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Have Yourself a Scary Sinterklaas | 2017 | What a Story, Thomm


Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it-don't cheat with it.  

-Ernest Hemingway

A Special Place in Hell

I am startlingly good at my job educating adjudicated minors (I usually term them as such because people think I am being cute when I, entirely accurately, called them "juvenile delinquents; I find the phrase clunky.") My supervisor asked me to give a presentation to his boss about how my kids might start a weekly news program in my writing class. When I forced my students to make a demo, they did so astounding a job that this show immediately ballooned to a large portion of my day. As I get them to organically research, edit, revise, and perform, producing the news has become a reward for completing their work in English class early.

(Last year in December, my reward was collaborative playing Flash games, an activity I felt was a waste of instructional time, but it was a useful carrot. I don't remember the last time this year either of my classes wasn't full of learning from the moment they sat down to when my students leave.)

Nearly daily, my energy is high. I keep my kids motivated and curious, if not as productive as their free-range peers. I make them agonize getting essays up to my standards and arbitrate spontaneous debates about the definition of an unjust law.

And I suspect I might be in Hell.

We dress it up. My colleagues do all we can to treat our charges as children. I avoid my students' case records because I don't want to be tainted by what they've done, what has been done to them. Their sins were not against me and I am not employed to judge them. All I want to know is what I see in my classroom, what I can do for them. We provide them with art classes, pumpkin painting in the fall, Christmas movies in December, a Pi Day pie eating contest, Bingo, drumming, a recording studio, and dozens of other opportunities and activities that might well have been foreign to them prior. We pretend we can convince them that they aren't locked away.

Bright-eyed students check out books from our library that suggest their lives as been so much harder than I can imagine and their deaths are looming and unpreventable. Several times a year, I catch the implication that a student has been subject to sex trafficking or that their most consistent sex partner is their own mother. Many don't have a single credit on their transcripts, which I care about only inasmuch as a high school diploma might be another barrier between them and a short life in a cardboard box or state enforced slavery.

From experiencing the stints of hundreds of boys, the staff deduces probabilities. When gay or trans residents come to us, it is a near certainty that they have been raped, abused by their families, beaten so much that they will reactively assault anyone who dares to insult them, and have sold their bodies. In the outside world, a child can be gay or trans and have decent lives -- despite society's apparent tendency toward intolerant horridness. If said child is adjudicated, they have implicitly committed a crime, which was probably prostitution. Sex work shouldn't earn them placement alongside gang patsies and junior drug lords, but the state doesn't have the enlightenment to differentiate. Children forced into survival sex or prostitution are the victims, but I can't disagree that it is better they are placed with us than on the street.

We get boys who soil themselves, filling diapers even though they are nearly legal adults. It's a defense mechanism, because they won't be raped again if they are covered in their own filth. No one teaches these kids Fun Tips to Revolt Your Abusers, but they all know them by heart. Sometimes, they have learned that forcing caretakers to deal with their feces is a negotiating tactic. Or, if it is not a terrified defense or manipulation, nightly rape has ruined their anatomy. The other boys do not understand why their classmate fills the room with the odor of effluence, why he gets to go shower three times a day. They only know that this boy is incontinent and will therefore spend their hours tearing him apart as the weakest member of the pack. (If they join the destroy their classmate, then the pack isn't destroying them.)

Hell works most efficiently when its inmates punish one another, freeing the demons up for paperwork and coffee breaks.

I don't enjoy knowing the origin and significance of these things. I don't want to carry my job home with me-I won't even take their papers home in case that would infringe on their confidentiality. Working where I do has made me entirely compassionate to teenagers most people hate and hyper-attuned to the function behind adolescent behaviors. Simultaneously, it has made me collapse against the door and cry myself hoarse because all my students are drowning around me and I am beyond exhausted watching the waves immediately pull back the resuscitated, if they don't dive back on their own.

I hurt for these kids, and they can't ever know that. I must keep my energetic, slightly sarcastic, and largely positive demeanor. I hate the world that made them. I hate that these boys could have been something more, somehow, but they were born too early to parents who didn't care, that they fell into the arms of adults who treated them as sex toys, that gangs saw them as convenient suckers, that they had to escape South American gang warfare by being raped by coyotes to get over the border. I don't want to weekly report out on healing self-injury scars, rug burn from restraints, and suicidal gestures, hearing before I have put down my clear plastic lunch bag that one of my students has tried to kill himself despite our every precaution. I don't want a litany of which of my kids are now in Sing Sing for attempted murder.

