It’s really just how I would imagine his mug shot to be: head cocked at an angle to show that, while he was complying with the police officer, he still wanted it clear that he was his own person. It’s the defiance of the desperate: lacking any other meaningful way to express himself, he showed that he wasn’t going to face the camera straight on.
I met De’Andre (not his real name) while working with at-risk youth in North Carolina. For a year, I and others worked with him (and others) to provide instructions and practice in the basic social skills: accepting “no”; following instructions; managing anger; maintaining eye contact in conversations with authority figures; managing impulses. The things that so many of us learned without direct instruction; the things that make basic interactions in society possible; the things without which success is unthinkable. Some days were successful; others were not.
Like De’Andre, Clearance had great difficulty with even the most basic social skills. He had a short temper that could quickly grow violent and a mischievousness that could quickly cross all boundaries of acceptability.
For both these young men, life had been a series of dead ends. Clearance’s one bit of pride came from his success in fourth grade as a football player. De’Andre had even less he would express pride about. They lived moment to moment, second to second, without any hope of making it to anything but the next meal. They shuffled in and out every day, unsure what would happen the moment they crossed the threshold, and quite honestly, unconcerned as well.
What can we do with young men — and there are thousands of them in America today — who are so very fatalistic that their probable response to seeing their own mug shots on the internet would be, “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later?” What do we do to help young men from seeing their lives as a dead end?
It is here that I remain left-leaning with right-leaning motivations. This is not to say that I see these men as victims. They might have been victims as children — and from what I know of the personal histories of individuals like this, they certainly were victims of various forms of abuse — but the only thing they’re victims of now is their own fatalistic thinking and the habits they’ve formed over the years. Their mug shots are now on the internet because of choices they made, pure and simple.
But my left-leaning tendencies emerge when I think of their experience in school. It’s clear that they had no one in their homes to teach them these skills; it’s clear that they had no one in their lives to model these skills. That is the sense in which they are now victims of their neglected childhood. And as a teacher, I wonder if we can’t do something while such young men are children to help them develop the skills they need.
These deficiencies are as clear in early life as reading problems. In fact, they’re more clearly evident. What are the current options in such situations? There are few, if any. The classroom teacher is responsible for the academic instruction of thirty young children; she has little to no time to instruct little De’Andre or Clearance in the basic skills they seem so clearly to lack. So they get called down, sent to time out, removed from activities, and generally shunned. Instead of learning these skills, they become resentful of those who have the skills and meet with success in school. Indeed, they don’t even recognize that there are different skills successful students are using. “Those kids are just kiss-ups” is the common response.
What do we do with this students are they grow older and more intractable, more incorrigible? We do the logical thing: we suspend them. Talk back to the teacher? Get three days out of school. Fight with a student? Get five days out of school. Initiate a fight that is particularly brutal? Get ten days out of school. And this helps these students how? Giving students who don’t want to be in school because they’ve only met with failure in school a chance to get out of school advances their education how?
What’s in place for habitual offenders — alternative school — seems less than effective. Indeed, De’Andre and Clearance had already been to alternatives school, and they’d met with as much success there as they had in regular school.
I would imagine it’s the same success they’ve met everywhere else in life. And it seems to me that when people aren’t meeting success through the normal channels of life, they begin looking for it in other ways. Or, perhaps as in the cases of these boys’ lives, they apply the techniques that bring them relative success on the streets to institutional situations, where those same methods will bring not success but condemnation. Or even eventual incarceration.
And every day I see flickers of such futures in this or that student. I see reactions that I think, “Young man, that will get you fired in ten years.” And it occurs to me that perhaps the best thing I can do for such young men and women is provide an environment where they experience at least some success without resorting to a thug attitude.