Yesterday I visited the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center to meet with three classes, one of which was maximum security. When I arrived in San Francisco in the morning, the first thing I did was hit the center’s library to see what kinds of books were available, and to ask the librarian which books are being checked out the most. The interesting thing is that some of the most popular books for the young brothers, are romance novels. I thought it would’ve been the urban stuff or biographies, naturally, but turns out, the guys are really into love stories. And honestly, after thinking about it, it makes sense. Here they are, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, locked away, closed off from one of the most natural experiences in adolescence — intimacy, curiosity, and experimentation with love and sex. So they search for any semblance of it in cheesy teen novels. The books are pretty much…juvie Playboys.
Though I found that fascinating, one of my favorite parts of the day (and there were many) was actually hanging out with the kids in max. There was one kid in particular sitting a few rows from the front. He was attentive — really attentive — as I talked about the importance of their stories, and how though today’s music can give them something to strive toward and party to, it’s not at all talking about, or even thinking about the fellas exiled from their families in this facility. “You want a diamond watch, but not nearly as much as you want your freedom,” is what I think I told them, followed by “Who’s writing your songs?” The kid was all in as we spoke about the G CODE and the no snitching rule. He was even one of the kids who had read, WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST which is why I wasn’t surprised when he raised his hand and asked me if I knew how to knit. I explained to him that I learned to crochet when I was younger and used it to make hats and scarves for myself and others in college. I told him at first it was kinda corny, but then it became kinda cool — an easy hustle that also taught me discipline and patience and the feeling of seeing something through to the end.
His response: “Yeah I know exactly what you mean. I learned how to knit too, when I was at The Ranch.” The Ranch is another facility in the Bay. “But we used these little thingys that you just put the yarn around a bunch of times and then you have a hat. We even put the little ball on top sometimes. Y’know that little ball thing? Yeah. It’s cool, man,” he explained, using his hands to try to get me to picture the pompom and the loom he was describing. Several of the other boys agreed. They too had learned to knit. Then the young man added, “So, you telling me you never sold drugs?” He said it like he couldn’t believe it. Like it was an impossibility. There was a kid in the class before his who asked how did I realize that basketball and rapping and dealing weren’t the only ways out. It’s a heart-breaking question but it came from the purest of places.
“No. I never sold drugs,” I replied. “But I did sell hats.”
He cocked his head to the side, then looked around the room at some of his friends. I could almost hear their brains working, the wheels turning, their genius recalibrating.
“Word,” he nodded, flashing an innocent smile.
(Note: San Francisco is only 6% black. Yet, the librarian told me today that they have ZERO white inmates. ZERO. Chew on that. #blacklivesmatter)