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I can’t believe the YMEJ experience is already half over. Nor can I believe even at the halfway point how profoundly the course has affected me. For certain I couldn’t possibly have foretold how it’s impacted my very life. In fact I clearly remember back in September debating whether or not I should register for the course. For one thing, the schedule arrangement seemed very daunting to me – 3 hours, from 5:30pm-8:30pm on Mondays. I wasn’t sure I could physically handle that. It would mean I would have to come to Teachers College directly from my job as a high school teacher in East Harlem, and I wouldn’t be getting back to my mid-town apartment until close to 10:00 pm. As it turned out, my job actually served as both the possible hindrance and the ultimate good fortune to be taking the course. As I got acquainted with my new school and the surrounding community, I quickly saw how the topics discussed in class – youth incarceration, foster case, media, trauma in adolescence and race relations – illuminated prevalent issues in the lives of the young people I teach.
Coincidentally, after school today (Dec. 22nd), just as I sat down to write this post, a student came over to me and said he was arrested on Friday and held over the weekend at the ACS-run Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx. At the beginning of the school year, I told my students that the juvenile justice system, among other social issues impacting youth, was a particular interest of mine and that I would be happy to talk about it any time. Perhaps the student told me of his troubles since he remembered what I’d said earlier. He knew I wouldn’t hear him out without a sympathetic response to his plight.
In the YMEJ class meetings, some colleagues let it be known that this was the first time they were given the opportunity in an academic setting to engage in serious discussions on these issues. I conclude that many of our teacher preparation programs have failed us. I now firmly believe that a course such as YMEJ can help all of us further develop as both educators and as individuals. By critically examining the ways in which these issues impact young people, I hope to be able to better serve my students.
From the very first week of class, the YMEJ teaching team created what I felt was a very welcoming and supportive environment. We have all shared deeply personal stories – about our families, our educational experiences, etc. The phrase “safe space” has been brought up many times in the semester. It’s a phrase that’s tossed around in educational circles but rarely truly dissected. I’m guilty myself of casually telling my students they’re in a safe space, but after a discussion in class one evening, I began seriously to question what that even means. I now think we must ask ourselves, for whom is the classroom safe? The privileged? The oppressed? The teachers? All students? I’ve learned from YMEJ just how complicated the answers to those questions must be.
“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”
I conclude the semester feeling overwhelmed with emotions. There have been many nights where I sit up at night and think about court-influenced youth. Although I have not started mentoring yet, I feel that I have learned so much through the course readings, activities, and videos watched both in and out of class. My soul has not been at peace since viewing Kenneth’s story 15 to Life.
What is absent from so many conversations about people of color and incarceration rates is the larger picture of American society that sets certain individuals up to fill positions in our prisons. This was a concept discussed in class, and in light of the current climate of our nation, and trending topics such as #criminingwhilewhite, that continues to plague my thoughts about the inequities and inequalities that exist for people of color.
I think about Kenneth, who committed one crime at 14, who helped his mother break her addiction from drugs, who taught fellow inmates in prison, and who ultimately experienced rehabilitation during his time spent incarcerated. I think about how differently the situation would have been if Kenneth were White, if he was afforded the opportunity to make mistakes much like his White counterparts. My heart aches for the many stories just like his where young people of color who the government deems as incapable of making adult decisions (such as the right to vote) can be tried as adults before a court and sentenced to spend the entirety of their youth behind bars.
My closing thoughts reflect upon the above quote by Malcolm X. I question why I can’t feel at peace as the semester ends. And the answer is that I, we, people of color, don’t truly experience freedom in this place. When Black bodies are devalued, and lives are diminished and destroyed, the reality is that freedom is not afforded to everyone, and until this changes, we will never have peace.