A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Each of us is more than the worst things we’ve done.”
~ BRYAN STEVENSON
I can remember without too much effort pretty much every time I got in trouble with the teachers at school. Of course, the times that stung the most were those when I knew myself to be guilty, and had been found so by a fair tribunal. There was the case in elementary school for instance when some other boys and I broke a souvenir that belonged to another classmate– we did it by accident, I insist, but through what might be called a kind of culpable negligence. I can still see my beloved and saintly first grade teacher Miss Perry striding in front of us afterwards, and pausing to give me a look of particularly withering disappointment. “I’m especially surprised to see you being a part of this, Josh,” she said. Then she rendered the harshest verdict I could at that time imagine: “I’m going to write this up in your Friday report!”
Then there was the time in seventh grade when we had to fill out end-of-the-year course evaluations for history class. The first question on the sheet read: “If you had to take this class again, what’s one thing that you would like to change about it?” and I, feeling very pleased with myself, and warmed by the cheap applause of the friend sitting next to me, wrote in reply, “The first thing I would change if I had to take this class again would be to get rid of pointless course evaluations at the end of the year.” The meta-irony of it made me swoon. I knew even as I wrote it that I was tempting fate, and it seemed only natural – if still horribly frightening – when I was asked to stay behind after class. The teacher gloweringly lectured me and ended indelibly with: “I don’t ever want to see this attitude from you in my classroom again!”
But — by far the most cringe-worthy of the times when I was in trouble and knew I was asking for it was in my freshman year of high school, when I was 14. It is this story, the “email story,” that forms the real subject of my sermon today.
Through the grapevine at school I had heard a rumor that another student—someone I barely knew – had been suspended. The reasons for it were rather shadowy, in this friend’s telling. All I knew was that the other student had been something of a school rebel, and I, inclining at that age to a conspiratorial outlook, assumed that the day had finally arrived that the administration was going to crack down on all dissent. Who knew which of us might be next? I should also mention that at this time I briefly, and in the face of much evidence, believed that I was a great rebel too, whom it would be well worth the time of any oppressive regime to crush.
With my belief about the school’s intentions in hand, I did not feel the need to consider a very wide range of alternatives as to how I might respond – alternatives like gathering more information about the nature of the suspension or even whether or not it had actually happened. After all, this was a conspiracy we were dealing with here—and by now they had surely already gotten to anyone I might have asked. So instead, I decided that the most logical next step was to send a vituperative unsigned email to the school principal from my personal email account. This was the plan that took shape over the rest of that bus ride.
When I got home from school that afternoon, I fired up AOL and, five minutes later, was logged onto the internet. One of the advantages of dial-up internet service that we now tend to forget was the time for considered reflection it imposed on you before you could actually be online and ready to press send. It wasn’t enough time to save me on this occasion, however, and against the advice of my better angels, I typed out a brief but truly scathing email. I accused the principal of trying to make a crime of difference, of seeking to banish from the school by brute force any behavior that conflicted with the school’s outward image of unflappable gentility. I’m not sure that this ever was the school’s outward image, by the way, but I was working off of clichés à la Dead Poet’s Society rather than observations. I ended the email by saying that the principal was clearly trying, in short, to create a quote “Christian utopia” by totalitarian means. Then, not including my name at the bottom of the email, and therefore thinking that it was anonymous, I pressed send.
I had a night of untroubled sleep after this, as far as I can remember, followed by one non-anxious bus ride the next morning, and then, I believe, a relatively normal first period class. I don’t think it so much as occurred to me to worry until the voice came on the intercom, asking if Josh Leach would please report to the headmaster’s office. I rose from my seat on suddenly weak legs and left the classroom. How did they find me? I thought. In my defense, the year was 2004 and email accounts at that time didn’t automatically attach your name to the “sender” line unless it was contained in your address. My email handle in those days was the inscrutable arjl64, so I figured I was safe.
I entered the office looking pale and quivering. The principal said, “Hi Josh.” Then she calmly swung her computer monitor around to face me. There I could see the terrible and incontrovertible evidence of my email, but covered now in small red highlights, as if psychiatric experts from the FBI had combed through the text looking for ciphers to reveal the location of my next attack. To this day I don’t know exactly how they traced it back to me so quickly, but I gather from people who know something about technology that it would not have been hard to do.
