Novelist Salzman (Lying Awake, 2000, etc.) chronicles his experiences as a teacher of writing to young defendants held in Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles.
It makes quite a contrast with the gentle tone of Salzman’s memoir about teaching in China (Iron and Silk, 1986), having more in common with the how-I-survived-in-a-tough-classroom accounts of George Dennison and Jonathan Kozol. In 1997, needing background for a juvenile delinquent character in his novel-in-progress, the writer visited a class of juvenile criminals taught by a friend and began teaching his own group after succumbing to some arm-twisting from the friend and from a dedicated nun, Sister Janet, who appears throughout the text. An author’s note informs us that he “re-created from memory” the conversations he held with these tough young men (most accused of murder), and he must have quite a memory, for the narrative is principally dialogue. Salzman held two one-hour sessions per week as part of a project sponsored by a nonprofit foundation. Here, he describes individual class sessions and reproduces (verbatim, he says, with only the spelling and mechanics standardized) some of the pieces the students wrote during the class. Their work ranges from angry to poignant to ugly to horrifying to horrible to pathetic. Salzman occasionally takes us outside—a particularly effective instance involves watching a meteor shower with his father in Arizona—but for the most part he confines his story, like his students, so readers feel the institutional claustrophobia. The author carefully documents his insecurities, his frustrations, and his occasional inability to coax much work or interest—or even civility—from the class, but he also describes in great detail his many successes, most notably a “retreat” that he helps arrange with writing students from other units in the facility. Neither does he neglect to record numerous laudatory comments about his work from colleagues, students, and corrections officers.
A captivating story of hopeless young men whose committed teacher listens—and thereby learns as much as he teaches.