Omega

A DANGEROUS WOMAN: Exposing the Dark Underbelly of the Nonprofit World and How Cancel Culture Came for Me, Chapter 4

"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." Revelation 22:13

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I returned to Central Juvenile Hall to start my writing classes with the girls sometime in the winter or early spring of 1996. It had been decided I would teach in the unit where they lived instead of in the school. The unit was called Omega. Hmm, sort of biblical, I thought, reminded of the Bible verse. I’d grown up on the book of Revelation and it was impossible not to make the connection.

Omega was a fitting name, since the unit was on the furthest end of the compound. In order to reach it, I had to pass a number of gates, buzzed through by guards lazily sitting in their guardhouses and listening to music. Finally, I made it to the last checkpoint and found myself entering Omega Unit. I knew that this experience would be more challenging than when I had taught in the school, during regular school hours where student participation had been obligatory. In contrast, this was their Saturday morning free time, when they could be doing other things. How would they react? Would they make fun of me, pull disrespectful faces, tell me to fuck off, or worse, refuse to even participate? Perhaps I would have to leave admitting defeat and that my husband, Walter, was right. It was an insane idea.

Entering Omega, I found myself face to face with forty sullen girls staring at me from their bunk beds without much interest.

Mrs. Pincham, senior staff in charge, greeted me. Known simply as Pincham, she was a big-boned Black woman dressed in casual stretch pants and an over-sized t-shirt. On a belt around her waist hung a hefty can of mace, the weapon of choice in juvenile detention facilities at that time.

Pincham didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “What’s in the bag?” she demanded.

I grimaced, afraid I’d already broken a rule. I opened it so she could view the contents.

“It’s just a couple of books about Emily Dickinson and some notebooks for the girls to write it—they don’t have binding or anything.” I was proud for knowing that much. Nothing was allowed that could conceivably be used or manufactured into a weapon.

Pincham didn’t really look in the bag, just took out one of the books. “You can’t give these to the girls. They can’t have hardbacks in the units.”

“I understand. I just want to read them some poetry. I’ll take the books with me when I leave.”

“Fine. Now, Karen, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of your program and I’m very excited. It isn’t easy coming in here like you’re doing and we admire that. Just remember, you have to be tough, yet kind. Let them know you’re in charge. Don’t take any nonsense, that way they’ll respect you. Don’t get too involved or they’ll eat you up. You’ll burn out that way, I can promise. You’re just one link in the chain, Karen, that’s all you can be so don’t try to be more.”

I didn’t know if she expected a response or not, so I just nodded. I noticed that a few of the girls were smirking, while most of them seemed to have no interest at all in what was going on in front of the room.

“Now,” Pincham continued, thankfully lowering her voice just a bit. “I’ve picked some girls for you, the ones that’ll be here the longest so they can get the most out of it. They’re all High Risk Offenders. HROs. They’re the ones dressed in orange, here for the most serious crimes. That means armed robbery, kidnapping, murder and the like. Many of them could end up in trials, some already are. A few have been here more than a year. All are facing the possibility of being tried as adults instead of as juveniles and being sent to adult prison for the rest of their lives. You know how it’s decided they get tried as adults don’t you, Karen?” She scrutinized me as if I was taking a test.

“No,” I said.

She snorted. “Well, you should. There’s a certain criteria that the court uses to decide if a minor is unfit for juvenile court and should be tried as an adult: the sophistication of the crime; if there are special circumstances, like a gun, involved; if the psychological evaluation conducted by the court psychologist determines that they are mature enough to be tried as adults. Things like that. Bottom line is, these girls are stressed to the max, Karen. Think you can handle it?”

I hoped this was the end of the lecture. I didn’t know if I could handle it, but this wasn’t helping my self-confidence. Not to be deterred, I said honestly, “Yes, I think I can, but I’ll only know once I get started.”

Pincham frowned, not liking my tone. I wasn’t sure if we were allies or enemies but I did feel like she was trying to help in her own, forthright manner. “I’ll call the girls,” she said. “But watch yourself.”