They are damned by a cruel God more interested in adherence to rules than tending to a flock who needs Him. Most of my charges are far from sinless. The root of their crimes is rarely pure malevolence, even if they would insist otherwise while posturing. Usually, they acted because it was the only way they could think to act to survive. Some of their crimes are carrying the drugs that let them escape their mental illnesses or forget about their home life. Some of them have beaten and raped, have tried to murder rival gang members, have mugged people for the fun of it. I can't forgive them, and it isn't my place to. What was done to them explains but doesn't justify what they do to others.

If my job is Hell and I am not implicitly the one being tortured, then am I a demon? I am a part of the machine that keeps my students there. I am another adult who cannot manage to do enough to raise them from perdition. The guards, who are with these boys eight or sixteen hours at a time, get calls from released boys, updating them as to progress or lack thereof. The kids only call the teachers to attest that they have or do not have the credits to become tenth graders.

I don't want to be a demon. I am not trying to degrade these children's dignity. When I was immature at this job, there was something punitive in my treatment because I was scared. Not so much of what they could do-though I started out with boys who were far more hardened and broken, who only understood lashing out against perceived slights-but of the idea of getting close to someone who was going to fail. I draw smiling faces on hospice patients, their conditions terminal and obvious, but I cannot make it through the day if I pretend they have anything worse than the sniffles.

My students have AIDS. There, I am not being metaphorical. I do not know which ones do, because it is against HIPAA regulations, but the percentages are understandably higher for those inclined toward unsafe sex and drug use while living on street corners. We treat them all as though they might have HIV. For some of us, this means exercising due over-precautions against infection. For others, it means understanding the residents are annoying teenagers and still swallowing the harsh comment, because their lives will be abbreviated and impossible. It is cruel to add unnecessary pain to that.

Once, a resident went to the nurses' office, and then broke down sobbing for close to an hour. Those who cared were left to whisper conclusions. When we saw him the next day, there was no change in his flamboyant demeanor. He was used to hiding weakness beneath artifice. He wasn't going to die that day and he wanted to believe it wouldn't be tomorrow either.

Sometimes, I am surprised I make it to the end of the day with my soul intact. I joke that I am lazy, because I will occasionally use prep periods to catch up on writing or will spend the last half hour of my day watching silly videos to avoid thinking. But it isn't laziness, it's self-care. The day was too long to go home with this burden still in me, all the negativity I've absorbed through the day while keeping a smile, all I had to do to keep these kids stable.

My students need regularity and honest caring. Whenever an adult is false about it-and we get our fair share because they are frightened or so full of white guilt that they are incapable of authenticity-the kids know and hate them. My students want boundaries because their parents never offered them. Setting limits feels like love. They want to know that, no matter what happened today, there are pillars they can depend upon. They need to know that, when we say we like them, we genuinely mean it, at least for that moment.

Last week, because our new teacher was not ready to be put into rotation, I taught without pause from the first period to last, working through lunch with a meeting on how to approach a student's needs in the classroom. I was more exhausted by that than I have been when I have hiked mountains. I could not untangle my knots until hours after I was home.

I'm not quitting, least of all because I enjoy having a steady paycheck and bloom when given autonomy to do what I want within a framework. These kids need someone who can treat them like kids, who can keep them in line and working constructively in a way they didn't know they could. Even though I went through grad school for teaching with visions of posh private school geniuses in ivy covered buildings, I am more capable of giving these felonious, cracked boys (and occasional trans-girls) something closer to a normal high school experience

But it is so hard to tend to the damned, knowing that telling them Heaven is waiting on the other side of a good report card is another lie we cannot guarantee. Our torture is Pandora's: we leave them with the suffering of hope. We tell them that their lot will improve with hard word. We tell them that their circumstances are now in their hands, when they are so indoctrinated to learned helplessness that the idea of anything else is as alien to them as living without mental illness and addiction.

We tell them that this is all for their good. We take them away from their families, their streets, their gangs, their escapes. We tell them we are going to return them to a "civilized" state, one which could not seem less relevant to their daily lives. If they believed us-and I doubt they often do-this would be a torture. Isn't it worse that the demons in Hell tell the damned all the punishment is meant to improve them? Do even the demons have to believe this for the knife to really twist in the guts of the damned?

We are playing a game with steep odds, wagering dirty souls against a house with whom we have little chance of walking away happy. I can factor those odds because they are upfront. I know what I am getting. What I cannot tolerate is other players intentionally swaying the game because they would rather knock the pieces off the board from laziness and apathy than make an effort in winning or letting anyone else win. I can rally my forces against the house, but I cannot negotiate a plan when the other players have given up and are only going to be difficult for the duration of the game, doing the house's job for them.

