By Hailey Waller
Upper School English teacher Alan Barstow and Village School teacher language arts teacher Craig Polin teach ninety-minute creative writing classes to prisoners at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles once a week. InsideOUT Writers, the program they work for, aims to give students the “opportunity to refocus their lives without the influence of peer pressure and build their self-esteem.”
Barstow has spent every Saturday since March working with girls between the ages of thirteen and nineteen in the “special handling unit.”
Polin works with the same girls on Wednesday nights. These girls have been charged with such high-risk offenses such as murder or drug dealing. Barstow hopes to provide these girls with an opportunity for self-expression and reflection so they can redefine themselves in society.
An alumnus from InsideOUT Writers who was finishing his high-school diploma at Eagle Rock (the Alternative School in Estes Park, Colorado where Barstow previously worked), introduced Barstow to the program. This young man, who was able to turn his life around and now works as a successful anesthesiologist, inspired Barstow. When he moved to Los Angeles, Barstow remembered the program and got involved.
Upon arriving for the first time to Central Juvenile Hall, Barstow felt intimidated. Security searched him thoroughly before sending him through airport-level security system, metal detectors and all.
“Prison is prison,” said Barstow. “There is nothing welcoming about it. Everything either smells sanitized or reeks of body odor. Prisoners are required to walk with their arms behind their back and may not even go to the bathroom without supervision. It’s shocking and uncomfortable.”
The writing class is voluntary and informal. It takes place in the “common room,” a plain central area where tables are cemented to the ground. Barstow begins by introducing a text that embodies a certain theme. He spends the rest of the class exploring the mean and matter of the text, the same way students are taught at Chadwick.
The first text he brought in was a vignette from The House on Mango Street called “Names.” The name of the main character, Esparanza, means Hope. In conjunction with this theme of names, Barstow asked the girls to write a list of all the nicknames they have acquired in their life and reflect on where they came from, what they mean, and why they matter.
One day Barstow brought lyrics from Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” The girls chose to spend time analyzing the lyrics and applying them to their lives.
On any given day, some girls may choose to only write a paragraph, and others write continuously and may have up to ten pages at the end of ninety minutes. “It doesn’t matter how much they write,” said Barstow. “But the important thing is that they’re taking the time to process their emotions and write anything at all.”
The opportunities presented to these girls reflect their unstable lives, in comparison to those of students from Chadwick. These girls haven’t had the privilege of growing up with stable families and a safe community like Chadwick. Many of them have been sexually abused or raised in drug-infested homes.
The girls have normal teenage concerns: fashion, boys and friends. They share common wishes: to have money, to feel loved, to feel important. The difference is that they have chosen to be fulfilled in ways outside the legal system, which is problematic.
One of Barstow’s favorite students started working for a drug dealer at eight years old. While Chadwick students were learning their multiplication tables, she made a decision that ultimately ruined the next seventeen years of her life: by getting involved with the wrong people, she landed in prison until she turns twenty-five.
Barstow’s face lit up as he recalled this girl’s reaction to his class: “She has the emotional maturity of someone twice her age. She could take the Perspectives unit I’m teaching my tenth graders and totally rock it. You didn’t even need to give her a lesson plan. She wrote with a raw awareness that amazed me.”
Barstow’s favorite piece that she wrote is called “False Profits.” It explains why she got involved with a drug dealer and how it gave her a “false profit.” After turning eighteen, she was transferred to a new unit for adults, but Barstow still writes to her every six weeks to stay in touch.
Differing in their experiences, some girls who have witnessed shootings and other traumatic events, come to class shaken up and unresponsive. Many, who have been together for long enough, have become friends.
One sixteen-year-old boy has been to 195 consecutive writing classes. “It’s hard to know that these kids have spent the majority of their childhood behind bars,” said Barstow.
