Monthly Archives: September 2013

Hanging Out With Felons: My One Year Anniversary

teacherinmates

Being such an astute group of readers I’m sure you’ve already figured out that I’m not the woman in the picture above (although I’m totally digging her shoes).   And to avoid any further confusion, the men I meet with every week are not in prison uniforms because they are in reentry programs and can wear what they want (I VOLUNTEER with women in jail once a week in addition to being paid to run groups in their reentry program, so I see them in both prison garb and rather lovely clothes of their own choosing.)

It has been a year to the day since I was hired to run “life skills” groups at five different programs and the things I have learned in that year is more of an education than I had in all my years through college.  (Dad, don’t freak out.  It’s a different KIND of education than the very valuable years I spent in boarding school and college and I don’t need any math skills.)

There will be some things that I list below that are sure to spark strong reactions, and that’s fine.  This is one person’s experience with a population that has changed my life, some through heartache but most through joy:

Without question, juveniles are a product of their histories and the neighborhoods that they live in.  This is nothing new.  It takes a very strong young person to make the choice to get out of their comfort zone, their groups of friends who are also caught-up in the system, the constant rhythm of being on the streets, being sent to juvenile lockups for 30, 60 or 90 days and then being released again.  The time on the streets gets shorter and shorter and the time in lockup longer.  They’re mostly doing stupid shit to impress their friends—stealing cars, getting high, getting into fights –but they lead to an ongoing string of offenses that will have much larger consequences when they age out of the system and start getting  tried as adults.

I recently learned that one my favorite kids with a smile and dimples that would charm anyone, was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back.  Not one.  He was one of the smartest boys I have ever known and if I had met him at eight, when his parents disposed of him, I would have fostered and loved him to the best of my ability.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic background is to have teens addicted to heroin.  Again, I recently learned that a brilliant (yet hardened and angry) young man, who lives in the next town over from me, would have a needle in each arm at the same time.  Fucking breaks my heart.  When the agency closed the juvenile program last month, he told me how much he had learned from me.  I’m not allowed to seek him out to touch base, but in my heart, I hope to run into him on the street and give him the hug that he so badly needs.

My favorite group is the adult male feds, the ones who have done harder time than the “county” guys.  I’ve learned that they get shuffled around from prison to prison almost without flinching and they form great friendships with the other inmates wherever they land.  When they have been sentenced to the reentry program it’s like a college reunion, where they share laughs about their time behind bars.  They’ve worked in the kitchen together, done community service and have gone to 12-step meetings together.

The women have shared all the microwave recipes they learned to make prison food more palatable and have offered to thread my eyebrows.  They too have taught me the value of the friendships they formed behind bars.

I’ve learned  that I can hold court and totally work the room in front of a group of felons like it’s the most natural thing I’ve ever done.  I make them laugh and get the most hardened ones to come around to liking me.  I quickly dispel and rise above the assumption that I’m just another white lady who has come to talk at them about stuff they already know.  I have guys who sit-in on my groups because they want to, not because they need to.  I was recently told by one man that the men who had already sat through my class told him how lucky he was to be in it.  That was awesome.

Okay, so here’s the sticky part that is bound to have some strong gut reactions and I really welcome them:

I have learned that guys from white supremacist motorcycle gangs, bank robbers, gun runners, child pornographers and sex offenders are often really likable.  When they have unique names and I can find their arrest records online, I have learned some things that I don’t really want to know, but, it is my job to suspend judgment while working with them.  And I do.

Right now I am working really closely with a guy who has “white power” tattooed on his forearm and I really, really like him.  I wish I could engage him in conversation to find out his true feelings behind it and his beliefs, but I can’t.  I know he’d tell me and he’d listen to my side and we could have a really candid conversation about it but I can’t violate the boundary policies that would surely get me fired.

Another man from the same white supremacist motorcycle game was one of the most enjoyable guys in my group.  He laughed with the other guys and me, contributed a lot, and when I see him around the residence we greet each other warmly.   In the same group was an older rather infirm man, a pedophile, who snuck a kitten into his room and told me how to avoid an expensive vet visit for my sick kitten by giving me the exact dosage of an over-the-counter cold medicine.  I’m not sure he realized how awful the hairpiece he wore was.

What I have heard over and over again from the over 1,000 clients I’ve worked with in just one year, is that they just want to be treated like people.  They have told me that within minutes they know that I care about them in a universe where they are called by their last names and feel brushed off by staff during the daily chaos of their residences.  (I very genuinely remind them of how dedicated the staff is but how many clients are in constant need of something.  If they weren’t committed to their jobs they wouldn’t be working for pennies.  For the most part, they are remarkable.)

I call my husband after I leave each program, generally on the way to the next, with anecdotes that either break my heart or leave me in fits of laughter.  It’s really hard for my network to understand what I do and I’m glad I have colleagues who are in it, on the ground, to go to as sounding boards and also to share funny stories.  They too have learned to suspend judgment, even if it’s just for 8 hours a day, and to help these humans, these people with lives and families, move on to the next and hopefully better step.

Advertisements

My Two Minutes and Nine Seconds of Fame

Image

Last week as I was walking down my sweet little New England town’s main street I saw two teenagers whispering to each other and pointing at me.  Finally, one nudged the other who sheepishly approached me.

“Aren’t you the woman who had a hot flash at the Jay Z concert?”

“Yeah,” I said humbly.  “That was me.”

“Can we take a picture with you?”

“Ich.  I just got out of the gym and I’m all sweaty, but sure.”