As one of the other staff ladies called out their last names, the inmates rose off their beds, bright orange blobs that turned into girls with names and faces. As they lined up, Pincham gave me the rundown on each of them.

Hill and Lorenzo were both accused of armed robbery. Hill, a tall black girl, looked too beautiful, sweet and serene to have done such a thing. Highly religious, she continually expressed her innocence. A case of mistaken identity, she said.

Osuna and her homeboy had stolen a car, ran over a police officer, and were chased all the way to the Mexican border. She was shot in the back by border patrol officials and dragged from the car. I suppose nowadays, it would have been all over the news as further proof of racism within the police force. Back then, the news covered it without bias, just as what had happened. When her grandmother came to visit Osuna in the hospital she was so happy—until she discovered her only reason for being there was to get her hands on the $700 robbery money Osuna had hidden in her panties.

Jacobs was a blond, blue-eyed accomplice to a murder. Jacobs alone knew what had really happened that night since the man charged with committing the crime was discovered a few months later, shot dead in the desert. When the authorities brought Jacobs in, she was examined and found to be pregnant. Shortly before I met her, she had given birth to a little boy named Aaron. Jacobs refused to say who had fathered the child but Pincham was sure it was the murderer. As with all babies born to incarcerated females, Aaron was taken away from her mother within twenty-four hours of his birth. Luckier than most, or at least I hoped so, custody was granted to Jacob’s father, not to the State.

At the age of fourteen, Rocha was the youngest of the group. She was accused of murdering her social worker on a dare.

“Oh yes,” Pincham said. “She’d done it.”

This wasn’t hard to believe since Rocha was one of those rare kids who didn’t deny her crime. Rather, she’d look you right in the eyes and a admit it without showing one bit of emotion.

Lorenzo was a feisty sixteen-year-old in for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. At the age of ten she’d walked across the Mexican border carrying nothing but a backpack with a stolen Barbie doll inside. A border guard had taken pity on her and sent her to live with her aunt in San Diego. Unfortunately, as is often the case, life this side of the border hadn’t proved much better for Lorenzo. On a violent night in the park, she’d been caught with a gun while her homeboys abandoned her and ran.

Andrews was a short, shy black girl in for kidnapping and rape. She was accused of abducting a girl off the sidewalk, holding a gun to her head and driving around town with her older, male cousin, trying to sell the girl for $20. When no one seemed interested, Andrews had jumped out of the car in disgust, telling her cousin to kill the bitch for all she cared. The cousin didn’t take her up on the suggestion, but figured, why not, since nobody else had raped her, he might as well do it himself. Afterwards, he had dumped the victim by the side of the road.

Sanchez and Gonzales were in for robbery and murder. They kept to themselves, the toughest and meanest of the bunch. No one messed with them, after all, they were 187s, and commanded respect. They had a reputation to live up to and an obligation to play the part.

Pincham had a little extra to say about them. “You better watch those two. They’re quiet, don’t hardly speak at all except to each other. But there’s a lot going on underneath. Talk about stress. And I can’t say I blame them. They’re facing life without parole.”

“So, did they actually do it?” I couldn’t resist asking.

Pincham shook her head and rolled her eyes as if I was an idiot. “Of course not! Sanchez’s boyfriend did it. I don’t now the whole story, though.”

I was confused. “But if they didn’t commit the murder, why are they facing a life sentence?”

Pincham glared at me. “Now, I’m gonna explain something to you. Look at the faces in here. Then, go home and look in the mirror at your own. You got the right color. They don’t.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t hang around with guys like that,” I objected.

Pincham raised her eyebrows. “Oh yeah, what kind of guys did you hang out with?”

I shook my head. This was getting too complicated. “So, what about Lopez, what’s she facing?” I asked.

“Fifteen years to life,” said Pincham.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “You say she committed the murder and she’s facing less than the two girls who didn’t?”

Pincham let out a dry laugh. “You solve the mystery of this justice system and then you come back and explain it to us, okay?”

