The prompt was think of a time you were truly happy. My wagon wheel partner, Matthew [not his real name], couldn’t think of a single one. “My mom kicked me out of the house and didn’t care about me at all, she just did drugs,” he said, his eyes flitting hollowly between mine and the carpet. “What about a time with friends?” I tried. “They all betrayed me,” Matthew said.
Oh man. Did I feel anything remotely like that at 13?
I have been involved with our Serbu Program Book Club project since it began about two years ago. Today, as I sat through a final book club graduation ceremony before I go through my own robes/cords/mispronounced names college graduation ceremony next week, I realized that in these two years I have seen seven different book clubs gather in that austere classroom in the John Serbu Juvenile Justice Center. I’ve seen seven sets of UO students earnestly applying seven different approaches to pedagogy and curriculum for such a unique group. Seventy times I have rolled up to that facility, usually a little bit late and sweating from my bike ride, listened to the beep-click of the doors leading to the Serbu “pod,” gathered and arranged plastic chairs (cognizant of the few red and blue ones that could sometimes bring out gang-referencing hoots and taunts). But that’s where the routine ends. Things have changed tremendously since the beginning of this project.
Katie D. had the idea, and she roped me in right away. “We’re going to do something like Inside-Out in the juvenile justice center,” she told me. She remembered something I had almost forgotten, that two years previously in our Inside-Out class together at the Oregon State Penitentiary I had spoken out about wanting to work with youth to help them avoid contact with the prison system in the first place. I eagerly signed on to the book club project. I’d been working summers at a camp for kids whose families were experiencing the strain of military deployment, and I figured my various camp counselor (little tip: my resume refers to residential youth development) skills would instantly create some kind of award winning transformative program and these youths would all walk off with Rhodes scholarships and I could give TED talks about it or something.
The reality was more challenging than that. Or perhaps just slower.
The first few iterations of the book club were stressful. It turned out we had a lot of preconceived notions–imagine that!–and it took time to iron those out. The biggest one was a misunderstanding of the institutional context within which we were developing this project. The Phoenix program is a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment program for youth in Lane County. This was explained to us right away, of course. But coming from the big intimidating monolith of the Oregon State Penitentiary, a capital-I Institution, where punishment is industrialized and impersonal and rehabilitation is not available in any overt, identifiable, general sense, I thought that our book club was essentially a light shining onto these youths through the hard iron bars of incarceration, an unusual gasp of freedom. The relative shock of seeing children locked into small, barren, white-painted cells with bright lights cemented this impression for me. It took time for me to realize and observe the profound and efficient commitment within the program to holistically addressing the emotional challenges facing the youth, and helping them start on the lifetime journey of sobriety. It had to sink in for me over months and months of our weekly sessions that they go to school in the program, they get time off on weekends and get to go home, they have a whole staff genuinely attentive and committed to their treatment.
In short, Phoenix was not OSP. Those first few months, we would slave over the plans for our sessions, the four of us outside students who had signed on to establish this project. When we would get inside, the plans would sometimes work OK, sometimes flop. At times we couldn’t tell what went wrong, or it was just energy in the group that we couldn’t get under control. Other times we learned lessons. Oh, we decided to select comic books for the group because we assumed they don’t like to read regular books, but this kid has been re-reading the Harry Potter series for fun and can quote it verbatim or perhaps we’ve been assuming that the youth feel constrained by their circumstance and are yearning for opportunities to make their own choices, but when we ask them for help designing the group it falls flat, perhaps because they have a relatively high amount of control over their lives that we hadn’t expected. Overall we strained against the seeming necessity for us to take a teaching role and the core value of Inside-Out to have inside and outside interact as equals.
This was a long process of learning, and my “residential youth development” skills only half-applied. I had basic facilitation abilities and I could run a terrific icebreaker, but I was pretty stumped when it came to designing curriculum based on books. We started with the comic Why: The Last Man (confiscated-our bad) moved to Ultimate Spider Man (not much to talk about), and then to The Essential Calvin and Hobbs (had some great moments).
Our outside group grew bit by bit, from four the first term to about six for a few terms to about eight… still, we were significantly outnumbered by the youth. And I was spending so much time each session thinking about the curriculum, the technical elements of my facilitation, the clock ticking down on our short time slot that I wasn’t getting to know these people. I wasn’t making myself available for the encounter that should form the heart of Inside-Out, between bona-fide human beings across a gulf of experience.
