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Freedom Readers: What I lost and gained from my literary correspondence with my incarcerated student

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

I often feel distressed when I hear of a boy/young man who has been incarcerated. Something about it always seems unfair. Several questions come to my mind: Which of his essential needs has not been met; how much poverty has he experienced; since what unnatural age has he had to look out for himself; what kinds of traumatic experiences has he undergone; who have been his caretakers and/or who should have been; how attached is he to his caretakers and how deep have their conversations been; how much time has he spent on the streets or in front of a screen; has he ever gone to the library; how nurturing of a healthy identity has his community been; has anyone cared enough to mentor him; how subtractive/punitive, or positive/restorative, have his schools’ administrators and teachers been; when and why did he adopt an oppositional identity against the mainstream in schools and society? Incarcerated boys are the indicator of whole societies - families, neighborhoods, school systems, penal systems, governments – that have failed them.


What is disproportionately the race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status of an incarcerated child? Does he qualify as one of our own sons or does he look like someone else’s son? Does he have any social or cultural capital? Can his parents afford a well-qualified lawyer or doctor? How many books are there in his home? What are the conditions of his home environment when he goes to sleep? What does he eat for breakfast? How educated are his parents? Has he visited a museum with a family member? Can his parents afford music lessons, organized sports, academic summer camps, trips across the world? Can his parents advocate for him? I am not talking about luxuries, about living a materially rich life, but an emotionally, intellectually, academically, culturally supportive and enriching life. And what if he is an immigrant? Does he know much about or value his national/cultural/linguistic heritage? Can he communicate in the language of his parents? When and how did his experiences of scholastic and social marginalization begin? Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was called a monster of nature because of the incessant poetic descriptions he could generate. Well, I also feel like a monster of nature for the torrent of distressing questions that emanate from my heart whenever I hear of an incarcerated child.


When other people’s sons commit a delinquent act, these disadvantaged boys are often treated as criminal adults with no hope or expectation of redemption. If a boy grows up in a tough neighborhood, he not only needs to learn how to defend and protect himself early on, he needs to be prepared for the possibility of eventually having to do the same in jail. Thus, the unjust childhoods of other people’s sons serve as pipelines to the ultimate form of abandonment: juvenile incarceration. When our son commits an infraction, we hire an expensive lawyer. When someone else’s son commits an infraction, he is abandoned to his fate.


Many incarcerated youths are second generation immigrants. In Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation, Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut explain what often happens when immigrant parents and their second generation children don’t experience consonant acculturation - acculturating and learning English at a similar pace. There may be role reversal in which the parents lose control over their children. Moroever, their children may experience downward assimilation or eventual academic disengagement. Downward assimilation also tends to occur in the absence of a supportive community that helps the family maintain the integrity of its heritage, culture and language. Portes and Rumbaut state that students experiencing downward assimilation may form bonds of solidarity that, far from helping them succeed academically, pull them away from advancement. They add that fast assimilation is unhealthy for children and their families. They propose that selective acculturation is the ideal experience for immigrant families. When children selectively acculturate, they are able to move flexibly between the world of their parents and the world of their schools. They can select from the values of both cultures. They are bilingual, which allows them to continue communicating fluently with their parents as they learn the new language. Their identity is enriched and does not suffer. In Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California, James Diego Vigil explains that one of the most challenging tasks for children of Latino immigrants is developing a positive sense of identity: “Language inconsistency at home and school, a perceived gap in the status of their parents and the quality of their environment and those of the larger society, and the dangers and attractions of barrio streets create an ambiguity in their ethnic identity. Parents and older siblings are often unable to effectively guide youngsters in ways to reconcile the contrasting cultural worlds, and this results in an uneven adoption of acculturative strategies.” (p. 41) Vigil suggests that cultural transitional Latino youngsters are likelier to join gangs if they are second generation immigrants.


Another detrimental factor to student academic achievement and emotional wellbeing is the development of an oppositional identity. In Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, Carola Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Irina Todorova suggest that 1st and 2nd generation immigrant students may develop oppositional identities if they experience discrimination and feel alienated from the mainstream educational culture. This oppositional identity may trigger an oppositional stance against certain aspects of American culture and institutions. However, an oppositional identity does not inherently mean opposition to academic values. On the contrary, immigrant youth tend to value receiving a good education. But, as Suarez-Orozco et al. write, a great many of these young people with oppositional identities “in turn disconnect from their studies, finding their schoolwork boring, constricting and irrelevant to their lives” (p. 215). Sadly, many immigrant students attend schools which don’t nurture an academic identity. In general, “academic improvement [has been] the exception, not the rule” (p. 261).


