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A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall

Written by Mark SalzmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mark Salzman



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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42984-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In 1997 Mark Salzman, bestselling author Iron and Silk and Lying Awake, paid a reluctant visit to a writing class at L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders, many of them charged with murder. What he found so moved and astonished him that he began to teach there regularly. In voices of indelible emotional presence, the boys write about what led them to crime and about the lives that stretch ahead of them behind bars. We see them coming to terms with their crime-ridden pasts and searching for a reason to believe in their future selves. Insightful, comic, honest and tragic, True Notebooks is an object lesson in the redemptive power of writing.

Excerpt

1.
Somebody

Mr. Jenkins unlocked the bolt and pushed the steel-frame door to K/L unit open with his shoulder.

"Look who's back. Nice trip?"

"Very nice." I had just returned from my sister's wedding in Connecticut. "Did we lose anybody while I was gone?"

"Paulino's in the Box, but he'll be back."

"Hey Mark! Whassup?"

Three of the boys in my juvenile hall writing class were already in the library, their folders and notepads spread out on the table. Toa, a seventeen-year-old Samoan with a linebacker's build, stepped forward and gave me a hug. "So you bring us any maple syrup, or what?" he asked.

"Maple syrup?"

"I know 'bout that 'cause a watchin' Mr. Rogers when I was a kid."

Raashad's eyes opened wide. "You seen that show too?"

"Every kid seen that show, fool. Nothin' else to do in the mornin' 'cept break toys an' shit."

"Yeah, I was always like, where that neighborhood at? Nobody got drunk or beat his ass or nothin'."

"Yeah," Toa said, "but check it out: that show be fake. Know how I figured it out? People always be walkin' in and outta his door and he never locked it. He'd'a had all his shit jacked if it was real."

"Yeah! Homies be like, 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood--now gimme that train set, fool.'"

"So how was your sister's wedding?" Antonio asked me as I handed out pencils.

"Beautiful. Perfect weather, too."

"Any fights break out?" Toa asked.

"At the wedding?"

"Nah, at the reception."

"No, no fights. Where are the rest of the guys?"

"The chapel. They got some kinda meditation retreat over there this morning. Could you gimme another pencil, Mark? This one don't got no eraser."

Toa frowned. "'Cause you bit it off, fool. I just seen you."

"I didn't bite nothin' off. It was already gone, I was just chewin' on the metal part."

"I went to that meditation thing once," Antonio said. "I went 'cause I heard the instructor was this hot female, but then I got there and it was some bald guy in a robe playin' a harmonica. Fuck that."

Raashad checked the eraser on his new pencil, then said, "Yeah, you suppos'ta close your eyes an' picture yourself goin' down some stairs into your workshop in the cellar where you got all yo' tools."

"Your tools?"

"Yeah, 'tools for life.'" Raashad rolled his eyes. "You suppos'ta choose what tools you need and put 'em on your belt, like you some kinda superhero. First of all, I say to myself: What nigga you know got a workshop? What nigga you know got a cellar? Right off I knew this shit ain't for me."

We joked around for a while, talked about a former class member who had just been sentenced to fifty years to life, then the boys settled down to write. After forty minutes, when they had all written something, I asked who would like to read aloud first.

"Let Carter start," Antonio said. Although I addressed them by their first names, the boys followed the example of the staff and referred to each other by last name only. "Carter got some good news last week."

Raashad nodded, propped his notepad on one knee, and read:

At about 2:33 a.m. the night staff came to my door and unlocked it. The sound of the key turning woke me up immediately, that sound always wakes me up alarmingly. The staff said, "Hey Carter, get up." I said, "Man what the hell." He said telephone. The first thing I thought was it was the police telling me someone in my family was dead. As I'm walking to the phone my heart was beating extremely hard like if you could see it beating through my shirt. When I picked up the phone I was relaxed by the sweet soothing sound of my companion and fiance Amika telling me she just gave birth to a little girl. The feeling inside me was indescribable. It was amazing, she said she weighed in at 8 lbs 4 oz. I felt so happy my body felt so numb. I was astounded by the information I had just received. I feel so great. Ever since that day I've been happy and just waiting to see her. I heard her giggle on the phone the feeling was great. I can't wait until the day when I can hold my daughter.

"Congratulations," I said.

