Saturday, July 01, 2006

A library vist at jail

I know this painting isn't very good, it was done long ago, my second ever attempt at oil painting. But it fit my post for today (Scorpions, Walter Dean Myers).

Yesterday, as part of a summer reading program, I did a very special library event. It was in a jail. Seriously.

For some reason, I thought this would be a typical visit, one for elementary school kids, ages 4 to 8. Couple hours before the event, I called to be sure an easel would be available so I could draw cartoons for the children. While speaking with my contact — a probation officer — the circumstances became clear — there'd be no 2nd graders at this visit. This would be a group of about 10 to 20 young men, ages 12 to 17.

For a second, I went into a panic. I was at work, I had everything with me, and I was prepared to do my usual visit where I read my picture books, draw cartoons, and even dance at one point. A dramatic presentation of 'The Singing Tortoise and the Loney Hunter', complete with my booty-shake turtle dance was not going to work, so I dashed home to get some slides of my art, and a projector.

Entering the building, the probation officer led me up several floors, every door locking behind us. Once in the library, while I unpacked my materials, the officer went on to tell me how each child was a convicted felon, removed from the public school system, convicted of crimes such as gang rape, drive by shootings, drug dealing, gang involvement, armed robbery. Some were Crips or Bloods, stripped of their colors, and shaven clean with the exception of tattoos. She walked with a crutch, her foot in a cast following a scuffle she had with one of, children. She lost. I grew more nervous by the minute as she told me various stories, of which involved guns, violence, stabbings, murder.

She left the room to allow me to set up; I had an half hour to do so. What was I possibly going to say to this group of young men? Suddenly, I felt completely inadequete. Surly, they'd view me as a girly-man — a black male Martha Stewart, with my artwork, children's books, wall paper and fabric designs. I've never been to jail, or in any real trouble. I had no hardship stories to relate. Then, to my horror, my slide projector malfunctioned. My entire presentation is visual, intentionally. Without visuals, I'd have to speak for the next 45 minutes. I reconsidered the turtle dance, but luckily, as the young men began to enter the room, I got the darn thing working.

As two big guys — guards I presumed — opened the library door, about twenty young men entered. My mind had built them up as monsters, but as I caught the eye of each one of them, I realized these were children — big, burly, possibly dangerous children, but children none the less. And they were respectful. Each entered, shook my hand, and greeted me with a, "Good afternoon, Mr. Tate." They stated their first name, and sat down quietly, attentive.

I began my presentation stumbling through an introduction. When I realized I was talking in circles, and probably not making much sense, I quickly turned the stage over to my artwork, and booted up the projector. That's when things got easy; I started started telling stories. I told them about being a kid their age and wanting to be an artist, but not knowing how. I told them about how I was inspired by my aunt who was a young adult novelist. I told them how I couldn't play sports, so I spent my free-time drawing pictures. Each piece of art had a back story, and they listened attentively, asked questions. One painting, in particular drew the most attention and discussion. It was a painting I created many years ago, a poster for the book Scorpions (Walter Dean Myers). It depicted a scene where one gang member held a gun to another kids head, very graphic. I was shocked to learn that almost all of these young men had read that book. With excitement, they recounted the scene from the story (Backs up what I wrote earlier about needing books that speak to black males; They do read!). Then the questions started flowing, and it turned into more of a group discussion. In terms of interest level, and enthusiam, this group turned out to be one of the best groups I've ever shared with, and I've done quite a few of these visits now.

I left the library confident that I had inspired this mostly African American group. Some of them left with a spark in their eyes. Many asked questions about getting into school. They seemed interested in earning money beyond selling drugs. But what saddened me was the realization, conveyed by the probation officer, that most of these kids would eventually end up in the prison system. Some of them don't even have parents who come visit them.

Have I found my ministry?

Thanks to all those who have responded to my post, Black Males in Children's Books. I'm still receiving comments. I don't read that far back in my comments boxes, but I know when I receive a comment because I get an email, and I appreciate all the feedback.


cloudscome said...

What a great post! That must have been quite and experience. And now you have a new direction to consider...

rindawriter said...

Wow! I felt so happy knowing that you did this! You know, Don, every little bit that someone gives to a child that doesn't have a good home helps, every little bit. Sometimes that's all we can give to other people's children, a word, a few words, a minute, an hour or two, but it does matter; it is important. Sometimes you don't know just how important. LOVE it that they are READING! Yay!

TadMack said...

Honestly? The words "I know this painting isn't very good" -- ??? So wrong! So, I'm not an artist, but I believe that even your early days were impressive -- as was this whole visit. Perhaps those of us who work and write for kids should all have a moment like this... Just after college I taught at a school for youthful offenders - my boys had the tatts and bullets still under their skins, my girls were math whizzes and could make change faster than I could (from turning tricks) but they couldn't read anything longer than a billboard. And every day I reminded myself that they were just kids... big and surly and yeah, really dangerous at times, but kids. That's a really worthwhile lesson.

What an awesome moment for you, to realize that a.) you're REALLY flexible -- way to jump from the 4-8 year old presentation into a YA presentation! and b.) even with your squeaky-clean Martha past, you've got something to offer, far more than you think. I do think you've found your ministry!

sorry to ramble on!

Bethany said...


I saw your link on Cynthia's blog, and also drop by Bartography from time to time.

I've long been fascinated by writers who visit/teach in the prison system. The details of your visit, from the what-am-I-in-for-moment, to the respectful hellos, to the bonding moment where the boys talked about WDM book and your cover art, was moving. In their eyes, you saw boys not beasts (even if they have committed beastly crimes.) Kudos!