Saturday, July 24, 2004

And it all falls down.

I've had a wonderfully exciting day that has entailed sitting in front of my desk at home, in my sweatpants and a scraggly oversized t-shirt, scouring the internet for information on who makes decisions regarding medication for confined juveniles. This hasn't been pleasant at all. This isn't how I wanted to spend my last few weekends in the city.

I was pleasantly interrupted by a brief phone call from a friend from law school. I haven't spoken to him at all this summer, and I hardly hung out with him at all last year, but I love him dearly and he and I were quite close our first year. We chatted briefly and then he had to catch his train. I wasn't particularly chatty or enthusiastic, since I'm a little overwhelmed by this research, so I felt bad and emailed him an apology, promising to catch up better in person.

I found myself folding my laundry later, wondering how I would describe to him what kind of summer I've had. I started thinking about each individual client, and thinking about the system as a whole, and thinking about what the view from my office window looks like. I started sniffling, then a few tears rolled down my cheeks, and then I started a full-scale cry. It's difficult to explain why I'm crying, even. There are no words for this overwhelming wave of emotion I get when I think about my job and thinking about leaving it.

When the summer began, I was motivated by my horror. Horror at seeing children in shackles, in cold cement cells, sleeping alone every night so far away from their home and their family. Then I was motivated by anger. Anger that no one else cared, everyone else wanted these kids locked up more and more, and no one was trying to help them change. But suddenly, I was motivated by how deeply I adore each and every one of the residents in this facility. I used to see them walk across the yard, hands behind their back, single file, and was horrified that they looked handcuffed. It was like a kick in the gut. Then I was angry that someone came up with such a rule - why not hands in the front of them? Now, when I look out and see the lines as they walk across the yard, I am overcome with pride and affection for what wonderful young men they are, and how amazing and incredible each of them are, and I am filled with hope that they will leave this place someday, if not sooner than later, and will lead happy and productive lives.

When I think back at the horrible stories I've heard, and the small tragedies I've witnessed, it's not those things that stand out in my mind. When I look back on my summer, what stands out most is that DESPITE this things, a resident will still come into the office with a bright smile, might even laugh; that despite the rampant injustice, they can still have wonderfully insightful conversation about the law in street law class; that they still, despite all of these things, are holding out with the hope that this will all be over soon. I'll never forget the one resident, the most caring and selfless one I've met, the one who is more insightful about people than any social worker I've ever met, the one who makes it his job to laugh and joke and cheer up the staff around the facility - one day, he came in and chatted pleasantly with me. Then, for a brief moment, for the first time I've ever seen, a shadow passed over his face, he frowned briefly, and said softly, "I sure would like to be out of here soon. Man, I've been here too long. Too long."

The next day, I was walking into the building and saw a resident that I had worked with several times shackling up. He was always pleasant, smiling, and calm, just wonderful to be around, and one day he thanked me because I called him by his name and he told me that I was the only one in the place that remembered his name. I said to him, "Hey! It looks like you're getting out of here! Where are you headed?" He had a huge grin on his face and said, "Hey, I beat XX charge, I'm going to another placement now." I congratulated him and wished him the best, with instructions to call the office to let us know how he was doing and where he was. A few days later, his attorney came to the office and talked about how upset she was that she won one trial, lost another the previous week. I said, "Hey, didn't you have John Doe last week?" and she said sadly, "Yeah, that's the trial that I lost. It was so upsetting because he was actually innocent." I told her that I had seen him, and that he had raved about how wonderful she was, and he was so excited about how she practically laughed the government's main witness out of the courtroom. I told her that he felt like he was truly well-represented and was so pleased to be leaving the facility, even if it was just to go to another (better) one. She was so happy that she cried, because she was so appalled at the outcome of the case. I was shocked to learn the outcome because he was just so happy and pleased with how things went - and despite the fact that he was innocent, that the eyewitness stated that he was not the perpetrator, that there was absolutely no physical evidence at all, and the judge convicted him anyway - he was still smiling.

Despite the abuse by the courts and law enforcement and society at large, despite the fact that he was locked up in the midst of all this, one afternoon a resident wandered alone across the yard and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, did a small little dance for about 30 seconds, thinking that no one was watching - and then proceeded along his way.

And that's why I cry.

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