As an educator for 18- to 21-year-old boys at our county juvenile detention center, sorrow often feels like a constant companion.
There are days when the weight of my students’ stories and struggles leaves me in tears—but only later, when I’m alone at home.
Too Close to Home
It is my home and personal life that have shaped the educator and advocate/activist that I have become. Recently, when I was discussing with my 17-year-old son whether or not I thought it was a good idea for him to walk two blocks alone in downtown Cleveland, he provided me with a jarring reminder: “Mom, I look like the monster that other people are afraid of. Don’t worry about me,” he said, as if that was supposed to offer me a semblance of comfort.
My thoughtful, polite, intellectual, kind, dedicated son is over six feet tall with keen brown eyes, beautiful brown skin and lovely tumbling dreadlocks. He could be mistaken for any number of the young men I greet in class each day. None of them are monsters.
My son’s words still conjure a feeling of dread within me. Yet, they also motivate me to keep working on behalf of my son and all young men who may or may not look like him.
SPACES, New and Old
When I began teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center three years ago, after years of teaching in more traditional public high schools, I knew that social-emotional learning was going to continue to be an integral part of my practice. In addition to a trauma-informed classroom approach to teaching, the practices and concepts of gratitude, mindfulness, growth mindset, breathing exercises, short-term and long-term goal-setting, and reflection are incorporated into our daily classroom routine.
A community partnership with a local art venue called SPACES (supported by a generous grant from the NoVo Social-Emotional Learning Innovation Fund) offers an exceptional additional opportunity for students to interact with a diverse array of artistic mediums, facilitated by international, national and local artists. This is then used as a component of our classroom’s community service and outreach.
Many students cited these artistic experiences, and the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, as their favorite activities in class.
Not only is it crucial for my students to be exposed to the talents and resources in the community, but community members also need to change their proximity to the young men in my classroom.
In fact, three artists who interacted with my young men valued and enjoyed the experience so much they refused the small stipend that SPACES was able to dispense, and we were able to offer additional activities we had not originally planned.
Slowly, by coordinating opportunities for people to alter their points of view, we’re helping to change narratives.
It’s Only Natural
Art is a natural medium for social and emotional learning. It allows for the exploration of self, which was quite evident when one young man explained his painting as a representation of the voices he hears. It improves self-management because producing art naturally de-escalates stress levels. Many of the activities, like paper making, screen printing and audio recordings, require a collaborative effort, which improves relationship skills.
Having their art valued and appreciated contributes to my students’ confidence and sense of self-efficacy. And it’s dismantling stereotypes—the empathy expressed by the young men as they created placemats and cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic, or as they decorated cupcakes and cookies for younger students and flower pots to grow milkweed in to help save monarch butterflies.
Yet, changing perceptions is not unchallenging.
During a printing activity, some students could not resist the urge to mark their art with street or gang-affiliated tags. Although it is their reality, displaying art with gang suggestions would violate school policies.
Not willing to throw their creations aside, I cut out the letters and they remained in a large envelope for weeks. Finally, I used the letters to create a message on a large poster as part of their gallery exhibit at SPACES. I wanted to capture why their experiences have been so much more challenging than my sons’ or those of many other children.
The message on the poster read: “Hope happens when opportunities for hope are created.”
Hope cannot be taken for granted or neglected. It is the beginning of every movement, every struggle and every idea. It is also the origin of the art collaboration between my classroom of 18-year-old boys at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, SPACES and the NoVo Foundation.
As an educator, neutrality is simply not an option. I keep hoping that one day we will make sure every child feels they have a future to look forward to. May we all find more ways to create hope for others.