BEING BAD: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

September 29, 2014

Here is another super-important book, just published and written by Crystal Laura, a former student and good friend. It’s called BEING BAD: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and I wrote the Foreword (below). I sincerely hope people will check this out and Share widely:

I met Chris Smith through a thick plexiglass window, each of us scrunched onto a small metal stool and taking turns shouting hellos and introductions through a little metal grate in order to be heard above the din. Chris was incarcerated in Cook County Jail awaiting trial on a robbery charge, and I was visiting because I’d promised Crystal Laura, his sister and my student at the time as well as my friend then and now, that I would. The place was miserable: a dark and narrow hallway with maybe 15 of us visitors evenly distributed on our side of the impenetrable glass and concrete wall, waiting. We’d inched along the slow-snaking roped-off security line; we’d been run through metal detectors and then patted down; we’d been identity-checked and hand-stamped; we’d been ordered about, checked off, and registered; some of us had even been scolded by the turn-keys for our choice of pants or top and been banished, told to come back wearing “appropriate” clothing. After all that I thought for sure we’d be meeting in a big room seated at tables across from our friends or loved ones. No such thing: Chris and the other cuffed and chained Black men shuffled in and took seats on their side of the barrier, straining to be seen and heard. The stench of the slave market was everywhere.
“What’s up?” I shouted, and he smiled and shouted back: “Doing good; nice to meet you.” He was as Crystal had always described him: sharp, smiling, small in his jumbo-sized jump suit, and “cute as a button.”
With this courageous book Crystal Laura takes us on an odyssey into her cherished little brother’s world—jail and prison to be sure, but before that school and special education, the temptations and the perils of the streets, and right from the start a beloved family fighting with all its might to disrupt a narrative with its brutal conclusion seemingly already written in indelible ink for Chris. With an ethnographer’s endurance, a scholar’s intent, and a sister’s hopeful heart Crystal Laura has constructed a unique and morally-awake narrative of the twists and turns that confront kids like Chris everyday in every corner of America. There are surprises and insights on every page, lessons for teachers, parents, youth workers, and anyone concerned about the sorry state we’re in regarding the future of young men of color.
Dr. Crystal Laura calls herself a “sister/scholar” and that hybrid classification seems exactly right. Her writing ambitions are thoroughly linked to her deepest ethical ambitions—she is practicing the discipline of the heart. She is also practicing the discipline of the mind, willing to follow every lead, pursue every twist and turn in a relentless search for why things are as they are; the inspiration is entirely authentic: “I don’t know” and I must find out because our very lives depend on it. She knows clearly what she is writing for and what she’s writing against, what she hopes to change and combat, affirm and illuminate by entering this work into the public square. Far from a weakness, passionate regard and sisterly scholarship are a singular strength here.
She’s a gifted story-teller for sure, and her writing and research are anti-systematic, experimental, creative and generative, free from the violence of dogma and self-righteousness. This is a search and a struggle to make sense—and we can actually witness and become a party to that struggle on the page—a journey, not by a tourist, but by a pilgrim.
In school Chris eventually became a magnet for labels, and branded, the markers follow him around like flies, sometimes hemming him in, other times mocking him. He was inspected and appraised often, corrected and reformed regularly. Eventually the labels take over—he becomes his manila envelope and cumulative file, the sum of his statistical profile in the estimation of the institution—and the family desperately pursues contradictory strategies. Barbara, his fierce and formidable mother, decided to tentatively embrace an inadequate label hoping it would bring the promised focus and services; Crystal reached for her books and research papers to contextualize the situation and frame the personal in the social. But Chris wasn’t having any of it; he rejected both the psychological and the sociological. The alternative for him was logical: “I messed up. I have to take responsibility.” Chris resists the deficit theory, refuses the easy pathologizing of his circumstances, wanting his own agency and will to count for something. “Nothing about us without us” chant the disability activists today, and Chris echoes that sentiment.
I’m reminded of a headline from the Onion, a journal of humor and satire that warns of a growing epidemic among children: “An estimated 20 million U.S. children,” it asserts, are believed to suffer from a “poorly understood neurological condition called YTD, or Youthful Tendency Disorder.” The article details the early warning signs of YTD including sudden episodes of shouting and singing, conversations with imaginary friends, poor impulse control with regard to sugared snacks, preferring playtime and flights of fancy to schoolwork, and confusing oneself with animals and objects like airplanes. An imaginary mother whose child was recently diagnosed with YTD expresses guarded relief: “At least we know we weren’t bad parents,” she says hopefully. “We simply had a child who was born with a medical disorder.”
This scrap of satire works because it offers a fractured-mirror image of what’s actually happening, both in and outside of schools: children have become the objects of an all-pervasive and extremely toxic barrage of labels and stereotypes, their humanity terribly reduced in the process, their three-dimensional realities diminished, and their lived experiences eclipsed. We are surely headed for some brave new world of forced uniformity, unique mechanisms of disciplinary surveillance, obligatory obedience and compulsory conformity. We can see the school-to-prison pipeline looming large.
And prison it is. With millions of our fellow citizens living in cages and vanishing behind walls, a host of social problems and challenges are buried but not faced, and surely not solved. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, failing schools, homelessness, inadequate health care, substance abuse and addiction, mental illness—these are all within our power to answer, but only when we are willing to take an essential first step: opening our eyes and making an honest accounting of the human costs and the human possibilities before us.
Being Bad is a powerful tool in that effort. Intimate and intense, this unique work of memoir, history, and critical theory is filled with anguish, conflict, and contradiction—a place many of us inhabit but few are willing to expose so bravely. Crystal Laura helps all of us recognize the urgency of our work with young people and the responsibility we share in educating them.
In a lucid and entirely compelling conclusion Crystal Laura invites us to join hands with her and become part of the solution: listen to children and youth; protect them and challenge them; embrace them with generosity and hope. Her vision of teaching with love and joy and justice hits hard because we know how hard-earned that revelation is.
Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The Heart of Darkness, Indeed!

