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.