So this was it, I realized. I hadn’t expected my life to be over so soon. “Did you write this email?” the principal asked. “Yes,” I breathed, white in the face. It turns out I was not all that difficult to crack under interrogation. “Okay,” she said, and moved the monitor back into place. She explained to me the actual circumstances of the student on whose “behalf” (quote-unquote) I had written the email. She said the student had not been suspended; she had temporarily left the school on a medical leave of absence; she said that the school was very concerned about the student and was working closely with her to insure she did not fall behind the class while on leave. “Okay,” I breathed again. Either I understood that this made sense and was very different from the situation I had imagined or, at that moment, I would have agreed to anything.
I apologized, I said I had jumped to some unfair conclusions, I said I shouldn’t have posted something anonymously, I said it wouldn’t happen again. Then I was dismissed back to class, and that was the end of it. No detention, no suspension, nothing. Months later, the other student returned to school from leave and did well. I sincerely hope she remained ignorant of the minor sortie I had waged over her absence.
There were no disciplinary repercussions to me over the entire business, and when I thought about it much later, I had to admit that the principal’s response had successfully called into question some of my allegations about her and the school. It is true that my high school was Episcopalian, in a quiet and, well, Episcopalian sort of way, and it is also true that we were once forbidden from using the word “beer” in a school play, even though the entire thing was set in bar – but still, I had perhaps exaggerated in my email when I described the place as a “totalitarian Christian utopia.”
To this day, my family still gets a big kick out of the “anonymous email to the principal” story, and has even been known to call for it sometimes at family gatherings. I think for my parents, the email story is indicative of a charming personal quirk; of a tendency on my part to put my foot in my mouth over a perceived injustice. Something like the small birds who will emit loud squawks that draw predators to themselves but manage to warn the rest of the flock.
As the one who sent the email, though, I have had a hard time taking such a generous view of it. The affair of the traced email has long been one of that handful of private memories that can literally make me pause and wince on a sidewalk or snowbank someplace, if I suddenly remember it while walking. On the one hand, once I had managed to obtain some chronological distance from the email story, it was easy to perceive the life lessons I gleaned from it. I learned something about the consequences of rushing to judgment of others, about the perils of self-righteousness, of neglecting the beam in one’s own eye for the mote in one’s neighbors. I especially took to heart the lesson that if I wasn’t willing to put my name to something then it probably wasn’t something I ought to share with others. Many of us are told these things at some point while we’re growing up, but sometimes it takes sending an anonymous email to the principal for it to sink in. These are the things about the story I can point to and laugh and say, okay, well – live and learn.
I also have to admit, though, that the whole thing was a pretty close call, and that’s the part that makes me cringe. To remember it is to step dangerously close to a parallel universe in which the principal doesn’t have a kind-hearted response, in which I do not get off the hook so easily, and in which a chain of further consequences is unleashed that leads to a very different present from the one I currently occupy.
As swiftly became apparent to me in retrospect, after all, things might have turned out very differently. This particular principal was lenient with me, and decided to give me the benefit of the doubt—which was, by the way, generous of her, since that’s exactly what I did not grant to her in my email. But would things have turned out so well if this had not taken place at a small private school where there were only 70 students in my graduating class? – if the principal had not known me and my parents for years before the incident occurred? — if our interview had not taken place in front of a desk that I had myself briefly yet gloriously occupied four years earlier when I became “headmaster for the day” through a school auction and thereby empowered to choose which day that year was going to be designated “Funny T-Shirt Day” – if any of those things had not been the case, it seems to me that the email story might have gone down in family lore as something other than a case of youthful hijinks.
These days, I can’t help but elaborate in my mind alternative scenarios that could have played out. Suppose the email had been construed as a threat – I don’t think I did actually threaten anyone in its text, but in our post-Newtown world a school administrator might be forgiven for perceiving an implicit danger in its harsh tone and in the facelessness of its anonymous sender. It’s not impossible to imagine a school these days being locked down over that kind of email, or a student expelled.
