Teaching in a Culture of Poverty and Violence

I am committed to addressing the issues of hatred and violence in the world. I have often wondered how the Holocaust could have happened, how human beings could turn upon each other in such a brutal way. I wonder how it is possible that even today we continue to see the widespread cruelty that human beings demonstrate towards each other. I am not an expert on peacemaking or nonviolence, but I can share some of my experiences as a Quaker working in the North Carolina Juvenile Justice System.

I am a believer in the power of love, and I am committed to nonviolence. I have been involved in the antiwar and Civil Rights movements since the early 1960s. I have three grown children who were raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, as Quakers and were taught nonviolence. When they were children, we would instruct them not to hit other kids. “We don’t hit, we use our words,” we told them, and, as far as I know, none of my children has ever been in a fistfight.

But because of our circumstances, our commitment to nonviolence has never really been tested. My family has always lived a comfortable, sheltered life. My children attended Charlotte Country Day School and a Quaker boarding school in the North and never had to face bullies. They grew up in a world where they could drop their backpacks on a bench and come back later to find them intact and undisturbed. Any violence they experienced was on the football and lacrosse fields. When disagreements arose, they had the social skills and the vocabulary to resolve them without a fight, as did all the people around them. Because there is no longer a draft, my sons did not have to defend their belief in nonviolence in order to achieve conscientious objector status.

As we know, however, most people do not lead the privileged lives that my family does. It is easy to be nonviolent when your life is sheltered and safe. It is often difficult to relate to the violence highlighted in the media because we cannot understand the hardships of those less fortunate than ourselves. Unless we make it our business to move out of our comfort zones, we will never understand the effects of generational poverty on the lives of people living right in our midst. If we look past the walls of our gated communities and comfortable neighborhoods, we will see children growing up in poverty. Their world is not peaceful and comfortable. There is violence all around them; gangs, street crime, and gunfire rule their neighborhoods. These are the students I teach at Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center. These kids have grown up in the same towns and cities where many of us live, but that is where the similarity ends. Because their lives are driven by different needs, they are governed by rules different from those with which we grew up.

My instructions to my children— “Use your words” and “We don’t hit”— don’t suffice in other neighborhoods. A friend of mine here in Asheville, North Carolina, raised her three kids in one of the worst projects in the city. After her six-year-old daughter was assaulted several times, she taught her kids how to fight so that they wouldn’t be bullied by other kids. When we discuss fighting in my class at the center, the kids share similar stories. Even the smallest boys fight to show their worth, and those who turn the other cheek are bullied daily whenever the staff turn their heads. Every boy takes pride in his fighting skills, and the boys report that the girls in their neighborhoods are just as likely as males to fight. They assume I’m lying when I tell them I have never been in a fight.

In his novel Lord of the Flies, William Golding shows the reader the lawlessness and violence that quickly overwhelm schoolboys from English boarding schools when there are no grownups around to enforce the rules. These boys grew up in a strict, civilized environment where people voluntarily queue up at bus stops. Imagine what would have happened on that island if the boys came from the projects. With generational poverty, there are few external constraints on behavior, and the thin veneer of civilization that Golding demonstrates with the English schoolboys is thinner still with my students. Piggy would have met his violent end on Day One if my students ran the island.

The students in the center have been sent there because they have committed violent crimes. There are murderers, armed robbers, rapists, child molesters, drug dealers, and other sorts of violent criminals in my classes. There are currently 50 boys in the school from the larger cities in the state, mainly Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, and they are committed to the facility for six months to a year. Most of the boys are affiliated with gangs, and the majority of them stopped attending school at an early age. Recently my English class read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. They related to Toby’s struggles with an abusive stepfather and enjoyed the memoir. I asked them to talk about their own struggles and to identify a turning point in their lives. Most pointed to first or second grade, when they were kicked out of school. I was stunned. “What could you have done at age six or seven that got you kicked out of school?” I asked. Most of their answers involved bringing loaded guns to school; some cases included assaulting their teachers.

How can this happen? Guns are rampant in their communities, threats real and imagined are everywhere, and poor vocabularies and environmental pressures elevate frustration. Their hardships increase at school with the added frustrations of teachers who don’t understand their learning styles and academic environments that don’t meet their needs. Even when they have good teachers, these kids cannot escape problems at home. A friend of mine who is an amazing kindergarten teacher in a public school here in Asheville reports that some of her students come to school with one-on-one coaches who are attached to them throughout the day to help them avoid explosive situations. Even so, one of her little boys tried to hit her with a hoe as they were working in the organic garden.

