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On the life and death of a friend.

He was a man

Sharieff Clayton is more than the name of a victim who was “fatally shot” or “killed” or is “dead” as a result of a shooting in Brooklyn last night*.

He was a man, a colleague, a friend who dedicated the last decade of his life to working with, learning with, laughing with, teaching with, creating with, imagining with, exploring the world with the young men and women whom he met as a member of the staff at an alternative to detention program.

He was a man who loved his family fiercely, who glowed with pride when he talked about his wife and children, sharing stories of their accomplishments and giggling when describing his children’s antics; he beamed even more brightly when they occasionally joined him at his workplace.

He was a man who wrote a book while he was incarcerated, which was published after he returned home and that continues to be read by thousands; it was supposed to be the first of many.

He was a man who had just completed his second book, written in stolen hours of the morning, on the subway, while walking to and from work, much of it thumbed into his phone so he wouldn’t lose the freshness of any thought that occurred to him; he was so proud of what had taken him over six years to write; he was writing as much for his audience as for himself.

He was a man who, every day, kept his promise to the young men and women at the program where he worked to live the words he would share with them: Honor. Honesty. Family. Commitment. Conviction. Education. Self-respect. A legacy of greatness.

He was a man who had very recently decided to focus full time on his writing and to embrace his identity as an author; he began imagining conversations around his new book that would bring together diverse groups of people in a Socratic seminar style.

He was a man who didn’t comprehend the concept of giving up on someone, who brought young people back into the fold of the program where he worked even after they were no longer participants; and they returned, to have a place to be and be seen and belong, if only temporarily.

He was a man who carried his past experiences with gun violence and incarceration with him and shared it openly in service of his greater educational mission to invite people to interrupt what seems unchangeable, to imagine things as they might be, to continually dwell in the possibility of the “not yet.”

He was a man whose words stayed with the young men and women he taught, often making an appearance in their minds at unexpected but crucial moments.

He was a man for whom friendship permeated his ways of working with colleagues and who deeply valued these relationships as vital to him personally and in service of his commitment to be the change, see the change, and nurture those who can change the world.

He was a man who approached the world as a teacher and a learner, for whom every encounter held the potential to educate.

He was a man about whom stories of justice and commitment and caring will be told, should be told.

He was a man whom it was a privilege to have known.

He was a man who should be here today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And…

He was a man.

*Monday, April 27th

YMEJ @ Justice Teaching Roundtable (with Center for Justice at Columbia)

This week, Prof. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and I will be representing the teaching team and talking about our YMEJ work — including the seminar, the emerging research, and our public pedagogy efforts (including this blog) — as part of the Justice Teaching Roundtable Series. We are thrilled and humbled to be participating in this dialogue with our colleagues from across the university, and as part of our presentation we will be sharing excerpts from the past years of work with the YMEJ graduate seminar, the collaborative mentoring experiences, and we’ll be engaging the audience in some YMEJ-style inquiry through media-making.

If you’re near the Columbia campus, stop by and check it out. We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.


Tuesday November 18th, 2014 – 3–5pm
Teachers College, Russell Hall Rm 305

After Prison, A New Set of Doors

When I was in junior high school, New York City public transit fares switched from tokens to MetroCards. The Metropolitan Transit Authority rolled out ads on subways and buses describing how to swipe these strange new plastic rectangles, and our homeroom teachers explained the change from the old paper student bus and/or subway passes to the new student MetroCards that would work on either form of transportation. On the plus side, we would now be able to swipe ourselves through the turnstiles instead of trying to catch the attention of a distracted (or absent) token booth attendant in order to flash our paper passes and get buzzed in while our train rolled on without us. In addition, the plastic MetroCard survived an occasional trip through the washing machine much better than the old paper pass, which I would regularly have to present in a soggy mess to the school office in the hopes that they would have an extra one to last me through the month. On the minus side, the new MetroCards were limited to three swipes per school day, which meant we had to go beg at the school office to cover weekend extracurriculars or other trips.

Recently, while attending a meeting, I was reminded of this experience from nearly two decades ago, particularly that vivid feeling of dismay as I pulled my jeans from the dryer and felt that familiar lump in the back pocket. While discussing transition services, a woman who had previously been incarcerated mentioned that many people she knew had gone into prison while the city used tokens, and come out to MetroCards, which they had to newly learn how to use. Although that shift may seem small in the grand scheme of things, it struck me as an example of how completely time in jail or prison disrupts every single aspect of a person’s life. For a New Yorker, reminiscing about the old days of tokens and paper student transit passes is the same sort of nostalgia-inducing experience as reminiscing about when we had to go to the library to get books for school projects before the internet, plan get-togethers at least a day in advance before cell-phones, and, of course, walk twenty miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to even get to the local subway stop to take us to school. How strange it must be to go away from one world, only to reappear years later into an entirely different one without any sort of warning.

