Author unlocks the minds of teen offenders

Mark Salzman knew the teenager was testing him. But at Central Juvenile Hall, where Los Angeles's toughest teen offenders await trial, even the smallest confrontations carry high stakes. To teach these young men, he had to earn their respect.

The teen told him, half-joking, "You're way too nice for a place like this! You're gonna get played here, over and over."

The episode is recounted in Mr. Salzman's new book, "True Notebooks," about his four years teaching a creative writing class to 15- to 17-year-old gang members, many of whom were awaiting trial for murder.

In a recent interview, when asked if he worried about being "played," or manipulated by inmates, he laughed disarmingly.

"I was always gullible," he says. I was 'played' in junior high and high school and college. It's a minor problem compared to the great benefits of being a trusting person."

Salzman carried this attitude into his class, part of a program called Inside Out Writers. As a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author with five books to his credit, he was quite a catch, according to Sister Janet Harris. The Roman Catholic nun and prison-reform advocate saw something remarkable in Salzman. "He has great wisdom," she says. "He's funny and loving but never sappy."

Salzman's journey from a reluctant volunteer who "didn't want to hear sob stories from people who had done terrible things" to unabashed cheerleader for his writers radiates from the book's pages. But he didn't enter the program with plans to write about it. Instead, he kept journals throughout his teaching (1997-2001), saving the stories and essays his students wrote. Far from being maudlin or graphically violent, their writing seems wistful, funny, rueful, angry, and transcendent by turns. Later, on a sabbatical during which Salzman cared for his newborn daughter, a way opened up to assemble all the material and his own observations into a book.

The following are excerpts from his interview with the Monitor:

The situation could be depressing. What kept you going?

Even though they are capable of monstrous acts, I was surprised to discover an authentic humanity intact in them. And I found it cheering rather than depressing.

What worried you most?

I was apprehensive at first that my lack of street credentials was going to limit me, that I would be made a fool of. But within a short time, I came to see that wasn't important. As an adult mentor, I realized the only qualification I needed was being a good adult.

What role does trust play?

Every person wants a reservoir of trust and faith so that when things go wrong, you aren't robbed entirely of your hope. It's crucial in dealing with these kids. They've had so few adults in their lives who were consistently fair and loving. That's one of the reasons they're in trouble. That's why it's good for them to see [a teacher] who can trust. They're certainly not going to get that from other inmates, because they're so afraid of being victimized.

Did you have any problems in class?

I didn't have discipline problems, and no one started a fight. I had to work to keep them focused, and sometimes they got to talking too much, or were a little disruptive.

How is this different from regular high school?

It's a teacher's dream. The class is made up of volunteers. They are so starved for stimulation - the alternative is to be in their cells - and they are so desperate for something to go right in their lives that they're willing to invest themselves.

What did you learn from them?

The kids reminded me of how important writing is. It helps us keep track of our lives as narrative journeys. And seeing the value of these kids trying to write two days a week, whether they felt like it or not, reminded me of how important persistence is.

You told them about being stuck in your writing. How did they respond?

They did not want to know that failure was any part of my life. They wanted to know that my life worked.

Is there a silver lining to jail?

Having cellmates was a positive experience because they learned that kids from other neighborhoods, other gangs, even other races were similar to them. Like the wonderful example [in the book] of the Vietnamese boy whose victim's brother ends up becoming his cellmate, and they became friends. This happens sometimes. It's unique to juvenile hall that these kids could form such friendships without it becoming a life-threatening betrayal. But in adult prison, and on the outside, it's next to impossible.

How do these kids view manhood?

If you have young men growing up in an environment where they cannot compete with other males for status, mates, wealth, success, or achievement, they get desperate. That's when acting out, violence, selling drugs - these things seem attractive, even rational. It becomes an extreme idea of manhood: How do you become brave and heroic? You have to go on missions, with danger and obstacles, so you can prove yourself. That's gang culture, it's like the Boy Scouts [in one respect]. You get specific rewards for specific achievements.

Where are your students now?

All but one is in adult prison. Benny Wong got out. I stay in touch with all of them. They are older now, and the reality is settling in that they will be in prison for a very long time.

Did they read the book?

I'm having trouble getting the book to them - I can't send it directly, it has to go through the publisher and the prison [bureaucracy]. But those who have seen it, write that it captures the class very well. They are all grateful for the experience.

Will you teach the class again?

Absolutely. But right now, I'm a stay-at-home dad to my daughter, and my wife [documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu] is expecting our second child. Once the children are a little older, I would like to go back to Central.

How do you feel about the juvenile justice system?

I don't have a clear idea of how to improve it. I do know that improvement will be costly, both economically and socially. I think it would be a wise investment, but it's difficult to imagine that we are going to change it anytime soon. It's just not a priority.

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