A few feet to my left, a bright-eyed young kid with impeccable braids is telling Fred, our sixty-year-old English instructor mentor, how to spell “finna”—as in he’s “finna make some changes.” It’s spelled F-I-N-N-A, for sure, the kid tells him, but it’s got nothing to do with sharks. He’s not sure where it comes from.
It was a hard sell this session, sitting faux-casual on a desk in front of Mr. Ishmael’s math class and trying to convince the crossed-arm crowd to leave the safe space of obsolete computers and dull stubs of pencils for something entirely different and, despite my attempts at clarity, mysterious.
It’s not a popular sentiment to express, but there are times when it feels a little frightening in here. In my limited experience it’s never been a specific individual or even group of them that brings the anxiety; it’s more often been tension, the possibility of a rip in the fragile fabric that’s holding all this pain. It seems logical, maybe, to say that being inside a jail, working in close proximity to inmates on volatile emotional material, can sometimes be scary, regardless of the fact that those inmates wear peach fuzz on their lips or haven’t yet figured out how to cloak their eyes. Or have, and do it resolutely, in the way that only a teenager can hold an expression.
Less easily grasped is the fear that they feel with us. Not from us, but from the process we’re asking them to trust. At Hanford Nuclear Facility, a few hundreds miles east of here, there are large cement containers of radioactive sludge bolted together with rusting screws the size of a man’s forearm and buried in the banks of the Columbia River. Needless to say, they are leaking—and threaten the river, the water table, and everything that drinks or breathes in the area. One wishes for those containers to be dug up and removed, processed, treated. But there is the matter of who will do the digging and what precautions they will take and, most importantly, whether or not bringing them into the light will make anyone safer—or if the process is simply too wrought with hazard and the sure but slow poisoning is preferable. Obviously, at one time, the decision was made to bury them. Maybe it was expediency, or laziness, or fear. Maybe it was what seemed safe.
My symbolism is overwrought and imprecise. But I find that every single time that I remind myself that we are asking kids to unearth things that feel dangerous to them, that we’re scaring them, however therapeutic it might be, I can absorb a great deal more bravado, apathy and resistance, and absorb it with something like love.