I went to jail last week.
Unlike most people who enter those walls, I arrived as a visitor and had an escort to the multi-purpose room where I was to be a speaker. But I still had to pass through gates past tall fences with rolls of barbed wire at the top, pass through the metal detector, answer questions and leave my personal belongings behind in a locker. There was no way to even imagine I was anywhere but in a secure facility, namely the Illinois Youth Center (IYC) in Joliet, part of the state’s department of juvenile justice. The facility houses young males, most between the ages of 15 and 21.
Students shuffled into the room, one cell block at a time in an orderly fashion, required, because their guards kept them single-filed and properly spaced out. I faced a room of disinterested faces, from vacant to scowling, silent young men staring at walls, floor or maybe inner memories. And then I read the first chapter of PULL. No, they didn’t suddenly sit up straight and clap, or morph into a typical high school assembly. But they listened. Heads busy contemplating the floor or counting ceiling tiles moved to focus on me as I explained my writing process and told them the story of how I came to write a book about a teenaged male like themselves, for teenaged males like themselves. Once the first question was asked—admittedly by a teacher—many began raising their hands to speak.
I heard the typical questions.
• Could I publish one of their stories? No, I had to explain my own relationship with my publisher.
• Was PULL a true story? It’s a compilation of real episodes that have happened to many different people. All the things that happen to David did not happen to any one boy I know, but nothing in the book has not happened to someone.
• How much does a writer make? I reluctantly admitted that if you count all the hours spent writing, editing and revising, not to mention promoting, it amounts to sub-minimum wage. At least no one laughed when I explained it had all been a labor of love.
Mostly the young men in the audience wanted me to read more. Like children hungry for a little more of a new bedtime story, they listened as I read about the teen bad-boy. I wonder if he became a hero in their eyes after they heard a scene about him and his many girlfriends. They also listened to the scene where the hero fights him to defend one of the girls.
I donated an autographed copy to the school library and the guys were claiming dibs before they were dismissed. The principal and I wanted to get copies for the boys. Unfortunately they can’t have hardcover books in their cells for a variety of security reasons. Since there are no plans for a paperback edition until the far future, I am left with no way to meet the needs of the kinds of young people I wrote this book for.
I don’t regret going to Joliet. I just regret not being able to do more.
Later this week I will visit another school. The kids there may be just as receptive as their counterparts in the IYC. If so, they at least will be free to get copies of the book. But that won’t lessen my regret for what I can’t do for the boys in Joliet.