The field trip I went on Saturday with the Conflict Resolution Crew offered some insight into education and our social problems.
About 20 kids, mine included, hopped on a bus and went to the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois to watch 20 girls perform a play. This wasn’t just any play; this performance was their collective experience as teenagers directed by Story Catchers Theatre and the focus was on what landed them in the detention facility. Their stories were compelling. Some of the girls had been incarcerated at the facility two, three, and four times – not necessarily because they committed new crimes, but because they may have violated the conditions of their release. The girls had experiences with abuse, violence, homelessness, and poverty. And their parents had been invited to see the play, but this was no 'gotcha' type of play.
The play was brutally honest about their children’s issues – no one was let off the hook – not the parents, not the children, not the institution. And as these youth (who were between the ages of 14 and 20) performed, I watched the metaphorical door open between these parents and their children. I felt their sadness, frustration and anger. But I also witnessed their joy in watching their children accomplish something positive, of watching their children realize that something right could come out of something so wrong and that there was hope.
Did the play fix everything? No. But it connected these parents and teens in such a way that healing could begin and a place where the warmth of hope could crack the icy feeling of betrayal.
Before the performance started, I sensed tension from the audience. I noticed a woman and a man seated in the front row. You could see the tension in his body, his arms were folded across his chest, his gaze was fixed straight ahead, and his eyebrows were furrowed down. His wife kept her coat on. She had a tired and fearful look on her face of what was about to come. Later, I told this to Nancy Gibson, the director of Case High School’s CRC group: “Sure, they were all thinking ‘I’m about to get screwed.’ They thought they were going to be blamed for everything.”
But this couple’s daughter didn’t do that to her parents. And as the story unfolded, you could see their anger and fear give way to joy and pride. At one point, the mother mouthed the words, “That’s my baby.” And the couple wept as they watched their child give voice to her problems and they listened to her take responsibility for her actions.
After the show, another inmate talked about how much she wanted her parents there, but they didn’t come.
“As much as I did want them here, I realize now that I got to understand that I wasn’t doing this for them," she said. "I wanted to show them I had changed, but I realized I wasn’t changing for them. I was changing for me.”
This statement, this profound insight and painful reality brought her (and us) to tears. And as she wept, a number of people (I included) made a point to tell her how good of a job she did.
And another inmate talked about how she could relate to her character, whose cousins were shot to death in front of her, because she too had watched two of her boyfriends get shot to death.
And one mom, whose 15-year-old daughter had admitted to being lazy and addicted to crack, stood up and said how proud she was that she had watched her child finish something she had set out to do.
During the play, I realized that these children carried an incredible amount of pain, guilt and fear with them. They weren't bad kids, they just needed help.
As I watched these beautiful reunions unfold, I couldn’t help but think that when we talk about education, we don’t think of children like this and we should think of them if we expect them to learn. We need to understand how to bring parents and children together again because parents have become so disconnected from their children and as a result, the streets take them.
We cannot afford to allow that to continue.
When people are in such desperate places, they do desperate things. We forget to see them as children who have dreams and aspirations, and we treat them as the symptom of their problems, not their actual problems. What do I mean by this? We need to understand that people on the streets make a compelling argument for not getting an education. Why? Because getting an education doesn’t make your dad stop beating on your mother, doesn’t put food on your parents table at night, or make your brother stop stealing from your neighbor because he wants to buy some weed. It doesn’t make your tooth stop hurting when you have no dental insurance, your belly stop hurting when you haven’t eaten or your mom any less angry when she can’t make rent that month.
So that's where we need to start -- making a better argument for leading an educated life with a directed purpose. It doesn't have to mean going to a four-year college, but it does mean trying to understand that the problems you are experiencing are worth fixing.
And if we really want to pay less in taxes, we need to use our jails less, our police less, and our hospitals less. And if we want successful schools so that they can get a job, then we need to help put families back together.
Why? Because that’s someone’s baby, that’s someone’s child and unless we want the streets raising him or her; then we need to get them connected again or connect with these children ourselves.