Criminal Justice

School of Hard Knocks

When kids get arrested, they still have class. In Dallas County, there’s Youth Village, where a former writer and editor learned that those kids don’t bring apples.

You call it a midlife crisis; I’ll call it an awakening. But on the morning that I found myself slapping on a “Hi, My Name Is” badge, turning my back on a long publishing career, and walking into a teachers job fair, I was certain that I’d made the right decision.

All of the major school districts were represented—Dallas, Plano, Highland Park, Garland, Richardson, McKinney—and every table was mobbed. Except one. If you knew me, you wouldn’t be surprised that I headed straight for it.

“The Brown Schools,” I read aloud from the sign hanging limply above the table. “What’s that?”

“We’re the Dallas County Juvenile Justice Charter School.”

I responded with a blank stare while I processed this information. I’d never really thought about it before, but it dawned on me that kids who had been arrested still had to go to school.

“No wonder there’s no line,” I blurted.

It was funny but disconcerting at the same time. On a visceral level, I knew immediately that this was where I belonged.

A little more than five years ago, Dallas County was awarded a charter to run the schools for its juvenile facilities, which it subcontracted to the Brown Schools, a company based in Florida. This year, the county has taken over the operations, but last year, my first year of teaching, the Brown Schools still did the work.

I was hired in mid-July and told that I would be assigned to Dallas County Youth Village. My introduction to it actually didn’t come until the week before school at an orientation session for new teachers. My principal was out indefinitely with a severe eye problem, so I was told to tag along with the principal from Medlock, a juvenile facility that shares the same acreage as Youth Village. That afternoon, the principal took me and two new teachers assigned to her campus to see our classrooms. As we neared our destination, I noticed several signs that read: “Prison Area. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.”

Youth Village and Medlock sit on Langdon Road, about a mile past Hutchins State Jail, near the I-20/I-45 intersection. Medlock is a lockdown facility that is standard prison issue: chain link and barbed wire, painted cinder blocks, bulletproof glass, buzzers, and steel doors. The hallways are spotless concrete. Classrooms are just large enough to hold 12 to 15 desks and a teacher. Each has a steel door with a window for observation. All in all, Medlock is a clean and adequate facility.

Unlike Medlock, Youth Village is not locked down. There is no fence, no barbed wire, no painted cinder block. Instead, there are clusters of simple brick structures and metal buildings constructed in the 1960s. The approximately 80 kids who live there are on probation. Those who successfully complete the program are released to their homes, back into “the free,” as they call it; those who don’t complete the program have their probation revoked, and they are sent to the Texas Youth Commission to begin serving out their sentences. For most of its residents, Youth Village represents a second chance.

For me, it represented a beginning. After spending a large chunk of my summer preparing for this new career, I entered the school building eager to get going. But when I finally saw my classroom, my fantasies wilted. The school was essentially an empty space with classrooms formed by cubicle partitions. My desk was a folding table. Texts were stacked haphazardly against a wall. There was no curriculum for guidance, and I had yet to see my principal. All that I had was my training and what I could dig out of the mess in front of me. My first class was less than a week away.

The day before school started, I was in my room putting up posters and organizing. My back was to the door when I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and reflexively jumped when I found one of the residents standing about a foot away. He was a short, stocky kid of about 16, with gang tattoos on his knuckles and forearms.

“Can I help you?” I said, trying to mask my surprise.

“Do you need a hand?” he asked flatly.

“Sure,” I said. “You can help me move these books. What’s your name?”

“Pedro Santiago*,” he said.

“I’m Mr. Johnson. Nice to meet you.”

While I shook his hand, he added, “I’m no good at school.”

I tried to talk to Pedro on and off during the few hours he helped out, but he wasn’t very responsive. At first, I thought that his dislike for school extended to schoolteachers, but later I changed my mind. Pedro had treated me like a new recruit in a war zone: don’t get too close to him, because he might not survive long.

I had been told that there would be a juvenile detention officer in my classroom, and he or she would be responsible for behavior. I was free to concentrate on teaching. Within a few minutes of arrival on my first day, though, I was informed that the school was short-staffed on this particular day, so one officer would be stationed on a second-floor catwalk to monitor three classrooms. I didn’t quite realize the ramifications of this until the kids trudged in a few minutes later.

