When Mark Salzman is invited to visit a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles's most violent teenage offenders, he scrambles for a polite reason to decline. He goes--expecting the worst--and is so astonished by what he finds that he becomes a teacher there himself. True Notebooks is an account of Salzman's first years teaching at Central. Through it, we come to know his students as he did: in their own words.
At times impossible and at times irresistible, they write with devastating clarity about their pasts, their fears, their confusions, their regrets, and their hopes. They write about what led them to crime and to gangs, about love for their mothers and anger toward their (mostly absent) fathers, about guilt for the pain they have caused, and about what it is like to be facing life in prison at the age of seventeen. Most of all, they write about trying to find some reason to believe in themselves--and others--in spite of all that has gone wrong.
Surprising, charming, upsetting, enlightening, and ultimately hopeful--driven by the insight and humor of Salzman's voice and by the intelligence, candor, and strength of his students, whose writing appears throughout the book--True Notebooks is itself a reward of the self-expression Mark Salzman teaches: a revelatory meditation on the process, power, and meaning of writing.
Salzman (Lying Awake; Iron & Silk) volunteered to teach creative writing at Central Juvenile Hall, a Los Angeles County detention facility for "high-risk" juvenile offenders. Most of these under-18 youths had been charged with murder or other serious crimes, and after trial and sentencing many would end up in a penitentiary, some for life. Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, convinced Salzman that in spite of his reservations-about teaching writing, about being a white liberal offering "art" to darker-skinned ghetto boys-these children needed to be encouraged to express themselves in writing instead of acting out, needed to feel they mattered to someone. So Salzman started coming twice a week to meet with three boys, although their number quickly grew. He tried to structure each session with a half hour for writing followed by each boy reading his work aloud, although after a lockdown or a class member's trial, he had to loosen the routine. While their writing themes are somewhat predictable-their anger and violent impulses, their relationships with parents and gangs, plus a tedious dose of "pussy, bullets, and beer"-the discussions these essays provoked were personal and often explosive. As productive as these classes were, everyone was always aware of the painful truth that students would soon be shipped out to more brutal facilities. Salzman doesn't dwell on that, concluding that "a little good has got to be better than no good at all." Indeed, his account's power comes from keeping its focus squarely on these boys, their writing and their coming-to-terms with the mess their lives had become -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 30, 2004
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Excerpt from True Notebooks by Mark Salzman
Mr. Jenkins unlocked the bolt and pushed the steel-frame door to K/L unit open with his shoulder.
"Look who's back. Nice trip?"
"Very nice." I had just returned from my sister's wedding in Connecticut. "Did we lose anybody while I was gone?"
"Paulino's in the Box, but he'll be back."
"Hey Mark! Whassup?"
Three of the boys in my juvenile hall writing class were already in the library, their folders and notepads spread out on the table. Toa, a seventeen-year-old Samoan with a linebacker's build, stepped forward and gave me a hug. "So you bring us any maple syrup, or what?" he asked.
"I know 'bout that 'cause a watchin' Mr. Rogers when I was a kid."
Raashad's eyes opened wide. "You seen that show too?"
"Every kid seen that show, fool. Nothin' else to do in the mornin' 'cept break toys an' shit."
"Yeah, I was always like, where that neighborhood at? Nobody got drunk or beat his ass or nothin'."
"Yeah," Toa said, "but check it out: that show be fake. Know how I figured it out? People always be walkin' in and outta his door and he never locked it. He'd'a had all his shit jacked if it was real."
"Yeah! Homies be like, 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood--now gimme that train set, fool.'"
"So how was your sister's wedding?" Antonio asked me as I handed out pencils.
"Beautiful. Perfect weather, too."
"Any fights break out?" Toa asked.
"At the wedding?"
"Nah, at the reception."
"No, no fights. Where are the rest of the guys?"
"The chapel. They got some kinda meditation retreat over there this morning. Could you gimme another pencil, Mark? This one don't got no eraser."
Toa frowned. "'Cause you bit it off, fool. I just seen you."
"I didn't bite nothin' off. It was already gone, I was just chewin' on the metal part."
"I went to that meditation thing once," Antonio said. "I went 'cause I heard the instructor was this hot female, but then I got there and it was some bald guy in a robe playin' a harmonica. Fuck that."
Raashad checked the eraser on his new pencil, then said, "Yeah, you suppos'ta close your eyes an' picture yourself goin' down some stairs into your workshop in the cellar where you got all yo' tools."
"Yeah, 'tools for life.'" Raashad rolled his eyes. "You suppos'ta choose what tools you need and put 'em on your belt, like you some kinda superhero. First of all, I say to myself: What nigga you know got a workshop? What nigga you know got a cellar? Right off I knew this shit ain't for me."
We joked around for a while, talked about a former class member who had just been sentenced to fifty years to life, then the boys settled down to write. After forty minutes, when they had all written something, I asked who would like to read aloud first.
"Let Carter start," Antonio said. Although I addressed them by their first names, the boys followed the example of the staff and referred to each other by last name only. "Carter got some good news last week."
Raashad nodded, propped his notepad on one knee, and read:
At about 2:33 a.m. the night staff came to my door and unlocked it. The sound of the key turning woke me up immediately, that sound always wakes me up alarmingly. The staff said, "Hey Carter, get up." I said, "Man what the hell." He said telephone. The first thing I thought was it was the police telling me someone in my family was dead. As I'm walking to the phone my heart was beating extremely hard like if you could see it beating through my shirt. When I picked up the phone I was relaxed by the sweet soothing sound of my companion and fiance Amika telling me she just gave birth to a little girl. The feeling inside me was indescribable. It was amazing, she said she weighed in at 8 lbs 4 oz. I felt so happy my body felt so numb. I was astounded by the information I had just received. I feel so great. Ever since that day I've been happy and just waiting to see her. I heard her giggle on the phone the feeling was great. I can't wait until the day when I can hold my daughter.
"Congratulations," I said.
He half smiled. "I'm pretty excited about it. I just pray to God I win my case so I can get out soon."
Toa volunteered to read next, promising to take everyone's mind away from prison and back to the freedom of "the outs."
My family weddings are cool and all but my family can't get along. During the wedding it's cool and all but the party that's after it ain't nothin' nice. It's like warfare. As soon as they down a few cases everybody all of a sudden feels like Superman. For example my cuzzin's wedding was beautiful, everything's going smooth, even the party until my brothers showed up. Apparently my brother had shot one of the groom's cuzzins and he was paralyzed. And the best man was that fool's older brother. They weren't trippin' but my brother was. He banked the best man up on the dance floor in front of everybody.