He half smiled. "I'm pretty excited about it. I just pray to God I win my case so I can get out soon."

Toa volunteered to read next, promising to take everyone's mind away from prison and back to the freedom of "the outs."

My family weddings are cool and all but my family can't get along. During the wedding it's cool and all but the party that's after it ain't nothin' nice. It's like warfare. As soon as they down a few cases everybody all of a sudden feels like Superman. For example my cuzzin's wedding was beautiful, everything's going smooth, even the party until my brothers showed up. Apparently my brother had shot one of the groom's cuzzins and he was paralyzed. And the best man was that fool's older brother. They weren't trippin' but my brother was. He banked the best man up on the dance floor in front of everybody. People was already drunk and shit so they start jumpin' in wanting to scrap too. My stupid ass cuzzin threw a chair in the crowd and it hit this old man. Everybody stopped right then and there because the old man was the priest. The priest's son started trippin' so we fucked that punk up in the parking lot. That's why I kinda hate family weddings.

As promised, the essay took Raashad's and Antonio's minds off their surroundings. They compared stories of family gatherings that had turned into brawls until we had only five minutes left for class, then Antonio read last.

I am lying in my room incarcerated at Central Juvenile Hall looking at the white painted walls in my room, and how my door is shut with a steel bolt lock to show that I am locked up. It's weird but this room relates to my life I once lived outside, over the walls laced with barbed wire. I was locked in a world where nothing would come in and nothing would go out. I was trapped in my gang life, that's all I knew and all I wanted to know. I chose to stay in my room and not let anybody control me. I had too much pride to open my door and let somebody in. I neglected the people who really cared about me, my family and my loved ones. Sure, at the time it was all fun, but was the consequences really worth it? To me, no, but I was the steel bolt that kept myself from realizing that the world is a lot bigger than a room (my gang). There are a lot more things out there than your homies and homegirls. Don't get me wrong, I got love for them, but how are you going to be with people that are holding you back from blossoming and showing your full potential? I now realize how precious life really is. It's too bad that I am probably never going to be able to show the world what I have to offer. As I sit in my room thinking what would have happened if I would have opened my door and not just stayed in my room.

"This is why we get into so many fights around here," Raashad said. "You don't wanna be thinkin' shit like that, it's too depressing, so you start somethin' with your roommate, and before you know it you both be poundin' on each other till you fall asleep. It's a distraction."

Mr. Jenkins tapped on the glass, letting us know it was time for the boys to return to the dayroom for lunch. Meanwhile, the inmates who had attended the meditation retreat were just returning. They shuffled across the yard single file with their hands clasped behind their backs and most of their heads bowed forward. When everyone had come inside and the door to the unit was closed, one of the boys crossed the dayroom to say hello to me.

"How you doin', Mark? We missed you."

"I missed you, too, Santiago. It's good to be back."

"Sorry about not comin' to class today. I wanted to try meditation, see if it could make me relax."

"How was it?"

"It kinda sucked. The instructor was a guy."

"But you look happy," I said.

"I am happy! Something good happened to me today, Mark." Santiago grew serious for a moment. "I been feelin' really stressed 'cause I started trial last Friday. This morning the chaplain saw me and he asked me what was wrong. I said, 'I feel like a piece of shit stuck under somebody's shoe.' I told him how I had to hear the prosecutor say all this bad stuff about me in front of everybody. It was the worst day of my life. My whole family was there. I felt like I let everybody down. So the chaplain looks at me an' he puts his hand on my shoulder like this, an' he says, 'Diaz, you gotta remember something: You are somebody. Don't ever forget that.' So I thought about it, and I realized--damn, he's right! Nobody could take that away from me. I am somebody! I--"

"Diaz, get your ass over here so we can eat."

Santiago glared at the messenger and gave him the finger. The messenger pointed at Santiago and yanked his hand back and forth to simulate masturbation. The two boys exchanged threatening looks until honor had been restored, then Santiago turned his attention back to me.

"What were we...?"

"The chaplain," I said.

"Oh yeah! I am somebody," he said once more, grinning this time. "Somebody awful!"


