Look, as a guy, it’s as common as seeing clouds in the sky. No matter where you live, what your race, anything, you see other guys who think they’re a bad-ass. You know the type: ego, attitude, talks too much. Always talking about their prowess and telling you how better they are at something as a guise for their insecurity. And as a guy, I have to admit to- at times, being guilty of it too. Come on. Come clean. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s because of how you feel in those aviators, the way that song gets you charged up or the way you feel in your… cowboy boots? Whatever. We do it. We think it, we act it, we believe it. Especially when you throw alcohol into the mix. I was no exception, until a couple of years ago when I was fortunate enough to spend a year immersed by the real deal. The kind Hollywood can’t realistically depict. I spent a year working as a tutor in Los Angeles County juvenile detention facilities and it was truly an indelible experience. I even wrote a book about it. It’s called, The Greatest Place Next to Hell.
Okay, cheap self-advertising aside, I felt like I had to write it because even from my first day inside I realized I had walked into a world “normal” society didn’t know to exist. Or didn’t want to. There was so much going on, so many stories(and all of them real) that if I didn’t somehow expunge them from my brain my head was going to implode. So I did. And I won’t plug it again, because one time was self-serving enough.
Okay, but on to the bad-asses. The teenage boys(and girls) locked up in these facilities are without a doubt some of the baddest asses ever procreated. Maybe, in the world. They come from infamous places like South Central L.A., Watts, East L.A., El Monte, Pomona, Long Beach, and Compton. They talk about shooting people, robbing people, having sex with people, and not in those words. They fight amongst each other as if it were as natural as breathing. They are tattooed from head to toe, around the neck, and pierce their genitals with paper clips out of boredom. The really mean ones don’t talk, but others will gladly show you their bullet scars, stab wounds, and disjointed bones from alleged police and gang life brutality. They glare at you, dead in your eyes, and if you look away they’ll smell weakness and get in your face. Ironically, continuing to look them in the eyes will result in the same. You are lucky though, or at least I was, because you are being paid to be the professional. You don’t have to engage in their violence because, as a relief, you’re not supposed to. Don’t forget that all these boys and girls, despite their size, are still 18 and under.
When you finally earn their trust and they of you, they let their walls down to show tenderness does exist within them, but it’s tangled in with an innate sense of violence- mainly for protection. It’s natural evolution if you look at the streets where they live. You see they’re still children when they tell you how much they miss candy or when they talk about video games. But I’ve worked with children before and these boys and girls possess something more: wisdom and experience. I can’t tell you how easy it was to talk to them at an adult level about adult things. Sure, the adult topics consisted mainly of drugs, violence, and sex, but it wasn’t like talking to kids about it. These guys knew. These guys did.
But these guys aren’t the bad-asses I’m talking about. Yes, they are genuine bad-asses or bad-asses in training(once they turn adults I’m sure they’ll receive their degrees, Magna Cum Laude). I met some real bad-asses. Even luckier, I got to hang out with them. Learn from them. Sometimes, I still do.
I’m talking about the teachers.
Within every juvy there exists a school. California state law mandates that if you’re a minor, you have to be in school no matter how many people you’ve shot.
Early on I saw the probation guards as bad-asses, which they are. You have to be if you don’t want these guys running over you(which does happen to some). But as time went on and my vision got clearer, I began to see that some of these teachers were probation guards, teachers, parent-figures, and counselors rolled into one. They could take the meanest verbal abuse(at times from 20 or more gang-bangers at once), threats of physical assault, aggressive male behavior, fights and drug use breaking out in the classroom, and handleit. Not with the greatest of ease, because trust me- it’s not possible. But they handled it. Sometimes with humor, sometimes by yelling the loudest, and sometimes by asking probation for help, but they handled it. And continue to. And they teach.
And that wasn’t all they had to handle. They had to deal with administration constantly breathing down their necks for results, creating lesson plans, directors of education, probation, and child welfare, and the Department of Justice, all in an environment where if you turned your back for two seconds something would end up missing. These men and women are badass.
The experience gave me newfound respect for those working in incarceration, law enforcement, fire departments, the military, etc.,. Now when I go out somewhere and I see someone acting bad-ass, I visualize how they would stack up against my mentors. Not many do. You know the real kicker? Whenever I’m fortunate enough to see these teachers on personal time, off work hours, they display no ego, no attitude, no nothin’. They talk about their kids, their vacation plans, what they bought and for how much, and what kind of blinds they’re going to put in their house.
I remember sitting in a classroom once where one guy’s bravado triggered a classroom full of saber-rattling. They began yelling about how vicious they were and what they had done to get locked up, all trying to one-up each other with violent anecdotes about their past. When the dust settled and a quiet once again resumed, one of the boys yelled to the teacher, a man named Mckinley: “Hey, Mckinley! How come you never talk about how tough you are!?”
“The tough ones,” Mckinley muttered, never looking up from his lesson plans, “don’t need to show it.”