“Sometimes I wonder, what are they learning in a prison? My goal is to teach them that there’s hope for them in “the outs” [Juvenile Hall slang for the “outside world”]. What makes my time with them special is that fact that each of them can take ninety minutes to focus on themselves without worrying about what anyo
2008 may have been the Year of the Rat in the Chinese lunar calendar, but it has lasted well into 2010 for many teachers and campus residents.
The infestation has yet to be addressed as a serious problem, but the recurring appearances of rats and mice might warrant further investigation.
Teachers Jasmine Love, Martin Byhower, Sandra Piercy and Trish Stevens, along with the entire Global Language department, have had their share of interactions with the rodents most of us despise as potential carriers of the plague.
Jasmine Love, the Director of Multiculturalism and Inclusion, has seen field mice and rats in her office.
Love prefers to use peppermint, instead of deadly repellents, to ward off the animals humanely. She sprinkles dried peppermint behind her furniture seems to ward off the rodents.
“Catnip smells a lot like mint, so if a mouse smells mint, they may think a cat is around” said Love. “That is why if you come to my office it smells very fresh and very minty.”
Martin Byhower, a Middle School science teacher and head of Ecommunity, explains that the rats he has experienced on campus are either the Brown or Black Rat. These rats are non-native species and the only mammals more numerous than humans in this area.
Byhower is not scared of the rats but is rather frustrated with their tendency to strip the bark off his plants.
“If we didn’t leave food around, or if we allowed coyotes and owls more freedom to repopulate the area, they would be less of a problem,” said Byhower.
History teacher Sandra Piercy and science teacher Trish Stevens have not had problems with the rodents this year but have had their experiences in past years by these unwelcome guests.
Last year, the chemistry room became a nesting place for rats, but the problem was resolved for this school year.
Fifteen years ago, Piercy’s unit where she used to live on campus was invaded.
“I set humane traps and removed at least one mouse per day,” Piercy said.
Appearances in Laverty Arts Center have also occurred. Leslie Miller, the dance and cheer coach, has already caught three mice in her room this year.
These rats have appeared in several locations on different parts of the campus, making it difficult to define a reason for their presence.
Of all of these locations, though, the Global Language Department experienced a major plague of mice last year and at the beginning of this year.
“[Larry] Clement even tried to keep one last year. He was against killing the rats, so he found one and named it Freddy,” said Global Languages Co-Chair and French teacher JoAnn Wund. “Everyone else tried to kill Freddy with the broom.”
Love screamed at the thought of rats invading her office. Maintenance workers found a pregnant rat hiding there. And, soon after that, multiple mice were running around the area.
The Global Languages Department ordered a deep cleaning a few weeks ago and since then has not seen any sign of Freddy and his family.
“We all are happy that he is probably dead, but Mr. Clement still hopes that Freddy is alive,” said Wund.
Despite the distaste of many for the presence of rats, Love and Byhower believe that humanity’s general attitude toward this rodent population is grossly uncalled for and exaggerated.
Byhower explains that the rats in our area very rarely carry disease and are actually extremely smart creatures.
“Animals are never guilty of being ‘evil’ and can’t be blamed for merely trying to survive,” said Byhower. “Rats do especially well because, in part, they are highly intelligent. Disease transmission by rodents in our area is extremely rare.”
Love questions why children are less afraid of pet hamsters than of pet rats, when rats actually make better companions and even have fewer instances of biting their owners.
Love advocates for the use of Chadwick’s core values when dealing with these rodents. “As a community we can embrace the rat, and include him or her at least in the way we have respect and compassion for others,” said Love.
“I don’t mean that we have to include them in our offices and homes, but in our minds as sentient beings worthy of respect.”
It seems as if Chadwick may be taking tentative steps toward accepting these rodents as members of this community.
Those who look to other animals for help with the rodent infestation might have taken some comfort that 2010 is the Year of the Tiger. But next year? The Year of the Rabbit, which begins on Feb. 3, may bring new overpopulation problems of its own.ne thinks and write, write, write.”