The girls were now lined up at the back of the room waiting quietly with their hands behind their backs. To the left of Pincham were six long steel tables and she motioned for them to sit at the one closest to her desk. Great, I thought. She’ll be listening to every word.

Before I started, Pincham had one last bit of advice. She lowered her voice to an urgent whisper. “Listen, Karen, just be careful. They’ll eat you up if you let them. You get to care about them, certain ones you get close to and you start to care too much. It clouds your judgment. I’m pretty tough and I’ve heard it all, but sometimes they still take me in, tell me a lie that sounds just like the truth. Be careful.”

She turned her aggressive stare on the girls. “Now sit,” she ordered. “And behave yourselves.”

Finally.

I walked over to the table and looked at the faces in front of me. Some of them looked familiar from my first sessions in the school. These were not “nice” girls. If ever the term “bad” applies, this was it. What if one of them had been my daughter, living in my house? I would have been pulling my hair out in agony. I felt the knot in my stomach growing. What was I doing here? It was crazy.

Oops, those were my husband’s words. I didn’t want to give them credence.

All of the girls sat down except for one. She wore glasses and was tall, with thick, strong arms and legs and a round belly that pulled on her county shirt. Like most of the other girls, her complexion was sallow from lack of exercise, fresh air and healthy food. I wasn’t straight on the names yet but I thought she might be Osuna.

“Hey, friend, I remember you,” she said in a booming voice that echoed throughout the room. “You wanna chair?”

Before I could answer, she brought me one and placed it at the head of the table.

“Now, you sit here, it’s best,” she commanded, positioning herself directly to my right, my watchdog from the very beginning. From that day onwards, no one would dare usurp her spot.

I hadn’t even started and I was already feeling desperate. Not fifteen feet away, two scantily clad lifeguards locked in a passionate embrace on a television screen, the sound so loud, it was impossible to ignore the smacking of lips, the sighs of delight, and the heavy breathing. Two staff members were yelling reprimands and Pincham was on the telephone. Half of the girls at my table were transfixed with Baywatch, the other half talking amongst themselves.

“Hey, quiet!” yelled the big girl to my right, banging her fist on the table. “Show some respect.”

Heads snapped around in surprise and the talking stopped. I gave her a grateful look. She might be loud and overbearing, but for some reason, she had decided to look out for me.

“Okay, thank you. My name’s Karen Leimert. How are you all doing today?”

Oh, that was a lame question. How good could they be doing, stuck someplace where none of them wanted to be?

Most of the girls looked back at me and said, “Fine,” unenthusiastically. The two girls at the end of the table ignored me completely, lost in their private conversation.

“Could you please introduce yourselves? I’ve been told your names, but I need a reminder.”

The big girl started. “I’m Osuna.”

“If you could give me your first names, I’d appreciate it.”

“That’s cool. Elizabeth Osuna. You gonna start coming every Saturday?”

“I think so.”

“Great, cuz I like to write.”

The girl next to Elizabeth whacked her arm. “Shut up. It’s my turn.”

Elizabeth stuck out her chin belligerently. “Who you talkin’ to, bitch?”

“Ladies!” yelled Pincham.

My state of panic increased. Name-calling already and I hadn’t even been with them five minutes. How long would it take before the fistfight started?

I expected the girl next to Elizabeth to get madder but instead she smiled nicely—a little too nicely—while twirling her long gorgeous locks between her fingers. “My name’s Maria Lozano. And I know how to write, unlike some people.”

She stared off into space with a look of supreme superiority. Fortunately, Elizabeth did nothing but emit a loud grunt.

The blond girl said, “I’m Janice Jacobs. Don’t pay no attention to them. They always get into it.”

“Uh, huh, oh, and you don’t?” Elizabeth jibed.

Janice stuck out her tongue.

I waited for the last girl on the right side of the table to speak. She was still talking to her friend across from her, oblivious to the rest of us.

“Hey!” said Elizabeth. “Your turn, come on, girl.”

Slowly, disdainfully, she turned her head, as if just noticing us for the first time. Her eyes were big and expressive and right now they wanted everyone to know she was bored. Tattoos marred her light olive skin.

