Is it Scary

Special thanks to Urban Youth Justice (Youth_Justice) on Twitter and Youth Justice Board (YouthJusticeNY) on Twitter and to Coming Soon “From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline” | Dr. Anthony J. Nocella II


“Joe, are you willing to come and speak about Growing Examples, at my youth program in Parksville. We are talking about entrepreneurship in our nutrition class.”

“Seems a stretch to me, Myrna, but I’d be happy to do it.”

“No, you’ve started this business, you know these kids, and I think you’d be a good fit.”

“OK,” I said.

I set to preparing an hour-long program on Entrepreneurship, including ice-breaker games, a quick, short lecture with a think-pair-share activity, and then small group work that included brainstorming a small business. Did I say I was asked to speak for just one hour?

I arrived the Parksvile Youth Center ten minutes before I was scheduled to begin, and walked into a large converted warehouse or gymnasium, with a skate park to my left, and some pool tables and other table games in an area on my right. Straight ahead sat the long basketball court. The skate park and game tables were empty. Although unusual for this bustling hub of teen angst, and pre teen wonder, this was no surprise. For straight ahead in front of me, covering the gym floor were rows of unfolded folding chairs, and 30-40 kids sitting, arms flailing, voices rising and bouncing off the drop ceiling seemingly a thousand feet above. White skinny arms, and black skinny arms, and fat arms, and Menonite arms attached to bony fingers adjusting her bonnet now. Alot of the kids that come here were skinny, hungry, really. In this blighted town, this Center was well-designed to be a place of nurture and love. And, full of love that I am, and resilient as I am, I still was baffled. I spotted Myrna talking with the Center Director, Dan Short, and made my way to the Visiting Teams’ side of the court.

“Hi Danny,” I said, shaking the tall, dark-skinned, muscular, African American Director’s hand, “Myrna.” Reaching to take Myrna’s hand, I said, “Lots of kids here today. I thought you said that your program had just fourteen?”

“Danny thought it would be good for all the youth to hear your program,” she smiled. Danny smiled.

“Great,” I said. I smiled. Thinking, great, I had prepped for fourteen, and seriously over-planned for that number. OK. I have enough game pieces to do small teams of 12-14. It’s a roll the ball through tubes and not drop it game; each person holds a tube, they form a line, and move the ball through the tubes, down the line. This will work. And then I can just adjust the quick, short lecture part to just the…

“Ready,” Danny asked. I turned my head. My eyes refocused on the two before me.

“Ready,” I said. I was introduced and began. I had the students all count off, and get up from their seats to form lines. WAIT. Did I say, I had been asked to speak for just an hour. (And, btw, to just fourteen, and now their were 3 groups of twelve!) I saw Myrna’s smile wane when I gave the direction to leave our seats!!! As I realized my mistake, I still had to go with it, they were so excited, the kids.

We did a quick game; it was hectic, and fun. And, it was 27 and a half minutes before we were all back sitting quietly in our seats. So, now the quick short lecture, which literally was only about ten minutes long of how I had the idea, and what a board is, and who I hoped to help. I didn’t ask for questions. Instead, I announced that we would split into pairs, and began our think-pair-share activity. I ask a question, youths are asked to answer the question alone, youth are then paired to talk about their answers together, and finally, report back to the group. But WAIT. I’ve only been asked to speak for an HOUR!!! And, now it was 39.5 minutes in. 27.5 for the initial ice-breaker game, then ten minutes of lecture, then two minutes of Think-Pair-Share instructions. Myrna raised her hand.

“Yes, Myrna,” I called.

”Joe, we only have about 20 minutes left. Maybe you’d like to talk a little more about the people you hope to help, and about jail. For instance,” the youth all looked at Myrna, now, waiting, “How many of you know someone who has been to jail or prison, or is in jail or prison right now?”

Voices began, hands shot up, “My Uncle is there now,” “My moms has been there,” “Two of my cousins are upstate.” Skinny white, and black, and Spanish and arms bent at the elbows, like they were doing an over the head shake-weight exercise. One hand held the elbow of the other arm whose fingers stretched up, the arm shaking to and from. One really large red haired boy stood up, placing both hands on thick round thighs, pudgy transluscent fingers digging into his freckled thighs. “I got my two brothers there now, and my Uncle.” He turned as he said it, playing to his audience, smiling.

“Sit down, Michael,” Myrna announced.

“Thanks, Myrna,” I boomed, clapping my hands together three times over my head. “What an awesome question.” A few kids clapped three times back, and I repeated the gesture. “When you hear me clap three times, I want you to clap back three times to me. OK,” I stated. One, two, three. We did this a couple times, and then they were quiet again. I re-stated Myrna’s question and asked that they remain quiet as they raised their hands. More than two thirds of the kids raised their hands. Maybe closer to 3/4. I remembered where I was. Parksville. A once booming industrial Chester County town, now drugs and section 8 and TANF eligible youth at community centers. I asked the kids, did they have any questions for me. Hands were raised in response. I called on a small framed pale girl with short braids.

“What’s it like in jail, is it scary,” she asked.

“It can be,” I said, “But, it can be manageable. What are some things that you think people do in jail?”

We began a conversation then, about expectations, assumptions, rumors, and facts. The twenty minutes left to our time together happened very quick. And, then I was being thanked, and there was applause. Kids folded their chairs, mostly walked them to their storage place, then repopulated the skate park, game tables, and basketball court.

Myrna and Danny thanked me. Myrna said that was the part she that wanted, that poverty leads to incarceration, and that she knew her kids were suffering from both those things. I thanked her, and Danny, and left the center to a white blinding sunlight off the concrete parking lot. The train whistled, passing through town on it’s way to the state capitol. It was the 4:05.

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2 Responses to Is it Scary

  1. Ellen Reynolds says:

    Joe, you could have been so much more effective if you were given clear communication ahead of time. I’m sure you rescued things nicely, but it seems like an unfortunate missed opportunity as you were not able to really plan. That doesn’t sound respectful of your effort to me. No? Will you be going back and doing more there in the future?

    • joeovelman says:

      Hi Ellen, Thanks for the response. Rarely does it go according to over-plan, yet, no worries, we had a great day. The reason I wrote this post was because last week I talked about disproportionate contact among African-Americans. American Poor are also disproportionately caught up in our Criminal Justice System. These kids, teens and pre-teens, between 25 and 30 out of 40 know, have someone in their immediate family, that have been to or are in prison, or jail. This is an economically depressed town, whose manufacturing has been shipped overseas to make some fat cat an extra mil, and what are we supposed to do. I guess the answer is imprison.

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