As I came in on Thursday, I had a lot swimming in my mind. I was thinking about the kid I kicked out. As per my personal rules, if I kick a kid out, he is out the day after. I was contemplating keeping him out for the week.
About 20 years ago, I was studying Confucianism thanks to an old Native American friend (he also introduced me to the beauty of sushi). A scholar from the Ming Dynasty wrote at the time “To go too far, is just as bad is not going far enough.” Was it unjust to keep him out? Was it being weak to let him in given the chances of him coming back with disruption on his mind. He was charismatic. The kids in the hall could follow him.
I checked into the building in a slight haze. As I got in they informed me that today was the last day. I had mistakenly thought it went all week like last years camp. It was not like last year. It rattled me more than I thought. I had plans for them on Friday and now, it was NOT to be.
One of the weirder things about jails and juvenile halls is the sterile nature of the place. The fluorescent lights, peanut butter walls, white walls- they numb you out. Kinda depressing, I can't lie.
So, I came in and I just wrote something on the board:
KING= Your goal.
Strategy= What tools (pieces) will you need to make it happen?
Checkmate= You win/ Victory!
They read it as they came in ready to go. I shook their hand as they entered. The energy was upbeat.
“This is my last day y’all. I did not plan for it to be like this. I thought I would be here till Friday- but I’m out. So, rather than get caught up with a lot of philosophy, let me just say that I loved being with you guys. I don’t know if any of this will stick but I hope you liked learning from me and I hope you liked the games you played.”
They were all sad. “ Aww man that’s weak.” one of them said.
“ I know, but look. Let me just run through some for attack strategies and lets jump on the boards. The main thing I want you to know is you are all brilliant. Your wisdom is not the issue. You are all brilliant. I just want you to get out, stay out and live well.”
We went over knight for puzzles. I was a stickler for ensuring they answered everything algebraic notation. They did it. Then we jumped into some games. It was fantastic.
One Latino student who I taught some moves to, who beat me after I gave him some pointers had blood in his eyes when he sat at the board. We went hard. I got him 3 games straight. He smiled at the end of class and was like. I’m gonna get you tomorrow” smiling wide as we shook hands.
A kid standing behind me said “He’s not coming back it's over.”
His smile went away and he shook his head. You could tell he was running some internal dialogue.
“These were great games man. Great games” I said.
After my break I went into the next class. I wallked in a little early. My classroom was not open. I stood in the pod looking around. One of the kids rooms was dark (they choose if they want their light on or not). In the blackness of the room and glare of the window I could see two eyes lasered in on my face. It was one of my students. He saw me see him inside the darkness. I smiled and nodded. Gave him two thumbs up. He smiled and nodded back. It started to bother me that he was in a cage. That he was in a cage and could still smile, gave me an odd sense of hope though. I’m still not sure what it was all meaning to me.
As I greeted them, the boy who I had issues with walked in. Head up, super proud. I greeted him and shook his hand. He shook my hand but his eyes were emotionally cold. I could tell though that the sincerity of my smile and energy of my greeting caught him off guard.
I quickly told them this was the last day. I was giving some final motivational words. The SAME kid who I just let back in was talking. I politely asked him to stop once, then twice. The third time I turned to him and approached his desk.
“Come on man” I asked in a pain inflicted tone. “You just got back. I’m chillin’. You know it’s my last day. Are you really going to do this right now. You’re just gonna come in knowing it’s my last day and cool out in the back of the room talking with you boy? Why would you do that?
Before he could respond the kid who I smiled at through the blackness cut in.
“You gotta forgive him. He does not understand plain words. You gotta look at him in his eyes and be like ‘N*** SHUT THE F*** UP!’ a he will chill out.”
The room chuckled, and the kid continued. “Nah seriously, you know how when kids are born their heads are shaped bad. He’s one of those. You gotta massage his head and form it so he can hear you.” More snickers came out across the room.
I looked at Tats and I said “Is that what I gotta do? Help me understand. Because I feel like you are totally disrespecting me right now- and I don’t get it.”
