I was already at the entrance of the jail, standing at the gate still wondering if I had dressed appropriately for my first class. I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans, but were khakis too formal? Should I tuck my shirt in? Roll up my sleeves?
This would my first time meeting my students, a group of twenty juveniles being housed in the Allegheny County Jail. “Juvenile” is a justice system term, but they’re just kids. Kids who know just what you’re feeling at first look. Kids who make inside jokes that soar right over your head. Kids with wild imaginations and ever-shifting attention spans.
It wasn’t their criminal records that intimidated me, but rather the same curious energy I remembered from my high school self that would eat teachers alive for the sake of one joke, or cause a distraction from the class just to test my boundaries. I refused to be eaten alive, not by a bunch of kids, not on my first day. I rolled my sleeves up, and pushed through the gate.
When I walked in, a few of the kids were already in the classroom. They looked at me from the side, trying to play it cool and gather their first impressions simultaneously.
“Ay Mr. Mike,” one kid finally blurted, “are you famous or something?”
I blushed immediately. Cover blown. Khakis were a bad idea. I should’ve worn a polo.
“Far from it, boss.” I answered.
“Oh, ok. Well, when you do become famous…” he paused, and looked me dead in the eye with sparking, charismatic sincerity. “Can you give me a shout-out?”
I laughed, picturing a moment in some obscure future when I’m giving shout-outs during a radio interview.
“I’m going to need to know your name first,” I answered.
I’ve learned so much from these kids in just five weeks of teaching them, that giving them a shout-out has gone from a hilarious notion to a tender reality.
I want to give them a shout-out for keeping me humble, and teaching me, every week, how lucky I am to live outside the grasp of the justice system.
I want to give them a shout-out for laughing at my dumb jokes, and being patient when I’m struggling to find the right way to explain something.
I want to give them a shout-out for letting me on the secrets of jail terminology, and for warning me to never drink the juice.
I want to give them a shout-out for reminding me how vital and beautiful a mother’s love can be, even when she can’t be with you all the time, or in their case, rarely ever.
I want to give them a shout-out for showing me to how to keep your hope up even in moments of deep despair.
I can barely call myself a teacher when I leave the jail, because I so often am learning more from them than I could ever teach. A shout-out is the least I can do.
Michael Bennett, Juvenile teacher