The email story is thus a chastening example of how much in life is due to chance; or, as is more likely the case here, due to privileges of race and class of which I am scarcely conscious at any given moment, but which have had a profound impact on shaping my life’s destiny. If I had been a student of color at a school where the administrators didn’t know me or my parents and I had sent that email, would I have been treated the same way? If I had been a Muslim student in our current hyper-vigilant public atmosphere and sent that email, would the response have been the same?
Even in the few years since 2004, ours has become a society that is highly attuned to the potential for violence in apparently innocuous settings – movie theaters, schools, churches, night clubs, traffic stops and city streets – and there is very good cause for that. I am afraid that one of the consequences of this heightened awareness, however, is an increasing unwillingness to grant people second chances – even when it comes to the very young, who are especially likely to need them. And, as my example suggests, wherever second chances are still given, they are not doled out on anything like a fair and equal basis.
Compare the treatment I received after my angry email with what happened earlier this year to a black 6th grader in Virginia, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who attends a suburban public school. Kayleb is an 11-year old who has been diagnosed with autism. He attends one of the growing number of schools in America that now have an on-campus police presence charged with upholding the laws and—increasingly – with enforcing discipline at the school. Kayleb’s first encounter with the police on campus occurred when he got upset with a teacher and kicked a trash can in his frustration. As reported by the Center for Public Integrity, the officer on duty filed a charge of “disorderly conduct” at juvenile court for Kayleb in response. Later on, when Kayleb was told by a teacher to wait while classmates left the room, he disobeyed the instructions and tried to leave. The officer on duty was called and wrestled a protesting Kayleb back into the classroom. Because Kayleb “resisted” this treatment, quote unquote, the officer decided to handcuff him and bring him into court on the adult felony charge of “assaulting an officer.” Though Kayleb was not ultimately sent to juvenile detention, the judge on duty had an officer show him a jail cell and inform him that that was where he’d end up if he didn’t start controlling himself. Kayleb, to repeat, is 11 years old and has been diagnosed with autism.
I don’t know about you, but I think that email I sent was probably worse than kicking a trash can. Moreover, I was 14 at the time, rather than 11. But when I acted up, no one took me to a jail cell, or even raised her voice.
Similar examples could be multiplied. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented cases of kids and teenagers being arrested at school for such minor infractions as throwing Skittles candy on a bus ride and being too loud in the hallway. In the Louisiana county they examined in detail, 80% of the students arrested over these minor disciplinary issues were African American. SPLC describes a case of one black teenager, under the pseudonym Michael, who forgot to wear a belt to school one day and whose pants fell down as a result in an embarrassing moment in front of the class. Michael was 14 at the time, an excellent student with no prior disciplinary issues, and the incident with his pants had been an accident, far more mortifying for him than it was for the school. That day after class, however, he was arrested on adult criminal charges of lewdness. Without any hearing or due process, he was handcuffed, spent five hours in a cell in juvenile detention, and then found himself peremptorily expelled from his school. To this day he faces the same criminal charge that was filed against him by the campus police, and has had to enter a diversion program for youth to evade standing trial for it. I feel queasy when hearing this kind of story. Michael, however, is not alone in receiving this treatment. Children have been placed onto sex offender registries across this country – a permanent stigma tantamount to a 21st century “scarlet letter” — for incidents that occurred when they were as young as 11 years old.
The roots of this astonishingly harsh and disproportionate treatment lie in the hysterical public discourse that has swirled around teenage crime over the past few decades. Many of you may recall seeing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s a spate of media reports about the wave of so-called “super-predators” who were about to be unleashed onto America’s streets. This referred to the large uptick in the teenage population that was predicted for those years, which journalists and pundits preemptively dubbed a “demographic crime bomb.” – TV and magazines warned in racially coded language of packs of adolescents who would soon be roaming our city streets wreaking violence and mayhem. The reality proved to be the exact opposite—violent crime rates peaked in the early ‘90s and then began a long secular decline, but while it lasted, the “super-predator” narrative and the punitive responses it engendered had a real impact on the lives of America’s adolescents – disproportionately black and Hispanic ones. To this day, the U.S. continues to stand alone among Western nations in the rate at which it tries and prosecutes children as adults. As of 2011, there were an estimated 95,000 children under 18 serving time in adult prisons. As of now, fourteen states have no minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted as an adult, and the Equal Justice Initiative has documented dozens of cases across the country of children as young as 13 or 14 receiving sentences of life in prison without possibility of parole. While earlier this year the Supreme Court finally abolished mandatory life without parole sentences for certain categories of offenders, judges in many states still have discretion, if they choose, to sentence children of any age to spend the rest of their lives in an adult prison.
