Simply Havin a Wonderful Christmas Time

16 Dec

I have a lot of fuzzy memories about my time teaching in NYC’s juvenile detention centers.  Most of them involve serious fights, kids doing insane things, adults doing equally insane things and laughing my ass off at some of the insanity.  And I have great memories of a lot of dedicated teachers (not all of them) working perhaps the most thankless job in education.  But the clearest memory I have of my experience there was a project I worked on with a student who has become my greatest source of pride in my 5 years as a teacher.  

Early in December a friend and co-teacher of mine agreed to entertain my whimsy and bring his video camera in to the juvie to work with a student on a video he was excited about making: a fireside christmas episode about the holidays in jail.  For one week I worked with Darnell and my friend recording his musings on spending his second Christmas locked up.  He shared his own thoughts, but he also interviewed fellow students, staff, teachers, security, even the cook.  He toured the facilities (I will forever recall the image of christmas lights twinkling against the shatter proof glass windows, and a waving santa on one of the padlocked doors.)  I remember Darnell having to take a break during one of his editing sessions to just go look out of the window, into the yard, and to the sky beyond.  I remember his laugh, and his ridiculously contagious smile.  There is a moment when he is interviewing the math teacher (a wildly eccentric man) and he turns to the camera and winks and smiles–sharing an inside joke with both the videographer and myself, but also with the audience: the absurdity of this young man (in the very real predicament he is in) trying to pry happy holiday thoughts out of his peculiar 50 year-old math teacher.

Some of the highlights for me include his interviews with staff in which they sincerely told Darnell and his peers how impossible it was not to think of them when they enjoyed their own holidays.  There is a scene where a counselor frowns and shrugs “I am going to be right here with you.  Working a double.”  There is a great panoramic of Darnell touring the mess hall, strewn with tinsel and lights and commenting on how nice it all looks.  He repeats three times: “It..looks…nice.”  As he walks the halls, “Dominic The Donkey” plays.  His interview with the cook is one of the funniest moments of any film I have seen, all punctuated by Darnells hiccuping laughs.  It was an exasperating week.  We filmed most days all day, and spent several nights late into the darkest hours editing, Darnell even passing on his dinners.  When we completed it Darnell begged us to share the product with the whole facility.  We did.  When we returned from break there was a memo from the Deputy Director banning any recording devices from the facility.  

There was a moment when it was all done when Darnell had his arm around myself and the videographer and in the most heartfelt way possible said “I can’t believe I had to get locked up to have an experience.  Nobody ever did something like this for me.”  I have to admit, I was a bit exploitive: I selected Darnell to host the video because his charm was primed for the role.  But he was also my favorite student to work with both academically and socially.  That following January I stayed with Darnell much later than the State of New York Regents Board would have liked as he drudged through the English Regents exam (breaking at one point for dinner I had delivered.)  I stared at the ceiling as he wrote and wrote and wrote, and read and reread his answers several times, his dyslexia audible as he stumbled over word after word.  He passed the regents with a 75.  The next semester I was transferred from the facility in Brooklyn to one in the Bronx.  I saw Darnell occasionally after that when I came to tutor another student for his English Regents once a week.  We couldn’t stop talking about the power of his experience.  That May was the last time I saw Darnell or heard from him.  But I think about him and that week all the time.  This time of year I break out the DVD I have of Darnell’s Holiday Fireside Chat.  I watch it and as cliche as it sounds, I laugh and cry.  

Darnell’s story is not represented in the data that “education” experts pour over in an effort to “fix” schools and teachers and students.  It’s not a story that Mayor Bloomberg is likely to share when he advocates for placing 50 students in every classroom.  I can’t say it was a defining moment in Darnell’s education.  I wouldn’t know.  But it was a defining moment in mine.  And I have never felt the sincerity in the thanks he gave us the night we completed that project.  

Darnell, wherever you are this Christmas, I hope you are free and happy, and loving every minute of your life.  I am truly jealous of whoever is getting to share that addictive laughter.  I hope its your family.


One Response to “Simply Havin a Wonderful Christmas Time”

  1. Melanie December 16, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    A pleasure to read. Would love to see the video.

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