Alabama Public Radio | By Lynn Oldshue
Published June 2, 2022
The State of Alabama does certain things to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. There’s treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues as well as coaching and mentoring. This is a story about stories. The point is who the writers are and what the experience might mean for them.
“Afterlife. I say when you die your soul goes high. It flies above the clouds. Above the clouds you hear the angels sing aloud. As angels sing welcome in heaven, the open gates are a blessing. God’s open arms mean no harm. Now at your rest bed you lay your head. Forever you. Rest in peace, Father,” wrote KW. That’s how he wants to be called for this story. He’s a poet and a juvenile offender.
Writing Our Stories is a ten week pilot class set up by the Strickland Youth Center and P.O.I.N.T.E Academy. It’s introducing almost forty middle and high school students to creative writing.
Edmund Naman is the presiding judge of the Mobile County Juvenile Court. But, today, he’s part literary coach and writing critic. He reads a poem by another young writer we’ll call J.O.
“I dream of a world where there is no more war,” read the judge. “I dream of a world where I can see to figure out the man I’ll come to be. To see what the universe has for me. I pray that that world shows my family peace. I dream that the whole world sees peace.”
“If you have a felony, it won’t prevent you from getting a good job,” Judge Naman went onto say. “There are lower food and gas prices. It won’t be so hard to get out of detention. You shouldn’t be judged by your past record. The good news to J.O. is that everything you dream here is attainable. You’re not transferred or treated as an adult, and it is nobody’s business what you do as a juvenile. A felony committed as a juvenile will not keep you from getting a good job.”
Writing Our Stories began in 1997 with the Alabama Writers’ Forum. That’s a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Departments of Youth Services in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Shelby County. It pairs established writers with students in educational settings or the juvenile justice system. The point is to help them express their emotions and find their voice. Judge Naman tried for years to bring the program to Mobile to help the kids who come through his court. It finally happened.
Each poem for the Writing Our Stories class begins with a central message. That theme includes family, feelings, and childhood memories. One the poems from these young writers are polished and ready for the public, they include humor, dreams, and pain.
“Sister One: Why Haven’t you called? Are you okay? Have you been to school? What do your grades look like? Don’t you think I’m worried? Why won’t you answer? Have you seen Mom calling? Have you eaten? Do you care that you’re scaring me? Do you really care? Can’t you see I’m not okay? Why do y’all keep calling? Can’t you tell I don’t want to be bothered? Tell Mom I’m fine, okay? Why won’t you guys leave me be? Do y’all really care. You don’t have to lie, okay? I’m fine, can’t you see? Why do you care so much?”
By “BJ” Her poem,”Sister/Sister” is about a conversation she would have with one of her sisters if she ever tried to run away.
“I want to read this out loud. This means something,” exclaimed Judge Naman. “Why haven’t you called? Are you okay? Have you been to school?
Judge Naman can’t seem to let this poem go. He keeps the message of the narrative alive for all to hear.
“What do your grades look like? Don’t you think I’m worried? Doesn’t that sound like what I would say in court to you? Why won’t you answer me? Have you seen mom calling? Have you eaten? Do you care that you’re scaring me? I think that’s a question that a lot of parents and people who love you ask that question a lot. Do you care that you’re scaring me?
“I’m a superhero. I save people from burning buildings,” Kathleen Duthu read from another young writer. She’s a former prosecutor of delinquency, child abuse, and child neglect cases in South Mississippi. “I fly around the city, putting out fires.”
“The program was so enthusiastically received at P.O.I.N.T.E. Academy that we’re hopeful that it will be funded again and we can continue in the fall,” said Jeanie Thompson. She’s the Executive Director of the Alabama Writers Forum. She hopes to secure the funding to create a permanent partnership between the Alabama Writers’ Forum and the Boys & Girls Club of South Alabama and keep the program going.
“We see creative writing as a way for them to learn a language through which they can express themselves, and find out who they are,” she said.
The By the Bay anthology of 50 poems written by the students will soon be available on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website.
Lynn Oldshue is a reporter for Alabama Public Radio.