One African American man from Philadelphia, Robert Holbrook, has spent the last twenty six years in adult prison – as long as I have been alive on this planet – serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole for a crime he committed when he was just sixteen years old. Holbrook was never convicted of a violent crime; rather, he received this incredibly harsh sentence simply for being present at a drug deal that went wrong, and that ended with a person being shot at another’s hand. Due to the recent Supreme Court decisions, Holbrook is now eligible for re-sentencing; but nothing can take away the fact that as a sixteen year old child, our society made the decision to deprive him irrevocably of his future and his freedom. This is what people mean when they say our society behaves as if black lives don’t matter, or as if they matter less. I can say it no better than Holbrook’s sister, Anita Colon, who has gone on to become an advocate for reforming the criminal justice system as it impacts kids, especially kids of color. As she recently told a reporter on NPR:
“[Y]ou can’t compare in any way what an adult should have known to a child, and that is the basis of all these Supreme Court cases, that kids are different […] We spend so much time as a society [being] concerned with how to protect children [… except when] they commit a crime. […] My brother, without a doubt, deserved to be punished for what he did. At no point [did our family] feel as if he should have just been able to walk away. But to take away his life, to tell him at the age of 16, when he hasn’t even been able to finish high school, your life is worthless at this point and there is nothing you can offer society [… that] is completely unjust and unfair.”
These are extreme examples of the fear our nation displays toward its own children. But I feel that a not entirely dissimilar unwillingness to allow kids to make and learn from their mistakes underlies our country’s obsession with academic testing, the proliferation of various means of tracking students from young ages into different life paths –our whole multi-tiered system of education, where students are so often categorized from young ages and slated for particular outcomes.
Of all the things that our society gets wrong, this is one that has always especially rankled with me on a personal level. When I look at my own past I am acutely aware of the fact that I needed a whole lot of second and third chances if I hoped to succeed, and the angry email is not the only instance I have in mind.
Years later, I came to see that I was fortunate for having my mistakes. I was even more fortunate, however, to have had adults in my life who gave me another chance after I had fallen and dusted myself off. I had teachers in high school who cared about me and wanted me to do well. I had a principal who let me live to email another day. These various adults in my life did something that actually required a lot of courage – they gave me the benefit of the doubt. They took a chance, to give me a chance. They looked past a hostile exterior presentation from me and assumed that there was a worthwhile person beneath it with positive things to contribute. I’m not even sure they were right, but the fact that they made that assumption helped to eventually make it true. They chose to see my various missteps as opportunities for learning, or even as signs of deeper character traits that could develop into something positive if channeled in the right direction. Because they saw it this way, this was how I came to see it myself, until the perception became a reality.
My high school experience, then, ended on a positive note; but knowing from my own experience how powerful the perceptions of the adult figures in our lives can be when we are children, I am all the more painfully aware of what the results must be when children are not given the benefit of the doubt. How much they must lose when they are prematurely written off, tracked, or packed away as “delinquent,” or even “dangerous.” What message are we sending to kids about their inherent worth and dignity as human beings, by our culture of tight policing and zero tolerance? What view of themselves do they take from adults when they are threatened with prison cells, or even incarcerated in them? And how much is lost to the world when these views are internalized and people who might have enriched all of our lives are instead taken away from us?
I am reminded of the words of William Blake, in his “Songs of Experience”:
“How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop a tender wing, […]
O father and mother, if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,[…]
How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?”
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. […] Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; […] What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your[c] Father in heaven that even one of these little ones should be lost.