The principal had requested that every day begin with a recitation of the school motto. I asked for a volunteer to lead the class. A hand shot up. I brought D’Andre Desmond to the front and asked everyone to stand and repeat the motto after him. He began screaming the motto at the top of his voice. The class dutifully followed his lead, as did every other class in the building. The noise was deafening. The principal came running.

When that mess was settled, I began passing out paper. I got to the back of the room, and a commotion arose at the front. I turned to find one of my students attempting to scale the wall. The officer above was screaming at him while my class and the class next door howled with laughter. The principal came running.

Then I started to pass out pencils. (We have to pass them out and take them up again at the end of class. Pencils can be deadly weapons, in case you didn’t know.) I noticed that I had forgotten to sharpen them before school, and the only sharpener was in the teacher workroom. I stepped out for a second. The principal came running.

“What are you doing?” she said. “You can’t leave these kids alone in the class!”

Such was my first, and nearly last, day on the job.

On Thursday of my first week, I began to introduce the vocabulary system that would provide a weekly rhythm for my class. Each week we would have 10 new words. The students would make flashcards with the word on the front, and on the back they would write the part of speech, the definition, and a sentence using the word. Every Friday, I would call students individually to my desk for a verbal test.

I went to the board and began writing the first list of words: “Circumvent …”

A hand shot up. “Sir, sir?” It was Villarosa, a quiet Hispanic. “Sir, I can’t do this. I’m slow.”

“I haven’t gotten the first word up yet.”

“I’m slow. It’s too hard.” He pushed his materials off the front of his desk and put his head down. I finished posting the list and went back to his desk.

“Here,” I said, picking up his cards and depositing them back on his desk. “Why don’t we do them together?”

The next day, I gave everyone some time to study, then had them stand in a circle to play a game. I pulled out a mini yellow-and-black Nerf football with “MR. J, ENGLISH” printed boldly on it. I would toss the ball to someone and feed him a word. If he got the definition right, he tossed it to the next person. A wrong answer, and the ball came back to me. We went around to everybody, and then came the “elimination round.” Anyone who missed a word had to sit down. I went around several times, and Villarosa kept hanging in there. His smile grew with each successful word. Finally, he went down, and three were left. I couldn’t eliminate them, so they earned what would become my patented “handsome reward”—a Jolly Rancher.

I hated to disappoint Villarosa after such a strong showing, and I expected him to come by and ask for a candy on his way out. Sure enough, he came. “Mr. J, Mr. J,” he said, beaming, “did you see? I came in fourth! I almost won!”

“Yes, you did. Great job, Villarosa.” I shook his hand and remembered why I was still there.

During orientation, we had been told that we had access to the residents’ files. I know that some of the teachers, particularly those who had to work one-on-one with students, took advantage of this, because they wanted to know who had violent tendencies. I thought hard about it but eventually decided that I didn’t want to know what offenses the kids had committed. I wanted to treat everyone equally, and I was afraid that knowing too much might do more harm than good.

The wisdom of that decision hit home very soon. I had one student whose demeanor consistently rubbed me the wrong way. Dealing with him took every ounce of patience in my body. Then, one of the other teachers let it slip to me that this boy had been convicted of molesting a younger male relative. “I wish you hadn’t told me that,” I said, and it was true. During the course of the year, he would push me beyond what I had previously thought were my limits.

The second week of school, things were settling down, but my problems were by no means solved. I had passed out a grammar worksheet and was helping a few of the guys who were struggling with it. D’Andre Desmond raised his hand.

“Yes, D’Andre,” I said. “Do you need some help?” He mumbled a response. I moved closer. “Excuse me?” He mumbled something again. I stepped beside his desk and bent over with my hands on my knees. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you.”

He suddenly looked up and glared. “What did you say about my mama?”

I was too surprised to respond. Our faces just inches apart, we sat there staring into one another’s eyes for many seconds. I didn’t know what to do, but I sure wasn’t going to run and hide. Finally, I broke the silence. “Are you playing a game with me?”

He jerked a hand upward from under his desk, as if to hit me. I didn’t flinch. I was expecting to see a fist in my peripheral vision. When I looked down, his hand was open.

“You all right, Mr. J,” he said, offering his hand.

I stood and shook it. “I think we’ll get along fine, D’Andre,” I said, though I wasn’t sure I believed it.