So when outside student Alex P. stepped up and wanted to help lead these sessions, I jumped at the chance, subconsciously perhaps, to share the planning and leading and try to give myself more space to connect with the youth. Alex and I toyed with different curriculum designs, trying first a week-by-week topical approach that didn’t really work and ended up being even more stressful than the comic books had been. Then Alex discovered a play version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee’s story was what we had been looking for. It dealt deftly with subjects that had obvious relevance to our setting in the Phoenix program, including growing up, justice, privilege, and, of course, racism. We had some powerful discussions about whether we would use the N-word as written when we read the play, and for the first time it seemed that both the UO students and the youth were speaking from the heart, as equals, and listening to each other with the kind of care and deference that we’d attempted to foster. The play format gave us a way to all engage with the text together.
The group finally had the momentum and energy that it needed to sustain itself. The reader will not be surprised to learn that we turned right around and used To Kill a Mockingbird again the following term.
As the sessions got easier to run, the UO students were able to relax a bit more and interactions between outside and inside students grew sillier, warmer, and deeper. And that revealed, all of a sudden, the key to the success of the whole project. It didn’t really matter what we read, or even what we discussed. It became clear that the great potential of the book club was to introduce these groups to each other and let them form bonds of friendship, giving the youth a connection to their own possible future in college and the UO students an opportunity to reflect on their past and their community. It feels obvious to write this now, considering that such bonds of friendship and understanding are the ubiquitous takeaways from I-O classes, but we had become so caught up in designing our sessions, choosing our books, setting up activities, and all the other logistical concerns that we had in some ways neglected that goal. The rediscovery of that connection was powerful, and has born fruit ever since.
It was tremendously moving for me to watch Alex take the reins. I looked on as he tested out and then mastered ways to address the whole group that could instill safety, confidence, and a sense of higher purpose in all of the participants. I was able to step back more and more from my former leadership position, which was extremely beneficial for me; I’m used to running the show in most areas of my life, and I am most comfortable while doing so. To let go and watch Alex succeed was gratifying and healthy.
Last term Alex had the idea to have the group work toward a meeting with the mayor of Eugene during the final session, and so we formed small groups focused on specific societal issues that the youth were interested in, such as homelessness, drug addiction, or in the case of my group, gangs. The two inside students in my group had been involved in gangs in other states before moving to Oregon, but even though they had chosen this group as their focus, our discussions were going nowhere. As the sessions counted down to the final one with the mayor, I was nervous about what we would present. Our discussions seemed silly, teasing, but with flashes of seriousness as the youth would recount their experiences. But those receded as quickly as they arose, and when it came time to present to the mayor we had the barest outlines of a plan for more organized sports opportunities in the community. Let’s just get through this, I thought, reverting to an outdated mode of thinking about book club.
But things had truly changed, and when our two guys spoke about their experiences with gangs and about our plan, they did so movingly, powerfully, and efficiently. I was floored. They had a great exchange with the mayor about their ideas, as did each other group. The poise, courage, and verve of all of the youth that day was a world away from the restless and disengaged group that we had first met two years ago, and I think our willingness, as outside students, to let our guard down and allow ourselves to be silly with the youth, to connect with them and allow them to get to know us, made it possible for us to see them at their best.
This term, the last for both me and Alex, the two of us have stepped back almost entirely and asked other UO students from the group to plan the sessions. It has been awesome. And I want to return to Matthew, the guy who couldn’t remember a single happy moment in his life. It was probably eight weeks ago that I had that interaction with him, when he was newly admitted to the Phoenix program.
Last week, I found myself in another small group with Matthew. We were to discuss poems we had written in a quiet writing session. I’d written an over-wrought yarn about my grandfather’s time in WWII. Matthew had written just a few words. In Greek. “This isn’t a poem. I just wrote some Greek words.” I asked him if his family was Greek and he said yes, and that he was learning Greek but wasn’t able to work on it in Phoenix. Since poetry wasn’t his thing, I asked him if he was into other creative things. “He’s crafty,” the other inside student in our group piped up. Matthew’s face brightened, and out poured a long explanation of the many things he makes with paper. A tow truck. Cars. A waste basket for his room at Phoenix. A tank.
I told him I knew how to make paper tanks too, with Origami; that, in fact, tanks are the only things I can make with Origami. So I made one and gave it to him. He was fascinated by it.
Today, after our graduation session, our traditional donut-eating, as we were preparing to leave, Matthew called me over to look in his room. There, on the stone slab that serves as his bed, were many, many perfect copies of my Origami tank.
“I made 23!” he said, with a big grin. He seemed happy.
U of O