“Who, me?” she asked in a voice so soft, I could barely hear her. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Your name,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “If you got one.”

“Oh, okay. Sanchez, Silvia. What we doing here anyway?”

“Oh, come on!” said Maria, exasperated.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll explain in a minute.” I nodded at the girl across from Silvia. “And you?”

“Leonore. Lenoroe Gonzales,” she answered. Her voice was even softer than Silvia’s and at odds with the defiance on her face. The tattoos on her face were the mirror image of her friend’s.

The next girl had light brown hair and freckles on her nose. “I’m Erika Rocha.” It was the girl who had killed her social worker. She looked as innocent as a baby.

“Oooh,” said Elizabeth in a cutesy voice. “My lil’ sis.”

“Brittany Andrews,” said the short black girl, her eyes downcast, offering nothing more.

“Ipress Hill,” said the tall one. Almost apologetically, she continued, “I’m a poet. I’ve done a lotta writing, I even won a poetry contest at school. But I don’t know why I’m in this group. I’m going home soon.”

“Hill shouldn’t be here, she’s innocent,” Maria explained. She started chanting “innocent” and all the girls except Silvia and Leonore chimed in.

“Shut up!” ordered Elizabeth, suddenly remembering her self-appointed responsibilities. “You know Karen ain’t gonna come back if you do that.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Maria, giving me another of her radiant smiles. She folded her hands on the table and put on a demure face, just like a model student.

“Okay, okay,” I said. I picked my bag up off the floor and plopped it on the table. Everyone looked at it curiously. Even the two renegades at the end of the table couldn’t help stealing a glance.

“We’re going to start doing some writing. I guess you all k now that’s what this is—a writing group.”

They nodded.

“So, first, we need pencils.”

Elizabeth jumped up. “I’ll get them.”

She came back with a tub filled with stubby pencils with blunt ends.

“Can we sharpen them?” I asked.

Elizabeth threw up her hands in mock horror. “Damn, are you serious? We might stab each other.”

“Seriously, just like that?” I asked.

I had a hard time imagining them taking their pencils and stabbing each other right then and there.

Maria twirled her pencil wickedly. “Oh, no, we wouldn’t do it now. We’d wait ‘til later, hide ‘em down here.” She pointed down her shirt.

It was amazing, I was to discover, what they could squirrel away in their bras.

Ipress laughed. “Yeah, but how about that Montez girl, huh? Remember what she did?”

“Hell, yes. That bitch was scandalous,” said Maria. She looked at me, suddenly self-conscious. “Oh, excuse my language.”

“Okay,” I repeated. Much as I was curious about the Montez incident, we needed to get back on track. “I’m going to pass out some notebooks. They’re different colors, so please, everyone try to choose what you like and hopefully you’ll all be happy.”

I pulled out the notebooks and the minute I put them down, the girls dove in.

“Blue, that’s my color!”

“Red, gimme red!”

“No, I want red!”

“So take it heina, here’s another one.”

“Black, that’s mine!”

Ladies!!!”

The table went silent. Pincham towered over us, grim with disapproval. She snatched the notebooks.

“Can I talk to you, Karen? At my desk.”

“Watch out,” mouthed Elizabeth.

I followed after Pincham, wondering what was wrong. Slamming the notebooks down on her desk, she spoke loudly and distinctly so that everyone in the room perked up to listen.

“You should know better than to bring in gang-related materials.”

“Excuse me?” I said, completely baffled.

She held up two of the notebooks. “Blue? Red? You ever hear of Crips and Bloods? Not to mention a few others?”

A murmur of excitement went around the room. Just saying the names gave everyone a shot of adrenaline. Pincham frowned. “Shut it! We can’t have this in here. It’s against regulations, and for a very good reason. These colors can kill. You’ll have to take them home.”

Giggles flitted across the room. What a disaster. It was one of those things I should have known if I’d had an ounce of experience. I felt sure that if Pincham could, she’d have slapped me in orange and sent me to my bunk in disgrace. Still, I had to salvage the situation as best I could.