2 .
Just Say No

When I can't make up my mind about something, I start a notebook. I use it to think aloud; I fill it with questions, arguments, and reassuring cliches. My notebook from August 1997 read:

REASONS NOT TO VISIT DUANE'S WRITING CLASS AT JUVENILE HALL

--students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s --still angry about getting mugged in 1978 --still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1986 --still angry about my wife's car being stolen in 1992 --wish we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean --feel uncomfortable around teenagers

On the next page, I wrote:

REASONS TO VISIT DUANE'S CLASS AT JUVENILE HALL

--have never seen the inside of a jail --pretended to be enthusiastic when Duane mentioned it

The trouble started after I mentioned to Duane Noriyuki, a friend and writer for the Los Angeles Times, that I was having problems with my novel about a cloistered nun. "What kind of problems?" he asked. I didn't want to reveal the full extent of it: the plot had collapsed, the main characters seemed lifeless, the dialogue rang false, I had lost sight of the theme, and the setting felt wrong--so I limited myself to telling him about Carlos. Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness. Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And "please please please," she urged in one of her notes, "give him a different name."

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured Duane must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answered, "Not really."

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, "But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a writing class there. If you'd like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book."

I didn't respond immediately; I wanted him to think I was giving it serious thought. Then I asked, "Are you sure you can't recommend any books?"

MORE REASONS NOT TO VISIT DUANE'S CLASS

--Jack Henry Abbott/Norman Mailer debacle. Who cares if thugs write well? They're still thugs. --Crime victims don't get free writing classes, why should the criminals? --I gave free readings for the L.A. Library and Planned Parenthood this year, I did my bit.

And then there was my deep-seated prejudice against writing classes. I taught creative writing once; at the end of that semester I vowed never to put the words "creative writing" and "class" together in the same sentence again. During our first meeting, a female student read aloud a nonfiction piece about the day her mother discovered her father had been having an affair. As she came to the part of the story where her mother, driven hysterical with anger, scratched her father's face and drew blood, the memory was so painful that she burst into tears and barely made it to the end. When she finished, an uncomfortable silence hung over the room. I was the teacher; it was my job to think of something to say that acknowledged her grief but kept the focus on writing. Should I compliment the way she made the scene more immediate by putting it in the present tense? Should I praise her use of dialogue without tags, i.e., how she always managed to keep the two voices distinct through style and context?

"I have no idea what you're--"

"Liar!"

"You're not letting me--"

"Bastard!"

Before I could decide what to say, a shrill male voice rose out of the silence:

"Your mother scratched your father's face just because he was having an affair?"

The man who was to make the next three months a living hell for me--a middle-aged adult education student who wrote stories about middle-aged adult education students living in Japan who discover love with underage, gender-unspecified Asians with skin like bean curd milk and hands like lotus buds--rolled his eyes and hissed, "She sounds like a real bitch to me."

The class was supposed to run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., but I concluded that meeting at seven-thirty, went out to the parking lot, and hyperventilated in my car.

Most of the students were taking the class because they needed a minimum number of English credits to graduate. They turned in handwritten assignments on paper torn out from spiral notebooks; they came in late and wandered out of class early; they wrote about dogs that could water-ski, memorable hangovers, and the true meaning of love:

I'm there for you And your there for me Our beatiful baby Makes three.

The student who wrote the poem about her beatiful baby was a senior, one semester away from her goal of becoming a public school teacher. I asked if, in her next draft, she could perhaps tell us more about her baby. Describe the baby, tell us how the baby is beautiful, make us see the baby--avoid generalizations, be specific. She shrugged and said, "I don't have a baby."


From the Hardcover edition.
Mark Salzman|Author Q&A

About Mark Salzman

Mark Salzman - True Notebooks

Photo © Jessica Yu

Mark Salzman is the author of Iron & Silk, an account of his two years in China; Lost in Place, a memoir; and the novels The Laughing Sutra, The Soloist, and Lying Awake. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the filmmaker Jessica Yu, and their daughter, Ava.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Mark Salzman
Author of TRUE NOTEBOOKS

Q:
The boys in your writing class were classified as HROs (high-risk offenders). They were charged with such crimes as murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery, and all were facing, if convicted, lengthy sentences in adult prison. Even as they faced these dangerous stakes, the boys seemed to take to the writing assignments immediately and with relative ease. Why do you think that is?

