Monday, July 20, 2015

Kiddos, aching souls, and the school-to-prison pipeline

Photo by Mike Mozart

I don’t make the connection until eight weeks into the summer.

“I really love what I’m doing with Reunion and Church of Christ, Right Now,” I keep telling friends, family, anyone on the street who will listen to me gush about my new love.

I feel moved when I go to jail. I feel deep meaning in the conversations and relationships and support groups with the ones coming home from jail, the ones long ago in jail and now leaders in the movement, the ones who’ve never been to jail and desperately don’t want their grandkids to go there. Jesus is in jail. The Spirit is in the vulnerability and open heartedness. The leaders of this movement are prophets and saints and I want to sit at their feet and soak up all their wisdom and commitment and love.

“On the other hand,” I shrug, “the after-school program stuff is fine—I just plan field trips and help out with a summer camp for kids. But I’ve been there before. I’ve taught reading before; I’ve worked in a summer daycare; I’ve written curriculum. I’m ready for something new. I’m ready to put my theology to use.”

Taking kindergarteners to the American Indian museum to build an igloo, after all, is not really theology. Right?


It is time to go on a trip with the middle school kids.

I squish into the van with them as we drive the twenty minutes to get downtown.

The three boys sitting on the seat next to me are bragging about how bad they are. “I’ve been expelled from three schools,” one says. “I’ve been expelled from one, but I have a feeling I’ll get kicked out of my new one,” another responds, trying to keep up. “My cousin got suspended,” says the goody-goody, bless his heart.

I want to roll my eyes. I am sure these kids are exaggerating. I keep listening.

“My dad has been in jail most of my life,” is where the conversation migrates. “Almost all my relatives have been in jail,” says another kid. “My brother had to go to juvy for stealing an iPhone from the store,” says another. “My teacher keeps telling me I’m gonna end up in juvy,” says the kid with the dad in jail. “You only get three strikes before you get locked up for good,” someone warns. “My cousin has four strikes though,” one protests.

And like that, the synapses meet, and my heart is weeping and praying for each of them by name.

These kids I work with in the mornings will become the incarcerated folks I work with in the afternoons.

It was only last night that our support group had a heart-wrenching conversation about belonging and love. So many aching souls in that room, confessing that they'd longed for more love from their mothers and fathers. They'd run away from home because of it. They'd ended up in juvy because of it. They'd sought love in all the wrong places, formed all the wrong kinds of relationships. Only to find now, at 28 or 37 or 59, that they are tired of the search. They are tired and they want to rest here in this community, in this place, where if they are brave enough to be themselves, there is love to be found.

And now, when these twelve- and thirteen-year-olds give their macho stories about their dads absent in jail, I know I am hearing the same story in a different tone of voice. In just a few short years, these boys are so likely to become the men in jail, wanting another way but not knowing how to repair relationships, how to break out of poverty without a little quick money on the side to get them started. They are so likely to become those tired men sitting around the table at support group. Because if it’s all they’ve ever seen from every man in their family, who can tell them there’s another way? I grew up without ever questioning if I’d go to college. Everyone in my family went to college. It was a given. What is the given for these kids?

For some of them—the troublemakers, the ones with a rebellious streak—the connection is not hard to visualize. But the little guy in the front row with the sideways baseball cap? The beautiful girl with a scowl who brightens as she comes up with the most thoughtful answer to every question? Surely not them, too?

And then my heart skips a beat, as I think of the sweet little kindergarteners I took to the museum yesterday. The tiny little girls and boys who hold hands and walk through the exhibits with their matching visors and garner the admiration of every stranger. The adorable little voices who chorus, “Thank you, Miss Katie,” and giggle so freely. The open hearts who stare in wide-eyed wonder at the whale hanging from the ceiling and exclaim, “Whoa!” every time I open the box to show them a new type of rock.

It is one thing for the moody, exasperating middle-schoolers to grow up to be incarcerated. But who will these kindergarterners grow up to be?

Lord, have mercy. May it not be so.


For the last two weeks, I want to soak up all the love and open-heartedness I can from the re-entry program, from the beautiful spirits of the men and women coming home from prison.

And then I want to take and fling it with all my strength into the hearts of the kids in the summer program, whether by presence or by conversation or, simply and desperately, by prayer.

Because my work is not divided this summer into two unrelated ministries. It is one. The love we share in the support group is the same love needed by the kids. If they can receive love now, perhaps they won’t smoke and drink to escape it all. If they can be wrapped in the grace and protection of the spirit now, perhaps they will find a different way than their fathers.

And for me--if this daily breaking of my heart can be captured and bathed in the Spirit, perhaps something beautiful becomes of me, too.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah Grace HaganJuly 20, 2015 at 3:44 PM

    Felt this way, too, in the classroom, even with end of grade tests looming over us. There has to be another way, other paths, permanent change, a break in the cycle...but how and when??