After apologizing for my mistake, I said, “How about this—I’ll tear off the covers. Then they can still write in them.”

I demonstrated with one. It didn’t look nice, but it worked.

Pincham wasn’t pleased, but she was fair enough to concede. “Okay, I guess you can do that. But try and think next time, okay?”

I ignored the jab. We took the notebooks back to the table and each girl tore off a cover, Pincham keeping a close watch to make sure every offending bit of color was removed.

“There,” I said. Defaced notebooks now lay in front of each of them.

With great surprise, I saw that the atmosphere around the table had completely changed. Everyone wore smiles and was looking at me with attentive interest. Even Silvia and Leonore wore tiny grins. Instead of causing the girls to lose respect for me, being chewed out by Pincham meant that we were now connected. Pincham didn’t like me. They didn’t like Pincham. I was cool

I plunged right in, taking advantage of the unexpected camaraderie. “I’d like you to write a piece titled ‘Me.’ Think of it as if you were painting a self-portrait, as a way to getting to know yourselves better. But be careful, it’s like lifting a lid of Pandora’s Box. All sorts of things begin to fly out. Oh, of course, maybe you don’t know about Pandora?”

They shook their heads, so I told them the story.

“Oh, yeah,” said Ipress. “I remember that story from school. It’s a myth.”

“You tell good stories. You gonna do it some more?” asked Maria.

“Sure,” I said, pleased with the compliment.

“But what we gonna do right now?” asked Brittany. “I wanna write but I don’t get what you mean.”

I tried to explain. “Writing is just like talking. It’s like having a conversation with someone, only you write it down instead of saying it. All of you can talk, all girls can. It’s a girl thing. We love to gossip and blab to our friends.” I looked pointedly at Silvia and Leonore. They just stared back, expressionless once again. “Writing is no different. Feel free to write anything you want about yourselves. Anything you feel tells who you are. Whatever comes to mind. Except your crimes,” I added hastily. “You have court cases and you can't write about that.”

Their faces remained as empty as the papers in front of them. No one even picked up a pencil.

I tried again. “Okay, it’s like this. When you meet a person for the first time, what’s the first thing you notice?”

Maria smiled. “If it’s a guy, his eyes. That’s so important.”

“No, no,” said Elizabeth. “His shoes.”

“Girl, what?” said Ipress.

“It’s true. I mean, if it’s a guy, I always look at his shoes first. You can tell if he got cash, if he got taste, by the kinda shoes he wears.”

“Hey, heina,” said Janice. “Money don’t mean nothing when you’re trying to find a good man.”

“Hold on a minute,” I said. “So, now we’re talking about men? How’d we jump there? This is supposed to be about each of you.”

Elizabeth let out a loud guffaw. “It don’t matter where we start, we always end up there.”

Just a few minutes ago the talk had been about stabbing each other with pencils and now they sounded like typical boy-crazy teenagers. They flipped back and forth from one extreme to another and it was hard to keep up.

“You’ve all made a good point,” I said. “The first thing we notice about people is their physical appearance, and that means their shoes, hair, color of their skin, the clothes they’re wearing. If we consider them beautiful or ugly, smiling or frowning. We judge people by the way they look, even if we say we don’t, we do. We can’t help it. We judge ourselves that way, too. We look in the mirror and what do we see?”

Elizabeth grimaced. “Don’t even make me go there. Now, Rocha, she’s pretty. She don’t mind looking in the mirror.”

Erika smiled. Yes, she was pretty, but with a disconcerting emptiness in her eyes. So far, she hadn’t entered into the conversation at all.

I continued. “That’s where we start, with the physical, but it’s only the top layer.”

“You mean you want us to describe the blood and guts underneath?” said Brittany, horrified.

“Oh, come on, girl, you know she don’t mean that,” said Ipress.

I laughed. “No, I don’t. Beneath the surface there are layers and layers to each one of us. It takes courage to peel back the layers because it means exposing yourself to others—and yourself. What makes you laugh and cry? What makes you get angry? What’s your worst and best childhood memories? How do you think other people see you as opposed to how you see yourself? Ask yourself these questions and see what answers you come up with. In fact, let’s write those questions down on our papers and then answer them one after the other to get going.”