A: I suspect it didn’t hurt that they were bored out of their minds! Writing class provided a welcome alternative to being locked up in their cells. Even more than that, though, I believe that the kids were starving for opportunities to express themselves in some way -- to prove to themselves, and to their peers and to adults like me, that they had something to offer. Every one of the kids I worked with felt he was a failure. Our writing class provided an excuse for reflection, self-discovery, and creativity without the pressure of knowing they would be criticized for poor spelling or grammar. The topics I assigned tended to be simple: describe a time you felt alone, describe a time you felt betrayed, describe a person who changed your life. The boys were delighted to be asked questions which they could answer immediately, and with real feeling, and doing so gave them a sense of pride and satisfaction.

Q: People who have not been inside a juvenile correction facility might be struck by the lively sense of humor these kids have. Did that surprise you?

A: I was surprised by just about everything I encountered at juvenile hall, and that certainly includes the fact that the kids were able to maintain a sense of humor in that environment. One kid, after a terrible day at court, looked inexplicably cheerful. He explained that that morning, the chaplain had seen him looking discouraged and told him never to despair. “Just remember,” he told the boy, “you are somebody!” The boy told me that this phrase changed his whole attitude. It made him realize that no matter what happened, no matter what anybody said about him, he was somebody and nobody could take that away from him. “I am somebody,” he said once more — then he grinned at me and added, “Somebody awful!

The humor surprised me, but what surprised me even more was that they were able to express fear, regret, love, confusion, concern for each other, longing for their parents, and respect toward an outsider like me. Not at all what I expected from, as one correctional officer put it, “the cream of the crud.”

Q: At one point in the book, you worry about whether it’s OK to like the kids as quickly and as much as you do. Should you (and we) be more concerned with their criminal histories?

A: After teaching only a few months, I did wonder how I could have gone so quickly from wishing that all teenage criminals could be packed in crates and dumped into the ocean to feeling such affection for my students, and such pride in their accomplishments. I think the fact that they were, in fact, children -- in spite of having been assigned to adult court -- explains some of it. Their obvious longing for relationships with mentor or parent figures, their need for reassurance, their hunger for attention, their vulnerability, all made it impossible not to respond when they asked for help, and impossible not to feel cheered by the positive effect that encouragement had on them. As for their crimes, I came to feel that it was enough for me to know that they had committed serious offenses, and leave it at that. The full force of the adult justice system was being applied to determine their guilt or innocence and the manner of their punishment; my job was to make them feel that there was still some reason to believe in themselves, and in others.

Q: Did you ever wonder if you were tough enough to deal with these kids?

A: Oh my, yes. The first time I went to juvenile hall as a visitor, I was terrified. The second time I went there, as a teacher, I was even more terrified. I wasn’t afraid of physical violence; I naively assumed that if a fight broke out, I could always curl up on the floor and let the guards save me. What scared me was the thought of being in a room full of kids who hated me, who hated everybody, and whom I would somehow have to win over by appearing strict but consistent. I am neither strict nor consistent, and I am about as tough as a robin’s egg, so I expected to be overrun by the kids and to have to leave the place in shame, with the sound of their derisive laughter ringing in my ears. Instead, I discovered that the kids were eager to like me; they were ready to like just about anybody whose life was not either imploding or exploding and who was not a direct authority figure, and they were desperate to be liked back. So I did not have to win them over at all.

Q: As a weekly volunteer at Central Juvenile Hall, did you encounter any resistance from the regular staff?

A; When I first started the class, I got a cool reception from the staff. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t rolling out the red carpet for me; I was bringing free education to their facility, couldn’t they be more grateful? Then I saw how difficult their job was, and I saw how many volunteers show up at places like juvenile hall full of enthusiasm, only to disappear after a few weeks leaving the kids with a sense of being rejected, and I understood their reticence. After I’d been there several months, the reticence disappeared. But there were still moments when I was reminded that their relationship to the kids was different than mine. In one meeting with the superintendent of the facility, he commented that our writing classes made the kids feel special. I took that as a compliment, but he meant it as a criticism. If incarcerated prisoners feel special, he explained, it becomes more difficult for them to return to the group mentality that the staff wants to instill. He wanted us to debrief our students at the end of each class, to remind them that they were prisoners, so they would be properly submissive toward the staff.

Q: When you began teaching at the juvenile correctional facility, you were trying to complete your novel, LYING AWAKE, and you were experiencing some writer’s block. How did the kids react when you admitted that your own writing wasn’t going so well?