Tats smiled a sincere smile. He said “Look I don’t mean any disrespect to any teacher. Especially to any OG. I respect you OG. I do. I respect all the teachers here.”
Then in a millisecond his face changed. He looked up at the lights and it seemed like he was no longer talking to me. It was like he was standing in the room looking back at himself “At the same time, I’m a man too OG. I’m a man!” he cried out in passion- not anger. “I do my push-ups in the room. I do my crunches. I do my jumping backs. I’m kinda small but I’m gettin bigger. I’m a man.” The guys in the room fell out laughing. Their laughter took him out of his trance. He smiled and laughed a little too. “I know I sound crazy. But I’m serious though.”
I realized in that moment that his issues were not really with me. His issue was he was torn between the boy who was evaporating and the man who was emerging. He was unsure if I told him to be quiet and he did it- was he being weak in a space where being weak made you a target?
“OK. I respect you as a man” said without hesitation. “But I don’t feel like we need to get all into it just to get through a class. These guys are trying to learn too. When you interrrupt, you are taking away from their time, and your time. That’s all I’m saying” I stated with a slight shrug of the shoulders and my palms turned up to the ceiling.
“I got you OG. I’m chillin’” he said sitting back and nodding.
The class went onto to be the best of the week. He played in the best game of the week. It see sawed back and forth between he and another kid. In the end he lost but the game was so epic the whole room was laughing and joking and yelling.
Turns out, Tats was a incredible rapper and dropped some heavy verses before class was out. He shook my hand before he went back to his cell. The kids were all wishing I could come back. I feel the sting of it too. But that class was amazing.
As one kid was goig out the door he said “Can I make money playing chess?”
“No lil bro. No. You want to use the game to build your plan for your LIFE and push hard that way. Then you will get paid. But you have to stay on the boards to really see the levels. You understand?” He nodded and smiled.
The highlight of the last class was with a kid who I knew trained in jiu-jitsu and meditation with a good friend of mine. Apparently a kid from my first class had a problem with him. I heard talk about them possibly getting physical. This kid and I played several games all week. This day we did not. As class was letting out and I was saying goodbye I pulled him aside.
I pointed to the thing on the board about the king, the pieces and the victory. I said “Look, you know I don’t know you that well. But I know your instructor and he would not want you figthing right now. He would want you going back to your room and meditating. He would want you in your room exercising. He would want you to think through this. For me, when I look at you. Your king is FREEDOM. I don’t know what that kid did. But nothing he said, is more important than getting out. Unless he is actively on you trying to harm you- keep it peaceful. Because anything you do is going to get you more time. Don’t give the courts one more second than you have to. Get free and then me, you and your instructor can go train and get some sandwiches and chill. Wouldn’t that be better than being in here?”
He nodded. “OK….OK.” in a tone that told me for the moment he was convinced nonviolence was the best way out. I called his instructor and told him what happened as I left.
Oh! I gotta say there were 4 different rap sessions I saw in the hall. One was from a kid who did not know chess. By the end of the week he did an amazing freestyle about chess and life. He said that he was so confused by the game and he never thought he could learn. I promised him he would know the game and he thanked me for keeping my word.
There was the rap session with the Tats who I just mentioned. It was truly amazing.
Another dope moment was a kid handed me a copy of a song he wrote. It is super deep and covered a lot of painful issues around his incarceration, broken family trauma and loniness he faces. I hope to share it with you in the future. But I have to get some clearances before I can.
Also, the first day when I asked who could rap they all pointed to this White kid. He was the only White kid in the hall that day ( a few more came in the day I left- it was all Black and Brown). He had bright green eyes and slicked back hair. The verse he did blew my mind. He was getting out that day. This afternoon he reached out to me on Instagram. I’m gonna try to get him to record a song.
I want to thank you all for taking the time to read this and I want to thank all the good people at the Alameda County Juvenile Center for their kindness and support. I want to thank all the JIO’s for their support when I’m in all the units. It is always and honor for me to spend time with incarcerated kids. Much love y’all.
Defend The Crown,