Columns 2006

For some kids, graduation has a different meaning

It’s graduation season, a time of life changes for young people and their parents.  I recently went to South’s graduation to watch a very special young man in my life graduate into what I fully expect to be a productive, contributing adulthood…even if his parents are a little nervous about that possibility right now. Senioritis can be a difficult disease for parents to live through.

Unfortunately, the kids I work with rarely have the kind of graduations that entail getting dressed up and notifying the relatives.  They do have graduations. But it’s just not the same when you are graduating from McLaughlin Youth Facility.  There’s a whole different ambience happening.

Yet these graduations are still important, even if they happen inside a locked building, The kids graduating are the ones with the most to lose if they don’t make a good transition to the adult world because they are already familiar denizens of the institutional world of our penal system. And make no mistake about it, you can call the staff at a place like McLaughlin by any number of euphemisms and they are still essentially guards who tightly control the lives of their young charges in a facility that is essentially kiddie jail.

So when you go to a graduation there, it’s a little different than one from Dimond or East.  You have to be buzzed through locked doors. The kids don’t wear caps or gowns. They are not receiving high school diplomas. They are graduating from a program designed to help them re-enter society as positive contributing adults. Some are merely aging out of the system at 18 or 19, having managed to successfully resist any attempts to actually engage them in the program other than their enforced attendance.  The keynote speaker is the magistrate who ordered most of them into the institution.

Were you to attend one of these graduations, the thing that would probably strike you first and foremost is how these kids look like every other kid on the street, in the mall, at the movie. Nothing really different about them.  Nothing except for one glaring fact – the majority of the graduates are minorities, either Alaska Native or African American or Pacific Islander.  White faces stand out in this crowd.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all are the kids who are graduating for the second or third time.  Having made it through the program once, they left for the outside world, re-offended and are now graduating again.  You hold your breath for these kids, hoping the lessons take this time.

Saddest of all are those kids too broken to ever really be fixed, whose second or third certificate will make no actual difference in their future.  I know that’s not politically correct to say.  I know people who work with kids will gasp and proclaim that every child has a chance to change their lives, that none of them are completely lost. But that’s simply not true.

Truth is found in the fact that too many of these kids enter the system with so much damage already done that no matter how many McLaughlin graduation certificates their mothers hang on the refrigerator, the likelihood that they won’t re-offend as adults is slim to non-existent. And that’s if they have mothers or fathers who actually care enough to hang the certificate.

These kids were raised in violence, they may have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, their families are so dysfunctional that they can provide little to no support for the kid to make healthy life choices and, in some cases, the families are the ones who will actively subvert anything the system did to show these kids a better way. After all, what’s more devastating to a child trying to live clean and sober than going home and hearing a parent say, “What’s wrong with you?  You think you’re better than we are?”

Yep. It’s June.  It’s time for graduations and celebrations. It’s time for our children to face the rigors and joys of being adults. For some young people, it’s time for them to make it on the outside without ending up back on the inside. Because, like that poet said about home, our penal system is a place where, when you return to it, they have to take you in.