Near the end of the first six weeks, I called Pedro Santiago to my desk for his vocabulary test. By this time, the kids had 50 index cards in their decks, of which I would pull five at random for the test. Santiago nailed all five and was beaming while I recorded “100” in my grade book. Instead of going back to his seat, though, he stood up and addressed the class.

“Listen up,” he said. I looked on, curious. The officer at the door stiffened. “I want everyone to know this is the first class I’ve ever felt smart in.” He shook my hand. “Thanks,” he said.

“No, thank you,” I replied.

A few weeks later, we had our regular Monday morning assembly in the gym. This was our first of the new six weeks, and I asked the principal for a few minutes to address the group at the end.

“As you guys know,” I began, ignoring the boos that greeted me, “this is my first year as a teacher. This past summer, I went through training to become a teacher. My instructor was the head of the English department at Richardson High School. I learned the vocabulary system that I use from her. It is the same one that she uses in her pre-AP English classes. I know that some of you said it was too hard.” A few boos again. “But I want you to know that almost all of you passed. You did the same work that they are doing in her pre-AP class. It was no different here than it was there. So, in case you were wondering, if you can make it in my class, you can make it in her class. If you can pass at Youth Village, you can pass at Richardson High School or any other school. Congratulations.”

I walked back to my seat, this time to a smattering of applause.

I loved the publishing industry, and there are times when I still can’t believe that I walked away from it. I loved the fact that, at the end of a day, week, or month, there was some tangible result to point at and say, “I did that.” Teaching is not like that. At all. There are days when you wonder whether you are accomplishing anything. Although TAKS scores pretend to offer immediate feedback on your work for the year, the true results of your labor may not show up for years. All that you really have at any given moment is faith in yourself, hope for
the future, and love for the kids. All else may fail, but these will abide.

There are so many things that happened last year that I want to tell. The time we ran out of copy paper, then out of notebook paper. (Who’s ever heard of a school without paper?) The time a teacher lost his temper, then his job. How the kids flipped when I came to their Halloween party in fake dreadlocks. (I’m bald.) The Poetry Club. The TAKS test. The good days and the bad. I’m preparing for the new school year even as I write this, and Dallas County made important improvements during the previous year. All of those things deserve mention, if I only had the space. I’ll end, appropriately, by telling you more about the first kid I met at Youth Village.

Not too long ago, Youth Village wouldn’t have accepted Pedro Santiago. His past was too violent, and he was known to be a high-ranking member of a gang. These days, however, Youth Village has to accept more and more kids who have committed serious offenses, simply because their numbers are growing and there are few alternatives for them.

Pedro was an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. Like many kids in his situation, outside pressures were a constant distraction from school. Around Martin Luther King Day, I asked the kids to write a short essay about prejudice. Pedro said he couldn’t think of anything. I suggested that he write about a time that he had been discriminated against. He thought about it awhile and set to work. That night, I read it. It was about a party in fancy hotel downtown. A woman had given him the cold shoulder when she noticed the gang tats on his hand and wrist. I corrected a few minor errors and wrote on it: “Pedro, you have a good mind. Don’t waste it.” I watched him when I returned the paper, and I thought I saw something in his eyes.

Pedro left Youth Village near the end of the spring semester. While there, he completed his GED and graduated from a construction trades vocational training program. He was a member of the Poetry Club, and the kid who wouldn’t write actually composed several poems. This was his first:

Feelings of a Gangsta Trying to Change

I’m living in a nonfiction life
Full of a whole bunch of lies.
Can’t realize reality
Because of my bloodshot red eyes.

I’m stuck in this crazy life
Like a fly
Stuck in the web of death.

I’m tired of all these people
Talking noise
And me just holding my breath.

My crazy life is like a nightmare
Always running
But I’m running nowhere.

So I ask myself
Day after day
What’s life, if life
Is living for nothing?

In the end, outside of a few details, the teenage Hispanic “gangsta” and the middle-aged white teacher had more in common than they knew. In the end, both of us just wanted our lives to count for something. He, along with many others, is still with me as I begin this second year of my teaching adventure. I am sure it will always remain just that—an adventure—and that he will always remain with me, too.

Jay Johnson is the executive editor and co-publisher of, helping new authors break into the marketplace.

* The names of the students in this story have been changed to protect their identities.


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