I know that, literally nine times out of ten, we lose. We gamble the child's future that our methods will save him and we lose. We lose the potential of their contribution to the world. We lose any healthy successive generations they may have produced if they chose that path. We lose that child ever becoming whole and happy and letting that echo outward instead of pain. We lose the health and safety of the people they will victimize. To most people, indoctrinated to see this struggle only in the shortest of terms, our loss is not immediately desperate. They see only an oppositional boy returning to the system or being sentenced to years out of society in a concrete cell. They see guaranteed employment. They see "justice," not rehabilitation. They see one of "them" being put where they belong. They don't see the branching good that could have entered the world if we had managed to irrigate this poisoned land enough that a strong man could grow from weeds. They see only that someone was punished, likely someone who annoyed them.

The only torture I feel at my job is not the long days or a mentally ill boy tearing up my room while cursing at me-those don't even cause my blood pressure to bump--but the tension of knowing that the children could be helped vastly more if only every adult there would act professionally and completely. When adults do not care enough about their job or duties to maintain boundaries and not get into hour long bickering matches with dysregulated children, chains grow tighter.

One of our de-escalation techniques is to be involved with the students' interests so that, when they start ramping up, we can distract them by asking them about the score of the game last night. It fractionally relieves them from anxiety or anger. Sometimes, it merely gives them the excuse to save face by not get into a fight they either don't want to or can't win.

Several of my colleagues instead use this technique to encourage the students to talk extensively about their crimes and gangs, with a tone somewhere between their buddy on the corner and a fan of their work.

Had the right person put their foot down decisively and consistently enough, the communities to which my residents return would be safer. There is not a solitary doubt in my mind that crimes would be averted if adults in their lives - both within and without the facility - treated them as boys in need of rigorous discipline and not guys from the block. My students do not deserve being treated as equals. This unearned privilege is toxic, yet another adult letting them down for convenience.

When my coworkers pal around with the residents so they can make their jobs easier for that day, I just see my residents dying stupidly and soon. Loose boundaries factor into young men killing and dying, because the residents wanted them to be an adult - maybe the first - and instead met yet another person who didn't care enough to put their foot down.

Do these adults understand that they are ending these children's lives? It conditions the residents that the best - and maybe only - way to get adult attention and approval is by repeating the mistakes that got them adjudicated.

One of my coworkers (because let me be clear that almost all of them put so much of their time and energy into these boys without incident) hear a resident tell a story about how he kidnapped, stripped, tortured, and took video of another boy, thus producing and distributing child torture pornography. This is not a confession. It is a fun anecdote for him. To my horror, the YDA in the room reacts with amusement and fondness. "Oh, you are just so crazy!" as though he just admitted to putting Pixy Stix on his corn flakes and not violently sexually abusing someone. This person is implicitly condoning and encouraging an atrocity because it will get them in this boy's good graces for the rest of the shift.

My goal is to keep my residents from ever returning to my or any facility, and maybe teach them to write an essay if I can manage it. This involves glamorizing a life on the right side of the law and making certain to never approve of their crimes.

I am not my residents' friend and I never want to be. I am the adult in the room. I can be friendly, but my role is to instruct and guide them, even when it might be easier to shut them up with a pat on the head and some candy.

Not everyone at my facility comes from a squeaky-clean place. Some of them have committed crimes, been in gangs, and been incarcerated. The best of them use this as a tool for working with the residents. "Listen! I was like you, but I saw that they streets didn't love me. I saw they were going to kill me if I didn't figure myself out. I saw my cousin shot dead in front of me. My nephew overdosed on his mama's porch. You don't want this life." The worst of them turn their pasts into a pissing contest with maladjusted and desperate sixteen-year-olds or act star-struck that this boy is such a high-ranking Crip. (None of our residents are high-ranking anything or they would not be at our non-secure facility. For the most part, we get the residents who couldn't handle a higher security facility or ones from vulnerable populations.)

I don't want to keep these children in Hell, to make Hell seem like a comfort to them, even when it may be the safest place they have ever been. I had a student once told me he never wanted to leave because we get him Chinese food and have video games. It broke my heart. The world is so much worse for them than adjudication. They moan how they miss girls and drugs, but they would rather be in a uniform than prey to the beast outside our confines. I want to give them all the tools to climb free, so they believe they did it on their own. I would rather not have to fight with others to lift them toward fractional salvation.

Soon in Xenology: Apocalypse. Imbalance. Meaning. Sarah T.

last watched: The Punisher
reading: The Superhuman Mind
listening: She and Him

Have Yourself a Scary Sinterklaas | 2017 | What a Story, Thomm

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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