School administrators are usually relieved when these kids do not return to school, and, with parents who care little about their children’s education, these kids wander the streets getting into trouble. The gangs that run their neighborhoods train them to commit crimes. Often, younger kids take the blame for crimes committed by older gang members because they receive lighter sentences as juveniles. The gangs are substitute families for these kids, and the boys are fiercely loyal to them.

Fights are common in the center, and we have to be ready for violence. Most often the fights are precipitated by gang conflicts, when one person “disrespects” another person’s gang. For example, if someone calls another person a “slob” or a “crab,” a fight is inevitable because slob is a derogatory word for a Blood, and likewise crab is a derogatory word for a Crip (the names of gangs). There are countless signs, hand gestures, and insults that start fights, and they are the highlight of the boys’ day. When fights occur, the rest of the day is spent analyzing the blows struck and determining the winner. At the center, boys who fight are punished with at least nine days in their cells, but that is not much of a deterrent. The boys have few opportunities for exercise, and the bulk of their time is spent locked down, walking in single file, or confined to their seats in a classroom. A good fight relieves their tension and boredom.

In the culture of generational poverty, survival is hard work that requires constant vigilance. My students have antennae—they can pick up any whisper of trouble because on the streets, survival depends upon keeping alert. They sense when someone is in a bad mood or when something bad is going to happen. They know before they even enter my classroom if I have a headache or did not sleep well the night before—even when I think I’m hiding it. “What’s wrong?” they inquire, wondering what this change in the weather will mean for them.

While we staff can afford to be casual in our attire, the students are meticulous about their appearance, even behind bars. Any inkling that one of them is not taking care of his appearance indicates a chink in the armor, and they don’t ever want to show weakness. They are very careful about their dress, ironing their uniforms by smoothing them beneath their mattresses at night and taking great pains to make sure their hair looks neat. They tell me that on the street, they wear designer clothes, naming designers I have seen in fashion magazines and others I have never heard of. A Coogi sweater can cost $1,000, and in their world, this kind of money can only come from theft or dealing drugs. One student was talking about the new Ed Hardy outfits his mother had gotten for him before he was locked up. I asked where one might buy such clothes. “Buy them?” he asked. “My mother steals them for me at the mall.” These parents show their kids that they’ll do whatever it takes to get by and give them the status they believe will keep them safer.

Another boy told me that he wants to get a four-door car when he gets out of “juvie” so he and his boys can run from the police. He explained that as he was growing up, his mother was dealing drugs, and she would drive around Greensboro in their four-door car so he and his brothers could escape. “Your mother runs from the police?” I asked incredulously. “Sure,” he responded proudly. “She’s the fastest runner in the family.” With generational poverty, kids are taught how to get by, how to steal, and how to make the most of what they have. There are no talks about long-range plans or saving for a rainy day. These boys do not expect to live past 20, so they seize the day in every way they know how.

The students all brag about the guns they own. They talk openly about shooting other people or holding guns to their heads to rob them, and many of them have been shot. One of my students has a bullet lodged in his brain and is scheduled to have risky surgery to attempt to remove it. He doesn’t appear concerned about the bullet or the surgery because he feels he doesn’t have much to lose. Because they don’t value their own lives very highly, they also don’t value the lives of others. Guns in the hands of people like these are extremely dangerous, as the list of the crimes they have already committed shows.

One of my students raped and brutally beat an 87-year-old woman. He waited for her daughter to arrive home and then did the same to her. Quite a few of the boys are sex offenders who have hurt little children, including members of their own families. One 12-year-old boy in my class telephoned Little Caesar’s for a pizza and some wings, then held a gun to the head of the delivery boy. He got free pizza, wings, about $25, and time behind bars.

My students are unlikely to change. The recidivism rate in juvenile justice is over 90 percent. After all, they return to the same communities that brought them here, and change is hard. They still have poor vocabularies and weak reading skills, and they don’t see many models of hard work in the projects. All they really know is crime, and they are driven by a desire for all the material things they see on TV and at the mall. Most of them re-offend quickly after they are released. Very few will escape this world of poverty, violence, and incarceration. In spite of their dreams to become the next Michael Vick, Michael Jordan, Lil’ Wayne, or Gucci Mane, most of these boys will end up in prison.