They flagged down a stranger who was happy to snap a few pics with the girl’s smartphones.  They giggled and squealed and within seconds I was on their Instagram and facebook pages.

“Thanks so much!” they said as they skipped to their larger group of friends waiting on the corner.

…So, that never happened.  But it could have.

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday night when I was flopped on the couch in front of the tv (essentially, where I am every night) I got an e-mail that said this in the subject:

“Timely Media Request-HuffPost Live.”

I looked at it and would have deleted it as spam if it hadn’t had an actual woman’s name as the sender. Here’s what the body of the e-mail said:

Hi Gayle,

I hope this message finds you well. I wanted to let you know that the Huffington Post’s video news network, HuffPost Live (live.huffingtonpost.com) will be doing a segment tomorrow (8/14/13) at 6:30pm PT/ 9:30pm ET about being middle-aged and how it means something different to everyone.

We’d love for you to join us to give your opinion and talk about your experiences. It’s very easy to join — all that is needed webcam (desktop, laptop, iPad, 4G phone — like an iPhone) and a pair of earphones. We would bring you in via Google Hangout, which is similar to Skype. The conversation will last approximately 25 minutes, will be moderated by our host Nancy Redd in Los Angeles and include members of the public.

Please let me know if you would be interested. Thank you.

I stared at it and reread it at first to myself and then out loud to my husband to see if it was actually the coolest fucking invitation I had ever received. I read Huffington Post all day and knew that it had a new live programming channel. I was stunned. Apparently, the producer (who happens to be 24-years old) Googled bloggers who write about middle age and mine was the first to pop-up. I ambushed her with questions, had an actual Skype sound check and was told that I’d be on a panel with a couple of other people. I had less than 24 hours to get it together for my groundbreaking debut.

I spread the word via facebook and e-mail and my friends who are also HuffPost regulars were as impressed as I was. I called a college professor friend of mine and asked if it was as a big a deal as I thought it was. She confirmed that indeed, it was. I adore her because she is never one to blow smoke just to make me happy.

I had a full day of work to get through (my last workshop with inmates in New Hampshire ended less than two hours before I was supposed to be Skyped into the virtual “green room,” with the other panelists). I rushed through my hour commute home and tried to gather my thoughts, making mental notes of the key points I wanted to be sure to get in.

Once home, I put on some makeup and a top that showed off my shoulders, and had a friend advise me, via Skype, how to set decorate the room I’d be doing the broadcast from. It was fabulous. I was fabulous. I had already downed one glass of wine and had another off camera. I was good to go. The producer told us we were about to go live and there I was, in split screen, with two other women, being introduced by an overly-perky hostess.

The other two women were chosen to bring a different point-of-view to the topic of being middle-aged. One of them, with a sleeping cat on a crocheted blanked behind her the entire time, didn’t believe that we actually age. The other, I’m thinking in her early sixties, well, I kind of don’t remember what she said except something about wearing comfortable shoes and riding a bike for the first time in ten years.

I managed to get two substantial chunks of air-time, one in which I happened mention, among other things, that I had had a hot flash at the Justin Timberlake/Jay Z concert days before. It was an anecdote that fit in with the main point I was trying to make about the changes my body is going through. The second chunk was much more substantive, about how I changed my career at 45, following a passion I didn’t even know I had, and entering a second marriage that is truly perfect. I talked about how my work with inmates involves telling them that it’s never too late to have a second chapter.

The 25-minute broadcast went REALLY fast and my main objective had been from the beginning to drive traffic to my blog. The hostess had a screen shot of it and there was the title of a post about aging captioned under my name. At the same time I was answering very complimentary phone calls and facebook posts, I was constantly refreshing the stats on my blog and looking at the referral sources. Although there were more hits than usual, it was a bit of a disappointment.

The next morning, when everything was feeling anti-climactic, a friend of mine uncovered this link on facebook before I did (Click on the link and see the title of the sound byte.):

http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/archive/segment/woman-had-hot-flash-at-jay-z-concert/520c564d78c90a636a0001d0

At first I laughed out loud, and then, well, I was a bit uncertain about how I felt. I waited and waited to become the butt of facebook and internet jokes. I honestly feared being laughed at by strangers if by some chance, it went viral. I understood why it was a headline that would draw people in, but, it belittled a bit, the whole point of the on-air discussion.

As it sunk in, I was more than able to laugh at it and the absurdity of the whole thing. It’s funny. I wanted Jay Z’s “people” to get a hold of it and interview me. My dear friend Laura sent the link of the entire broadcast to the local paper and the editor called me, impressed that a resident in our town of 30,000 people was recognized by “Huffington Post” and had a reporter call to interview me. The interviewer was great, but I stressed the point that I didn’t want to just be the woman who had that infamous hot flash. I wanted people to know that my blog contained much more including posts about my mother’s suicide (interestingly watered down in the article by saying “her mother’s death” as opposed to that scary word, suicide), my work with inmates, and many other things. She did a wonderful job of covering those points but couldn’t resist this:

http://www.wickedlocal.com/melrose/newsnow/x511619092/Melrose-blogger-featured-on-Huffington-Post

(The first paragraph appeared as the online teaser.)

In any event, the whole thing was a fantastic and rather short-lived high. I think the time has passed for something, some bigger breakthrough to come of it, but that’s okay. I have to not give up on that one big break, that one person who reads my work and bumps me to the next level. I haven’t lost patience, quite yet, and will continue to be the poster child of what it means to fully embrace the changes that I have made in my life, despite the hot flashes that temporarily stop me in my tracks.