My most intense experience with an incarcerated boy was with a young man I first met almost 10 years ago in my classroom. That year I was both dean of students and teacher. I was teaching two Spanish for Fluent Speakers classes, while also conducting my doctoral research on how to improve Latino/a students’ reading motivation through the exploration of identity-related literary topics. This boy, who had just turned fourteen, was sweet, friendly, artistically gifted, somewhat disruptive, and not always willing to offer the class his complete attention. One could tell that he had been conditioned to fend for himself in the poor neighborhood where he grew up: when he stood up his upper body swirled from left to right, right to left, and his eyes were alert as his face moved horizontally from side to side, always ready for any possibility of threat. He was a second-generation immigrant, born in the USA to Central American parents. He was well-liked by his peers in a class that was becoming a close-knit community, like an extended family.


My main focus as a teacher and researcher was helping my resistant reader students become less resistant. This boy, who was one of the most resistant readers among my students, also had one of the most vulnerable profiles. In my mind, he exhibited all of the characteristics of dissonant acculturation and downward assimilation. He was a 2nd generation immigrant who had no point of reference with his heritage country since he had never visited it and knew very little about it. He was a limited bilingual - much more fluent in English than in Spanish. In contrast to Latina girls who tend to spend more time at home with their families and thus tend to become quite fluent in Spanish, this student spent a lot of time on the streets. “I want to go home,” he told me when I later visited him at the correctional center. “Now you want to go home but when you could you were never there,” I commented. He smiled and said, “Yes, I was never home, I would get home like at three in the morning every day, even on school days.” It seems to me that he did not become fluent in Spanish since he was barely ever at home. On the other hand, his mother could barely speak English. She needed an interpreter when she testified in court on behalf of her son. She and her son did not undergo consonant acculturation as she never became fluent in English and her son spoke limited Spanish. This phenomenon may have caused role reversal. At a teacher-parent conference she complained about her difficulty making her son stay at home at night. She was a single mother. She and his father had divorced when he was a child. According to one of my students who knew him since he was a child, he had begun associating with barrio delinquents as a consequence of his distress at his parents’ divorce. Moreover, his father was barely involved in his life. “I don’t talk with my dad,” he once told me. This young man also lived in a low-income neighborhood. His mother’s desire was to move away from it when he was released from jail. Her intention to move was also aimed at distancing him from his troubled friends. Though he was gifted because of his strong artistic talent, he associated with youth who were considered to be at-risk academically. As a student experiencing downward assimilation he seemed to have formed bonds of solidarity that, far from helping him succeed academically, pulled him away from advancement.


As his teacher, I refused to let go of him even when he was in jail. After he was placed in jail I continued striving to reverse his downward trajectory as well as to change his non-reader identity to a reader identity. Every one or two months for three years I sent him a letter containing a literary excerpt or a poem normally in Spanish or in Spanglish about the borderlands experience - the experience of living between two cultures and/or languages - to help him learn more about his cultural and linguistic background. In each letter I reminded him in Spanish to continue reading and painting. I was committed to doing this until he came out of jail when he became an adult. His mind was still developing and my hope was that by the time he got out of jail he would have become more of a diglossia speaker (speaking two languages without combining them), more of a reader and an artist, more cognizant of and connected to the best parts of his heritage and, ultimately, better able to escape his downward trajectory.


The experience of having my student incarcerated was one I intended to share with his classmates as much as was legally possible, especially since they soon let me know that his incarceration was not a secret in their neighborhoods. I decided to keep them up to date about my continued interactions with him. I read them some of the letters he wrote to me and I asked them to write him notes which I included in my letters to him. I also showed my students the books that I took to him and asked them to recommend books for him to read. He had been a part of our classroom family and I was not planning to erase him from that family, regardless of the gravity of what he had done. The following words from one of my students made me maximize my efforts to make my class format resemble a family gathering: “Our class has so much connectivity. It is like a community. I felt that [my incarcerated student’s name] was like my brother.” Another student told me: “Yes, you understand our situation. You never give up on any of us, not even on [my incarcerated student’s name].” Knowing that this boy’s incarceration had impacted my students, I read to and discussed with them “El llamado” (The Call), a poem whose author I cannot recall, regarding a revelation experienced by an incarcerated person.


My Personal Dilemma of Serving Two Roles


When I was asked by my principal to serve in the two very different roles as dean of students and teacher I knew it was going to be challenging but never imagined how contradictory those two roles would become when my student committed a crime.


