and economic insecurity, and whipped by demagoguery, we have coined the term "superpredators"—children without motive or conscience or mind or soul. The popular impression is that youth crime is a runaway train—reckless, out of control, unpredictably dangerous, picking up speed as it careens down the track toward our town or neighborhood. We read about teenagers being "wild in the streets" and of a "ticking demographic time bomb," the 3-year-olds of today morphing overnight into tiny monsters in sneakers, creating Lord of the Flies (Golding 1954) on a massive scale.
The truth is more complicated. In fact, youth crime has been relatively flat over decades. Youth murder is up, it's true, but why? Access to guns. What would have been a terrible incident 20 years ago—I hit another kid with a baseball bat and broke his leg—is now too often fatal. Today the impulsive kid can get a gun.
I have asked kids I have come to know in court how long it would take to get me a gun if I gave them $200. The response is uniform: "Two hundred dollars? How many you want?" I could have three or four handguns by sundown.
While each instance of youth-on-youth violence is alarming, the hidden, terrible truth is that most murder victims under 18 are killed by adults. In 1994, 70 percent of the murderers of children were adults. And it is six times more likely that a parent will kill his or her teenage child than the other way around.
Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote his first novel as a student in 1958. Published in English in 1996 as Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, it draws our attention to the cruel context in which we adults too often place the young. He tells the story of a small band of juvenile delinquent boys who are evacuated during wartime to a remote mountain village. The superstitious and cruel inhabitants fear and hate the boys, and when the fear of plague erupts, the villagers flee in the night, abandoning the boys, who are barricaded inside the village to die. There, outside of time, the boys try to build a community of self-respect and love. The narrator—a boy who had been sent to a reformatory for stabbing a schoolmate and who escaped, was recaptured, and sent again—describes a time when maddened adults ran riot in the streets and demonized and locked up the young. Oe goes through the looking glass, and thereby turns on its head the Lord of the Flies view of the evil nature of children and childhood.

An American Gulag

Centuries ago, Jonathan Swift offered proper English society "A Modest Proposal" to end "the Irish problem" in England. Tongue firmly in cheek, he cheerily proposed to round up and eat all the Irish infants, thereby nipping poverty and street begging in the bud.
The modest proposals working their way through Congress and several state legislatures today target the poor as well. They describe other people's children as feral, presocial youngsters who, they say, raise themselves on the streets. This is often racially coded language, conjuring up images of young African-American men preying on decent people. The stereotype permits treating 13-year-olds, 10-year-olds, even 7-year-olds as adults. In this sense, we are quickly returning to the practices of the 19th century, thrusting youngsters into adult courts and prisons where they are preyed upon sexually, physically hardened, and destroyed.
Yet in truth, headline-grabbing youth crimes account for less than 1 percent of all juvenile delinquency; 6 in 10 juveniles tried as adults are nonviolent offenders. Once in prison, however, juveniles are twice as likely to be beaten or to commit suicide, and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted. Ironically, get-tough proposals contribute to rising crime rates. Those young people who survive adult prison have higher recidivism rates than kids who are charged with similar offenses but are supervised in juvenile courts (Ayers 1997).
States that vigorously advocate automatically transferring children as young as 13 to adult courts without a juvenile hearing are already creating a peculiarly American gulag for the poor. Denying judges the opportunity to examine the specific circumstances and problems of each case, then opening confidential records that are certain to close doors when disaffected youngsters struggle to reintegrate into society, is often an economic death sentence. It guarantees a growing population that is hurt, hopeless, and angry.

Still a Child

Following any human being two steps into the life that person lives obliterates simple-minded stereotypes. LeMarque, charged with a gun offense, is an astute commentator on guns and politics: "If they don't want us to have guns, why they making guns? Kids don't make guns." Ito, his classmate, is in a gang, but also in the throes of first love: "I love you, Tina," he writes, "for what I am when I am with you. I love you for drawing out into the light my beauty, that no one had looked quite hard enough to find." They struggle to live beyond the worst things they ever did.
We should refine our standard and ask, what if this were my child? Personalizing our approach to juveniles does not mean that actions or behavior should have no serious consequences. But it does mean that children who break the law will return to society some day, and that recovery must be one of our central goals. It reminds us that our efforts must include cleaning up their environment—removing adult-controlled toxic elements like guns and drugs; waging a sustained struggle to provide decent schools, productive work, and community centers to support and challenge them; engaging their capacities, hopes, and dreams. A child in crisis, a child in trouble, is still a child.
During my stay in juvenile court, I have found my own compass as a parent, citizen, and teacher. As a parent I see my own children. As a citizen, I worry about my own safety and how society can protect me while imposing no unnecessary pain on individuals. And as a teacher, I find a familiar rhythm and a powerful focus. I learned long ago in my own classroom that if I treat kids like hoodlums and thugs they will rarely disappoint, but if I treat them as scholars and ethicists, valued and valuable, they can just as easily stretch and grow into people of values.
Just as we had to rewrite the history of slavery once we found the testimony of ex-slaves and took it seriously, I hope we will listen carefully to the voices of youth in crisis. Without that testimony, our work will be inaccurate.
LeMarque, Ito, and the others remind me again and again that teachers must convey this message: You can change your life. With effort and struggle, this message might reach our best work with all children, even tough kids in terrible places.

Ayers, W. (1997). A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court. Boston: Beacon Press.

Golding, William. (1954). Lord of the Flies. New York: Coward-McCann.

Oe, K. (1996). Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. New York: Grove Press.

Whitman, W. (1900). Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: D. McKay.

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