They seemed to get the idea then and everyone started to write. Relieved, I sat back, happy to take a break for a minute. I rubbed my eyes and when I looked up, Silvia was staring at me. Quickly, she turned back to her paper. I was surprised to have caught her with a thoughtful, intent expression on her face, something she obviously didn’t mean for me to see. It undermined her previous demeanor, which had very clearly stated, “I don’t give a shit.”

I moved my chair down to the other side of the table, explaining I wanted to divide my time equally between both ends of the group. Elizabeth gave me a disapproving frown but didn’t try to stop me.

I smiled at Silvia. “How are you doing?”

She shrugged, not looking at me, working away with her pencil.

I saw that nothing graced her paper except her last name, written over and over in different styles of gang script. I saw that Leonore’s paper was empty.

“Can I be excused?” said Leonore. “I don’t feel so good.”

“Sure,” I said. “Come back when you feel better.”

Silvia watched her friend walk away. “She won’t get better and she won’t be back,” she said. Silvia had a way of speaking softly but with a hard edge. “She don’t wanna be in the group. Is it mandatory?”

She didn’t lift her head when she spoke, just her eyes, challenging me from under thinly plucked brows.

I knew Pincham wanted it to be mandatory but I didn’t see the point of forcing them to come past the first class.

“No,” I told her.

She nodded.

We stared at each other, dark brown eyes meeting light gray.

I thought she’d get up and walk away, too, but she didn’t. Instead she asked, “What you doing here, you got kids?”

“Yes, I have three.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Damn, how old are you?”

“Thirty-nine.”

“You don’t look it. I thought you were like, twenty-five.”

“Well thank you,” I said, adding jokingly, “You know how to say the right thing, don’t you?”

Immediately, her defenses shot up again. “What, you think I’m just playing with you?”

“Oh, no,” I said quickly. “It’s just such a nice thing to hear. You’ll understand when you’re my age.”

She jabbed her paper with her pencil. “Yeah, well, when I’m as old as you I could still be in prison. And somehow, I don’t think I’ll be looking so good.”

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“A long time. You know, my hair was blond when I got here, now it’s all grown out black. My hair’s like a calendar, I kept track of the time by how much it grew out, but now I been here so long, I can’t do it no more.”

“That right there, what you just said, is as good as any writing,” I told her approvingly.

“But I can’t write like I can talk.”

“You will, I promise,” I told her.

I looked around the table, glad to see that everyone else was writing. When they were finished, Maria eagerly said she wanted to read. I was amazed to see how respectfully the other girls waited to listen to her. She cleared her throat dramatically a few times, then began to read:

Sometimes I sit here and think about my lonely, sad vida. As I go back to my miserable childhood it’s like a dream going back and having flashbacks. Now my nights are filled with sad desperation, remembering all I went through. Now I sit and think and I really hate the fact that I was ever born. You know why? Cuz I was never really born. My life, it has been a dead life, always in darkness, never in peace. My heart is like a time bomb, ready to explode, ready to give up on life.

It all started in the year of 1983 on a cold afternoon. I was only four years old. That day my mother and father had been drinking with some relatives, Uncle Mondo and Aunt Ester. It was the first time I remember looking at the world and I was surprised because I was so tiny, so gentle, so little.

So at age four I was raped. That afternoon my eyes were opened and my mind was destroyed. My whole childhood was thrown away like a piece of trash.

From that day on my nightmare began. Day by day, when the night would come, I would wonder if he would forget. But it was too hard for him to forget. He knew my room was open. I would always hide under the sheets but it was too late, he was already there, waiting. He wanted to see my little face crying and suffering. He liked it. I hated it.

All these years I put up with all those nights, all those terrible moments of pain. I cried. I was just four years old. I couldn’t understand why the world was like that. I didn’t know who I was.

