Esteem. Eagerness. Engagement. Elation. Kids in custody become kids for a day. “Cat in the Hat” hats, beloved Dr. Seuss stories, pride to contribute, laughter, fun and the promise of a giant cupcake to celebrate the life of Dr. Seuss transform a jail into a celebration of literacy. Spirits are high, peer cooperation is contagious and childlike delight spreads across a facility often darkened by despair and disrespect.
Some kids read their first book in juvenile hall. No books at home for many. No stories read at bedtime. No trips to the local library. Some kids get to custody and cannot read. Many read at the third-grade level. Can’t read a job application. Can’t read the newspaper. Can’t read a prescription for their baby’s medicine. Reading is nutrition. Reading is deliverance.
One of the kitchen workers asked why we have a schoolwide program for “those” kids. Our annual “Read Across America,” the National Education Association’s yearly initiative for literacy, sparks reading eagerness and awe. The worker said the kids don’t deserve it. They made offensive choices so no privileges. No second chances.
Sadly, she is not alone in her punitive perspective. Embedded in a culture of despair, often with a legacy of incarcerated parents and impoverished spirits, children endure struggles that would daunt even the steadiest among us. Providing alternative literacy programs offsets the despondency that circles confinement and lifts literacy scores.
Midway into a decade of this literacy program, probation leadership fully embraced the event. The superintendent of probation participated along with a spirited team of supervisors, line staff, clinic staff and cafeteria workers. Community leaders joined, including the mayor, judges, district attorneys, public defenders, legal office staff and community advocates. Educators arrived from the district office with premier leaders, school board members and staff from educational business offices. A diverse collection of gracious hearts and prominent professionals attend, heralding the event as enormously elevating. Gratified guests vow to return annually, hats in hand; promises kept for over a decade.
Sixty or more readers are escorted to their destination, changing lives story by story. Each guest brings a prized gift and compassionate spirit. Students are boosted from the joy of a Dr. Seuss story to the transforming inspiration of an urban literature selection, or the introduction to a classic or timely biography. Like young children, kids in custody seek adult approval and recognition. Positive behavior, self-respect and optimism emerge from a tumbled past, a dark present and an unsure future. The visitors enthrall and inspire children with enthusiasm with a leap into the world of words and a plea for respectability.
Readers don hats and books to carry the message of timeless stories, with an invitation to exchange reluctant readership and street behavior for a book addiction. Each guest is invited to share a favorite book, an early life hardship and to become real in the process. One of our superintendents became a reader in high school after a teacher passed on a copy of “Catcher in the Rye.” Until then he was drifting on a raft of book apathy.
Children listen to every word of adversity related by men and women who became solid citizens in spite of bumpy beginnings. The universality of suffering informs youth that accomplishment is attainable. The aftermath of custody may detour and delay, but can be defeated. Success can be salvaged from the darkest storm as a child is offered a second chance.
One great moment follows another. A student attends a formative literacy program. Like a burst of confetti at a celebration, passion dashes around hearts and minds, opening doors and lighting the way to eager steps forward. A child, banished from educational pursuit, finds a place to be recognized, valued.
In fact, the audience becomes the honored. Guests appear as icons of enlightenment to those kids who see that an esteemed adult is there for them. A mayor. A superintendent. A judge. A school board member arrives with a mountain of Dr. Seuss books and in animated fashion, with measureless love and respect, transforms kids in custody to kids in hope. And when it’s time to move to the next class, children applaud in resplendent gladness, hoping to stall the departure and extend the joy, theirs to hold for posterity.
Literacy initiatives prosper. Launched in every juvenile facility as an essential part of a school’s curriculum or facility programming, these programs can initiate a national literacy crusade for unsung kids. Fostering interest in, teaching the art and science of reading to a teen’s offspring, promoting the merit of literacy generation to generation shatters the shackles of debits that inflict harm, havoc, and life limitations.
The shame of illiteracy crushes. The path to becoming a reader is to read. As educators we can halt the pain for kids heading to maturity but lacking in literacy. The prison pipeline contains nonreaders, low-level readers and apathetic readers. The burden of teaching confined children to read is not a burden at all, but is our duty and ultimately our last chance to reverse the devastating deficits that otherwise advance to adulthood.
There have been incidents of kids who time their crime or probation violation around “Read Across America.” The draw isn’t the giant cupcake, or even the hat, but the incredible, enduring, thrilling, coveted experience of being honored and loved. The illumining presence of self-worth calls to children as they reach for the elusive medal of dignity.
Shaking hands with dignitaries, sharing respect, smiles and powerful stories spawn an unforeseen grace. Walking back to a cell taller, wiser and with a big bag of hope draped over a shoulder that has carried the weight of the world far too long ravishes illiteracy. I have been witness to the wonder, inspiration, revelation and gratitude on the faces of students as they experience that devoted village of hope, inspiration and love offered by committed contributors.
Youthful offenders are given a chance to join a reputable learning community. Many volunteer as readers. Some read in halting voices, others boldly narrate a story. The marvel of reading beside a mayor enthralls. Their pride resounds long after the event. In spite of rampant functional illiteracy and an endless list of school failure, students impress guests with impeccable behavior. There has not been one incident of misconduct. Respect and distinction are held in high regard. A longing to join the community of regard and achievement beckons kids, and in their hunger is our call to action.
Reading ability removes the sting of incarceration and allows us to hand over a lifeline, book by book, molding readers and learners instead of disheartened inmates. Every book read is one step up on a ladder of accomplishment and realization. High-interest books are devoured, appetites roused, followed by a search for yet another winning title. The road to success is paved with hurdles, handshakes and humility.
Then, triumph and a coup as lost learners find their course. Dr. Seuss said it well, “And will you succeed? Yes, indeed, yes indeed.” The laurels of literacy lead to liberation from the rule of custody. Street soldiers marching forward to the pulse of glory and, at last, honor.
Jane Guttman is a correctional educator, teacher librarian and author. Her portrayal of the grief and buried gifts of kids in custody is narrated in “Kids in Jail: A Portrait of Life Without Mercy.”