September 25, 2014

President Obama “issued a fervent call to arms” at the UN yesterday, according to the New York Times, as he “charted a muscular new course for the [US] in a turbulent world.”

Oy! That doesn’t sound good.

And it gets worse: “Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition.”

Recalls the days? It sounds like ancient history unless you replay the entire American experience up through yesterday, or turn your attention to Israel’s brutal assault on the people of Palestine. (Incidentally, this is difficult to keep straight: is Israel still a US client, or has the US become Israel’s miserable but smiling lap dog?)

President Obama reaches further: The brutality of the terrorists “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.”

He’s gone completely off the rails here, and I suggest he reread the Heart of Darkness and dig a little deeper into its significance then as well as its meaning for us today.

Marlowe observes at the outset the fierce reality of imperial conquest: “They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind. . . .”

The despicable and homicidal acts of a band of zealous terrorists should not be allowed to wipe clean our collective consciousness of the wicked international system that underlies the tumultuous and roiling world we inhabit.

Marlowe discovers in due course that everything he’d been taught to fear and loath about Africa, all the white supremacist logic and assumptions were actually deep inside the Europeans themselves. The horror, the sickness, the heart of darkness, is us.

That’s Joseph Conrad’s entire point.

What value do you see in using graphic novels in school?

September 24, 2014

Graphic novels are part of the wildly diverse, wacky, and rich gumbo of our culture. If you were teaching a history class today on the Holocaust in Europe, you would mobilize memoir (Ann Frank, Elie Wiesel) essay (Hannah Arendt, Thodor Adorno), and film (Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity) to help students get a deep and meaningful, nuanced and complex picture of the entire sweep of the times and events. To leave out Maus would be to banish a fresh and intimate work that adds immeasurably to our overall understanding of the Holocaust.

Dykes to Watch out For is an essential text if you hope to understand the Clinton/Bush years. On and on and on: teachers integrate poetry and literature, art and science, film and painting into everything they teach.

Why not comics?

I teach a writing class on memoir, and I use Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Epileptic along with Homage to Catalonia and Black Boy. Students respond variously, but I would be irresponsibly narrowing their horizons if I left out the comic books.

BANNED BOOKS WEEK: Comic Book Edition

September 24, 2014

Captain Underpants tops the banned comics list, and coming in at number 10 is Bone, my oldest grand daughter’s favorite series. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant coming of age novel from Iran makes the cut. A couple years ago Rahm Emmanuel’s school beauracrats banned Persepolis from Chicago Public Schools. A phone call to the private school Rahm’s kids attend revealed that there are 9 copies in the library there, 2 in the original French. All seventh graders read the book—they get real art and real literature while CPS kids are sentenced to another period of drill and kill.