Maria stopped. While reading, she had changed from the self-assured gang girl to a broken child. There she stayed, rocking back and forth and nursing her pain. The girls on either side reached out and put their arms around her.

We all sat huddled together at that cold steel table, awash in strong emotions aroused by Maria’s words. The television still blared, the staff still yelled, but now it was just a muffled background noise that barely registered.

In that moment, I became afraid of what I was doing. Why had I come here? What right did I think I had to open up such wounds in these girls when I had no idea of how to heal them? I thought to myself, You can still get out, walk away and not come back. There’s still time. But once I came to a few more sessions, once the girls got used to me, began to depend on me being there, it wouldn’t be so easy to escape. I couldn’t make promises I wasn’t going to keep. Not when so many people had let them down.

Even scarier, what would happen if I began to depend on them? I had wounds, too. Ones I wanted to bury and try to forget. This writing brought them back again.

I had no answer for Maria or for any of them, just as I’d had no answer in Ms. Neely’s classroom. All I could do was sit silently in my chair, completely lost.

After a moment, Maria raised her head and said, “I wanna write a story about my life. You think I could do that?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. You have an excellent voice. I was very impressed with your writing ability.”

My words seemed inadequate to me but she smiled, almost her old self again. “Good. I wanna write it all down because I think about it a lot.”

Relief overcame me. The thoughts I’d had in my first sessions were reinforced. They would find their own way.

One after the other, the girls read their writing. All of them told tales of abuse and neglect. I was amazed at their honesty. I hadn’t expected it so soon, if ever.

When it came to Silvia’s turn she refused to read.

“Shall I?” I asked.

She shrugged.

I took the paper and she didn’t try to stop me. I read the words.

My life is like a game I always wanna win so to win I cheated but instead I lost.

On that first day, I discovered how profound each one of them was, all in their own ways.

At the end of class, I gathered up the papers, assuring them when they asked that I was coming back.

As I left, Pincham gave me a curt nod. “You did good,” she said, and ridiculously I almost felt as proud to hear her compliment as the girls had been to hear mine.

These days, in schools across the United States children are now taught “critical race theory.” Disney and other companies are conducting reeducation programs They are dividing people into groups based on color. Whites are told they must feel shame for being the ruling class and they must stop using terms like “colorblind” and “equality.” This is so dangerous and wrong.

Imagine if I had conducted my writing class like that. Imagine if they were divided into groups based on color. The Latinas in one group, the Blacks in another, and the one White girl shunned on her own, where she would have to reflect on her whiteness and her white privilege. It would be insanity. That is what the gangs do. That is what prison does. That is what those in government try to do. Divide and conquer, make the common people hate one another so they are weak and controllable.

At the writing table, girls who would have been enemies on the street, who already saw very clearly how they were different based on race, and thought they should hate and mistrust one another because of it, now came together. Through sharing their deepest thoughts, they realized the things that brought them together instead of the things that tore them apart.

I went home that day with the writing in a folder and at night I typed it up, their words searing my soul. My husband hated to see me wasting my time in such a manner. I should stop. They were scamming me. In fact, this is what people said to me when I told them what I was doing.

“How do you know they’re telling you the truth? You can’t trust them.”

I shrugged. “It’s a writing class. I don’t care if they tell me the truth or not. I just want them to write. And anything they say is revealing. It doesn’t matter. They write what they feel and you’d be surprised how honest it is. Certainly more honest than anything I encountered in public schools.”

But people just didn’t get it. To them, I sounded naive and misguided.

The more I taught, the deeper I was led to face truths in my own life. I owe those girls a debt of gratitude. Along the way, Sister Janet didn’t pay much attention to what I was doing. I believe she came once to visit my class but the girls told me she rarely came to see them. “She likes the boys better than us,” they said. I brushed it off as silly talk.

But when I suggested I would like to teach the boys, Janet advised me against it. “You don’t want to get burned out,” she said. “And you’ll be a distraction to them.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I was happy with where I was anyway. I continued to teach for months until June of 1996 when an article was written about Janet in the Los Angeles Times and then her interest began to grow.

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