My challenge began on the day I found out that a group of young men, of whom my student was the youngest, had committed a serious crime. I was faced with the predicament of dealing with my student in what could be a more punitive role as a school administrator or in the more cultivating role of a teacher in the kind of classroom atmosphere that I had been striving to create. I pondered: Was I to continue my relationship with this boy as his teacher or let the relationship expire now that he was no longer officially my student? Was I also to exclude him from his place in our classroom community in the way that most incarcerated are from society or would I still include him as caring families do when their sons are locked up? What happens when a family member we love has committed a serious offense and is incarcerated? Do we stop talking about him or do we continue including him in our conversations? What if he had been my own son? Should I treat him as if he could have been my own son, or simply as another person’s son?


Would I take the subtractive approach: let him totally disappear from our community? Or would I take the restorative justice approach: help nourish his intellectual, emotional and social growth, while guiding him to take responsibility for and repair what he had done within a supportive community? Should I be an agent in his further criminalization or in his rehabilitation? The decision I made is one that I have never doubted for even a moment since: I would still act as his teacher and he would still occupy a space in my classroom – all through correspondence.


What I had not realized at the moment of my decision was what it would cost me in my professional life, especially when the courts summoned me to testify on his behalf as his teacher - a person who believes in and works to develop the potential of children, who sees what is still redeemable in even the worst-behaved children - not as a school administrator. As dean of students I was part of the administrative team in line to become my school’s assistant principal, as my principal had already expressed to me. My principal had been seriously affected by this event. The crime called the principal’s leadership into question and undermined the school’s image. In the hallway leading to both of our offices, my principal asked me, in a way that felt like a warning of what I was about to lose if I followed the court’s directive: “Are you going to court?” I cannot remember how I answered; maybe I did not say anything at all; all I remember is the whisper in my heart of the words my principal did not want to hear. Right after our exchange I went into my office, closed the door behind me and cried quietly as I knew that, from that moment on, I could kiss my promotion goodbye. The other dean at the time sent a letter excusing himself from his subpoena and subsequently received a promotion at the end of the school year.


On other occasion the principal questioned me indignantly after finding out that I was sending books to this child in jail, behind her back. During our conversation she commented that I was doing this because I was attached to this young man. I responded tearfully that that was not the case; that I was only sending books because it was the moral thing to do. As I was falling out of favor with this principal, the next step was a smaller office further from the principal’s office. I will never forget how this principal, who saw no possibility of redemption for this child, told me that this boy would never have a chance as an adult because of his record - in other words, that it was not worth it to strive for him.

After praying extensively in the week preceding the trial, I took it as God’s blessing when, as I was walking from the parking lot to court, I met a man with whom I conversed about what I had come to do as a teacher who believed in the redeemable qualities of my student. The man turned out to be the judge for our case! In my testimony I spoke as much as possible about my student’s potential, his redeeming qualities. Giving credence to my words, he showed the judge a magnificent painting that he had just finished, about the theme of freedom.


Over the three years that we corresponded while he was in prison, I was a witness to his promising growth. He soon made it onto the honor roll, continued painting, and trained to become a barber and a tattoo artist. In his letters, he expressed his appreciation for my support and wrote about his experiences and successes, his desire to be free, and his plans for life after incarceration. As my promotion chances diminished, my personal life was enriched thanks to our correspondence. I also corresponded occasionally with his very appreciative mother.


The first time I saw him after his release from jail was when I was leaving school one afternoon to go to my car. I suddenly heard a car stop in the parking lot right in front of me. I instantly knew in my heart that it was my student. I saw him get out of the car and then heard him shout enthusiastically: “Ms. Cabrero!” He ran up to me, and we hugged.


Like many young men who have left prison, he entered a transitional boys’ home. He was well-liked by the adult caretakers and did so well that he became the second-fastest young man to be released in the last twenty years of the home’s operation. During one of his visits, he asked me to attend his graduation, which was in several weeks. During graduation, standing in his characteristic swirling style, he expressed his appreciation for my support throughout the years as well as the support of his mother, siblings, and the transitional home staff.


After his graduation he paid me several visits until he and his mother found a new home far away from the poor neighborhood they had been living in. My wish is that he is now a less resistant reader, a successful artist, more knowledgeable about and prouder of his heritage, a more fluent Spanish speaker, better able to communicate with his mother, more selectively acculturated, and more upwardly assimilated


Looking back, as I have retired from that school and am now absolutely free to do what I feel is moral for the benefit of disadvantaged children, I could not feel more satisfied that I made the choice I did. One more promotion, a larger office, proximity to power or even a bigger paycheck - none of these seem important from my present perspective. Instead, an evolving relationship with another person’s son for whom I made a difference feels much more gratifying. I recently read that, when a group of people in their 90s was asked what they wished they had done more of when they were younger, most answered that they wished they had loved more. In that respect I have no regrets.



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