Back when I was a teacher, many of my students got arrested. One bright, kind, funny boy disappeared one winter, and arrived back in class months later, near the end of the year, just days before the science fair which I was organizing. Of course, he had no project; his partner had simply done it without him. I wondered how this child had benefited from missing an entire semester of school, from simply appearing at the end with an incomplete posterboard.

The term “reentry” implies that a person can somehow enter the same metaphorical room again, and go back to where they were before getting arrested. But the reality is that a person who has been incarcerated is newly entering a world that has moved on without him or her. That person is traveling into the future, to where the subway no longer takes tokens and the science fair is already happening.

What to Wear When You Turn Into the Incredible Hulk

For several years, I worked in New York City’s District 75 (special education district), first as a paraprofessional and then as a teacher. When I told people where I worked, they would often pause, look at me with a mixture of awe and pity and say something like, “That must be hard.” Now, I will be the first to agree that teaching is a really, really tough job, but that’s not really what folks meant. They meant that it must be hard working with those kids.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were days when the little boogers drove me up the wall, when I drove them up the wall, when some of us showed up to school sick, or exhausted, or just plain distracted and things very quickly started to resemble a sequel to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Because that’s what seems to happen when humans spend a lot of time with each other, day in and day out, for years on end. We all have our bad days, and sometimes we take them out on the ones we love.

But most days, I came into school and got to spend time with a group of incredibly loving, funny, curious, interesting group of people who showered me with pictures, cards, thank-you letters, sorry-I-stole-your-iPod letters, candy, and hugs that I continue to treasure. Most days, I went home after work and just laughed for minutes on end, remembering something someone had said or done. Most days, I got to spend hours reading and talking about some really great books with an intelligent and appreciative group. And that’s why I kept coming back for as long as I did.

More recently, I have had the pleasure of helping with a writing workshop at an Alternative to Detention Program for kids ages 12-16 who have been arrested. When I tell folks where I’m going, I sometimes see that familiar look. And I feel almost guilty that people seem to think I must be some sort of saint when I think about how much fun I’ve been having, laughing as we try to build Rube Goldberg machines or discuss how to handle Incredible Hulk super powers (hint: elastic waistbands and the ability to pull off your shirt quickly).

Don’t get me wrong, there are special heartaches associated with working with kids who are court-involved. When my babies got arrested, or ran away rather than take a chance on a new foster home, well, that really sucked. But if all anyone ever hears about any job or activity is the worst parts of it, then it starts to seem like the sort of job that only someone who is much more qualified and virtuous could possibly do. Court-involved youth and youth with disabilities (and there is a lot of overlap between those two groups) start to seem too different to go to school and generally hang out with everyone else. And while the consequences of that separation, distance and suspicion are more obvious and dire for the kids who get isolated into special schools or prisons, I really believe that we all lose out.

Honoring the simplicity of a moment

My fifth year working as a resource teacher I co-taught in a classroom with a Charles Mingus poster hanging at the back of the room.  The poster said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”.  At the time a large part of my job was modifying curriculum to support my students in accessing and participating in the instructional activities of a content area class.  I often felt undervalued, not by the young people I was working with, but the other teachers, and school staff at my site.  When I saw this poster something clicked for me.  I realized, I believed what my colleagues said to me: that I was dumbing down curriculum, or making things easier for the young people I was working with.  The poster helped me identify something I strong believed.  It was overwhelmingly awesome (in the true definition of the word) to support a student to access a new concept or idea.

I had a similar moment, that shifted my thinking, at the alternative to detention program (atdp) where I mentor.  In conjunction with the YMEJ grad seminar I have been mentoring with a group of women for the past six weeks.  My initial workshop I was shocked that my knee jerk teacher qualities came out.  I wanted students to learn, I wanted students to listen.  I was calling young people in the program students—even though the program is not affiliated with a school.  When I applied for the YMEJ seminar over the summer one question in my interview was about how I thought of mentorship, or defined a mentoring relationship.  My response was a traditional model of mentorship that is one on one, where one person is positioned as a knower, or mentor, and the other person holds the mentee or learner role.

Since that conversation I have come back to the idea of the fluidity of mentorship and how the roles of teacher and learner are interchangeable.  As a teacher, I often thought about how much I learned from my students, but I think it was in a trite way.  As in, “Wow, these kids have so much they can teach me.”  In this context I still positioned myself as the knower, and I while I was not shocked to learn from my students, I did treat the moments as a type of novelty.

As I continue my working with the young people and staff members at the alternative to detention center I hope to channel some Mingus and value the awesomeness of simplicity.  Going beyond making a concept simple but also honoring the moments of being human.  How can I come to a space and value each individual without imposing my own agenda?  How do I extend an authentic invitation that emphasizes a dualistic mentorship role with the young people at the ATDP?  To keep it simple, how do I be myself in a way the invites others (especially young people) to be themselves with me?  I hope to begin to think about answers to these questions but for now, here is some Mingus to enjoy.

Charles Mingus — Self Portrait in Three Colors


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