A:
At first they were shocked to hear that I could have difficulties with writing. I was a professional, wasn’t I? I was published, wasn’t I? How could I fail? Many of these kids see the world as being composed of two kinds of people: winners, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and losers. If you are a winner, you triumph all the time and you get all the money and all the women you want and you get to rub everyone’s noses in it every day. If you are a loser, it’s over; you suck and your whole life is going to go down the toilet. I believe it was encouraging for them to learn that someone whose life was not going down the toilet could still struggle, could still have setbacks just like them, and could feel that there was reason to hope for better days to come. It made them feel that maybe their own lives were not entirely lost after all, that they might one day recover from their mistakes and come out from their present struggles as better, wiser people. But when they heard that my editor had rejected the first draft of my novel, they went ballistic. The boys were very protective of me; anyone who criticized my work was their enemy. Reviewers, take note.

Q: After you finished LYING AWAKE and the novel was published, did you continue teaching at Central Juvenile Hall? When and how did you tell the kids that they were the subject of your new book? Were they hesitant or eager to participate?

A: I did continue teaching at Central after LYING AWAKE was published. I ran the class for four years altogether, then passed it on to another writer after my daughter was born and I became a stay-at-home dad. I consider myself on sabbatical until my daughter is able to change her own diapers.

When I decided to write this book, I tracked down all of the kids who had been in the class (all but one is in adult prison), described the book I wanted to write, and asked if they would give me permission to include their work in it. They did give permission, and in their letters back they made it clear that they are very, very happy to know that something they did, which they made valuable through their own efforts, will be shared with others and may even do some good. And they are all still writing.

Q: Having worked with these kids for so long, do you feel now that trying juvenile offenders as adults and sending them to adult prison is the right thing to do?

A: Certainly, the kids that I worked with needed to be incarcerated. Their lives were completely out of control, they had to be prevented from causing further suffering, and they had to be held responsible for their actions. Personally, I feel that most of them could be rehabilitated, but I recognize that to do so would require an enormous commitment of time and resources — more than I expect to see earmarked for that purpose in the near future. In my ideal world, these kids would be sent to places that would incorporate features of our best mental health facilities (clean, attractive environment; daily counseling and education opportunities; sympathetic but authoritative professional staff) following the discipline model of a well-run boot camp. I am convinced that the high cost of such facilities would, in the long run, be offset by lowered rates of recidivism. Until my ideal world becomes a reality, however, I would like to see more attention focused on early-intervention programs for at-risk children and their families — programs designed to help children who are just starting to show signs of troubled behavior, but who have not yet committed any serious crime. The success rate for these programs has been terrific, and they deserve our full support.

Q: How do you think crime victims, or the families of crime victims, will react to this book? You don’t romanticize the kids — it’s obvious they are deeply troubled, conflicted people — but you don’t withhold your affection for them or your pride in their successes, either. Will some people be offended by that?

A: I’ve been the victim of several crimes myself, including being mugged, and I’m still angry about every one of those crimes, so I certainly wouldn’t blame the victim of a violent crime for objecting to the idea of a book like this. I wouldn’t want that person to suffer any more than he or she already has, so my recommendation would be: if the very idea of the book makes you angry, don’t force yourself to read it. Life is too short. But I do hope that if such a person were to go ahead and read the book anyway, the experience of meeting these kids in print would have some of the effect that meeting them in person has had on me, which is to make me feel less angry. Knowing something about these kids, and understanding a bit better why they do the awful things they do, has made me feel less fearful of the violence in our society, because the unknown is always more frightening that what is known. And meeting them has made me more hopeful, because as long as some traces of humanity and conscience and aspiration still exist, there is hope that those qualities can triumph over their opposites.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Extraordinary. . . . Everything about this book seems perfect.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Fresh, galvanizing and articulate . . . a narrative that asks as many questions as it answers. Cogent, thoughtful and honest.” —The New York Times

“One cannot read. . . and not be stirred . . . As moving as it is sparse, as revealing as it is concealing, as straightforward as it is complex.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Engaging. . . . Salzman creates a cast of lively, convincing, and hugely sympathetic characters and True Notebooks is filled with powerfully moving scenes.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

Awards

WINNER 2004 ALA Alex Award
WINNER Booklist Editor's Choice for Young Adults
WINNER 2004 Alex Award

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