What's Wrong? by jane davis ©1999

One Friday afternoon, when I was speaking with kids at a juvenile detention center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I stood in front of a group of children lined up in neat rows, sitting cross-legged in the gym where we had gathered.


"I'm here for one reason," I said to the brown, browner and white faces staring at me. "Because I care. I deeply care. I witnessed an execution of a young man who was a juvenile, like you, when he committed his crime. That act, that execution made no sense. I witnessed evil shrouded in a government-justified homicide. And, by the way, homicide IS what is reported on the death certificates after an execution. On behalf of the "adults" out here, I want to apologize to each and every one of you." i looked around the room, slowly looking each child in the eyes as i spoke, making connection. "We have created you. You are not bad people. You are beautiful children. How can we help you?" And the afternoon progressed from there.


"The truth is," I said to them, "you are a bunch of pussies." i could feel the energy in the room shift sharply as all of the kids and the counselors perked up. "You are playing into the system by continuing your violence. Do you know what that means? As fourteen years olds you will be eligible to be tried as adults and that you have earned the privilege of facing the death penalty. The system and the people in this country, who fear your violence, want to kill you and your mothers and your fathers. They call themselves religious and righteous and have somehow justified that you are scum and not worthy, as they are, of life. You are playing right into their hands."


The kids stared back at me. Their wide eyes and gaping mouths said they hadn't thought of it that way. After the general talk I met individually with many of the children. They were hungry for someone to hear them. Really hear. It happened to be me that day who showed up to listen to them. They all had the option of meeting with me one-on-one. It certainly was not required. One of the young men who met with me was a young Hispanic kid who had the demeanor of toughened old soul but the face of an innocent child. He was 15. 3 children. Very successful businessman. Only problem was that his business was drugs and landed him behind bars away from his 3 children, the mother of them with whom he shared a house and his own mother and siblings. His father lived in prison. "Maybe I'll get to see him now!" he declared so naively. "Maybe now we can spend time." "The prison system isn't in the business of family reunions!!" i said to him laughing. "They probably would put you in a different prison altogether just to keep you apart!" His eyes clouded over and he seemed to get lost in dreams. "I hope you don't mind if i do this," i said to him , as he came back to the present moment. "I just can't resist!" And with that i leaned over, took both of his cheeks between my thumbs and forefingers and pinched his cheeks hard. It was the kind of pinch a grandmother gives. i made a grrrrrrr-ing noise to go along with the shaking. Maybe i was trying to shake some sense into him or just do something childlike in a place that was so cold un un caring. In that moment he became the little boy that he was. He blushed and laughed and looked around to make sure no one saw. "THAT'S who i wanted to reach!" i said joyously. i knew "he" was in there.


Later that day one of the counselors took me aside and said, "We have a problem! You are making them cry! What's wrong? What are you doing to them?" "Wrong?" I said. "That's right. They have a lot to cry about, and so do we." The act of showing up, caring and listening broke through their tough exteriors to their hearts. While the young man in the story did eventually end up in adult prison, our paths continue to cross and the hope of him one day making it, remains.

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