Educating for Insurgency

September 23, 2014

Read: Educating for Insurgency by Jay Gillen from AK Press—another book not to be missed.

It’s brilliantly conceived and beautifully written—easily the most perceptive and useful book on education for freedom I’ve read in years.

Jay Gillen offers insights and revelations on every page, but it’s the heart of his argument that warrants closest attention: in the long and sorry history of race and class and caste in America, we have resolved nothing and progressed little. He uncovers the stench of the slave market in every corner of modern schools for the descendants of formerly enslaved people, and he plots an insurgency and a powerful pathway out of bondage.

To be a slave is to be measured and assessed, inspected and counted, evaluated and regulated, admonished and corrected, indoctrinated and reformed, threatened and prodded and punished. It’s to have one’s agency ignored or constrained or systematically crushed. To be free is to overthrow that condition through self-activity, an insurgency that involves seizing and practicing one’s own agency, stepping into history not as an object—a fraction of a human, or 3/5 of a person—not as a label or a collection of deficits or someone else’s imposed statistical profile, but as a fully realized and three-dimensional human being.

Gillen illuminates the fundamental goal of education—enlightenment and liberation—in masterful detail. To deny people an authentic education is to distort meaning and destroy freedom; to alienate people from their own judgments is to turn them into objects; to prevent people from naming their situations and entanglements and predicaments is a form of cruelty and violence.

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand on the deepest level the educational catastrophe we are experiencing, and the corridors toward a hopeful and more human future for students and families and teachers—and, indeed, for all of us.

Educating for Insurgency is finally an offering of wisdom and an act of love.

READ BANNED (Children’s) BOOKS!!!

September 22, 2014

After encountering the lively little anarchist in John and Jana’s delightful A Rule is To Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy, I will always remember the playful little devil with a mind of her own. A children’s book on anarchy seems somehow just right: an instinctive, intuitive sense of fairness, community, and interdependence sits naturally enough with a desire for participatory democracy, self-determination, and peace and global justice.

Hard Times, Our Times

September 17, 2014

Charles Dickens published Hard Times in London in 1854, over 160 years ago. In the opening paragraphs, he describes – with raging fidelity – the first harsh lesson drummed into the heads of unsuspecting new teachers:

“’Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!’ …

“The speaker, and the schoolmaster … swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

This fraught description of 19th-century English schooling sounds weirdly resonant, curiously close at hand, quite a lot like the school-world we teachers face right here, right now. One would think that education and schooling in a modern contemporary “democracy” should look remarkably different from the tyrannical classrooms of Great Britain under the rule of Queen Victoria. Monarchies, after all, demand fealty first and foremost, while democracies, at least theoretically, are built on the active engagement and participation of a free and enlightened people. And since schools—no matter where or when—are always mirror and window into whatever social order that created and sustains them, we can easily imagine what society those “imperial gallons of facts” were meant to maintain and reproduce. What’s harder to reconcile is the oddly familiar feeling of that autocratic classroom picture—and the brute logic behind it—in our own contemporary classroom contexts.

Charles Dickens’ introduction of the severe schoolmaster in Hard Times appears in a chapter appropriately entitled “The Murder of Innocents,” which constitutes a kind of meditation on the dangers of imagination and freedom, “self and the imaginary,” to men without ethics, those who are drunk on power, facts, and order. Dickens shows us the degradation and fear that always marks the classroom as slave galley—a place of standardization and hierarchy, dogma and static, established truths—where the teacher’s central task is to beat the drum mindlessly.

Dickens himself turns at last to the schoolmaster with this indictment: “When thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

September 15, 2014

In this riveting book, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz decolonizes American history and illustrates definitively why the past is never very far from the present. Exploring the border-lands between action and narration—between what happened and what is said to have happened—Dunbar-Ortiz strips away our forged innocence, shocks us into new awarenesses, and draws a straight line from the sins of our fathers—settler-colonialism, the doctrine of discovery, the myth of manifest destiny, white supremacy, theft and systematic killing—to the contemporary condition of permanent war, invasion and occupation, mass incarceration, and the constant use and threat of state violence. Best of all, she points a way beyond amnesia, paralyzing guilt, or helplessness toward discovering our deepest humanity in a project of truth-telling and repair. AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES will forever change the way we read history and understand our own responsibility to it.

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Rick Ayers and Me–at USF 9/2014

September 11, 2014