So why do I continue to work in juvie? And how do I find satisfaction and a sense of right livelihood there? Every day as I drive through those high, foreboding gates, I continue to explore these questions.

As a Quaker, I am reminded to seek that of God in everyone, and these boys all have something about them that I can love no matter what they have done. I look into their eyes, seeing past the crimes that they have committed and into the place where we are connected. With kindness, caring, and humor, I show them that I care about them. I try not to judge them and always respect them as fellow human beings on a personal journey. I enjoy their sharp sense of humor and vivid street slang, keeping a running vocabulary list of the new words and expressions they teach me: duck (ugly girl), ratchet (gun), snow bunny (white girl), in the cut (in a hidden place), a zone of perp (an ounce of drugs).

Also, I have learned to let go of attachment to outcomes. I do my best every day to help these kids catch up academically. The time they spend in my classroom might be their last chance to improve their reading and writing skills, as most vow they will never return to school when they are released from the center. They fight learning every step of the way. They argue with me when I teach them standard English; nobody they know, for example, says “brought” instead of “brung,” and they claim to read well enough already. Every day I have to explain once again that we don’t come to school to watch a video, as they beg to do. I have had to train myself not to take their attitudes towards schoolwork personally and just keep my eye on my own performance in the classroom. I cannot ask myself if the boys have learned enough each day or if the discussion in the classroom went well, but I can look at myself and assess if I have done my best. Did I maintain a positive attitude all day and find something to laugh about? Did I recognize each boy in the course of the day and find something to praise? Did I stay calm and relaxed in the midst of stressful situations that inevitably arise? If I answer affirmatively, then I consider my day a success. The boys use the expression, “Don’t test my gangsta!” It means, “Don’t push me so far that I lose control.” I feel that my “gangsta” is the strength I get from my Quaker beliefs and values in the face of anger and violence. I am sorely disappointed in myself when my gangsta is tested and I lose control and raise my voice or get discouraged.

Maybe someday, something that I have done will make a difference in a boy’s life. Or maybe not. I can’t control that. I can just do my best. Mary Smith, quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Faith and Practice, best sums up my attitude towards my work: “To pray about any day’s work does not mean to ask for success in it. It means to see my work as part of a whole, to see myself as not mattering much, but my faith, the energy, will, and striving that I put into the work as mattering a great deal. My faith is the point in me at which God comes into my work; through faith the work is given dignity and value.”

This is all we can do as caring, nonviolent people in a violent world. A Holocaust happens when we see ourselves as apart from other people, as if their lives have nothing to do with our own. It happens when we want everyone to think as we do, to believe the same things we do, and to worship God in the same way. It happens where fear is rife. These words in New Zealand Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice point the way: “We must relinquish the desire to have power over other people and to force our views on them. We must own up to our own negative side and not look for scapegoats to blame, punish, or exclude. . . . Together let us reject the clamor of fear and listen to the whisperings of hope.”

Let us each do our small part in making this world a better, more peaceful place. Let us follow the urging of Thich Nhat Hanh: “Be the peace that you want to see in the world.” We need to do whatever we can to see “that of God” in everyone, especially people we don’t particularly like. Those of us who are privileged should use our status to reach out to those whose lives are not so comfortable and try to help. We should remember how so many people joined together to help in some small way to relieve the suffering in earthquake-torn Haiti, and keep this impulse alive. Nor can the help we offer come with strings attached. We can’t have an attachment to outcomes, and we can’t always expect to get a thank-you. We must act because we can, and because it’s the right thing to do. The world can be a dangerous, violent place, but with each of us trying in our own small way to effect a change, maybe we can make a difference. Let us witness to the love locked inside our hearts and tap into that strength beyond our imagining.
This article has been adapted from a speech she gave in January 2010 at the Asheville School in Asheville, N.C., for its Nonviolence Day activities about her experiences as a Quaker teaching in a juvenile detention center.

Stephanie Wilder

Stephanie Wilder, a member of Swannanoa Valley Meeting in Black Mountain, N.C., teaches at Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center, a school for adjudicated youth in North Carolina, where she began working in 2001. Her previous positions have been with independent schools, including 20 years at Charlotte Country Day School.