Today one girl went missing. She wasn’t really missing, but when they did the head count she wasn’t there. She was supposed to be in my group. They came down to the gym to get all the girls in my group.
When someone is missing they round everyone up outside and the guards go search the facility. Oh no, I thought, did I lose one? The girls all go outside to line up. I stand and watch. I cannot NOT be disturbed. There is something dramatically wrong, and it wasn’t because they were not being treated well. The staff I work with in this facility is wonderful. Some better than others. Some use their power to teach, some overuse it, but all in all, I have found and met hardworking, dedicated probation officers who care about these kids as much as I do.
I watch the girls line up. They are so young, and they are incarcerated. Seeing them all line up and being counted, highlights their incarceration to me, and of course all the guards are, well, on guard because someone might have escaped.
Oy, escaped. No thirteen-year-old should ever have to escape anything. My heart is heavy. They found her. Everyone goes back to business as usual. It’s hot. Everyone is a little cranky and ironically we are working with red noses today. It should have been really fun and funny, but everyone is touchy and cussing a lot. I guess lining up and being counted like that makes the girls feel more incarcerated, if you can say or feel that.
I turn around and the missing girl is sitting in her place–I didn’t see her come in. I was surprised. “Hey there!”
“Yes I am, but I am pissed, Ms.”
“Ok, let’s talk at the end. Be here with us, and try and participate.”
There was no way this girl was going to put a red nose on her face. I have to gather everyone real close at the end of the class and give a talk. When I can feel their impatience, I make them stand in a tight circle, we breathe together, and I preach like it is going out of style.
“You have a future. This is a hiccup. You can be anything you want, BUT you have to do the work. You can’t fight. You must be present.”
Everyone is so edgy. “We are beautiful, we are amazing, we are worthy!” They chant our end of the class chant, but today we all feel it a little less. One of the girls looks at me a little in a panic. “Next week?”
“Of course,” I smile.
OF COURSE. Today is over. My missing girl waits for everyone to leave, and she starts to rant and tell me what happened.
Silly misunderstanding and now she is pissed and worried that it might affect her early release. “I am so angry,” she tells me.
“I know, but it sounds like it was a misunderstanding. It will be ok.”
I actually adore the probation officer in charge. I know she is wise and will not let this ruin this kid’s chance to get out early.
“I am mad and now everyone is mad at me for having a count.”
“Well maybe this time you can choose not to be mad?” As the words come out of my mouth, I think to myself, really Nomi?
“Naw, I wanna have a fight. I miss it. I’m, I’m restless. No weed, no drinks, I’m done.”
“Done? You’re fifteen, baby. You are just starting,” I say. I assert myself and I say again, “THIS TIME CHOOSE not to get angry.”
She looks at me for a long minute. “Ms. But angry is all I know. That’s how I was raised.”
And then ten long minutes of her telling me about her childhood in the street, I am ready to die. I look in her eyes, eyes that have not known love.
I think of my children, who I, at that moment, want to hug a million times for all the hugs this girl never got. For a moment I almost wish I could delete what I just heard. But I can’t, and I realize I AM WHAT SHE NEVER KNEW. And calmly I put my arms around her and I say, “They are not stupid here. You didn’t fuck up.” (She LOVES that I cussed). “DO NOT MAKE IT WORSE. Don’t fight, don’t yell, don’t misbehave, don’t be angry. Today, try to stop the angry, because you can, and be something else. And then do it again tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, and then it will NOT be the only thing you know.”
“K.” She says.
“K.” I answer. And I pray to God she heard me.
We walk out together quietly, and as our ways part she looks at me in a childish playful way and says, “Ms. you take care now. Don’t misbehave and don’t you go and get in trouble. You hear me?”
“Yes maam,” I say and laugh out loud.
As I am waking away I turn around. She is standing with a group of girls. Our eyes meet. She looks at me and yells out, “I got this, I’m good” and she turns away.
Please god, I whisper, let the good last. Help her know more than angry. And I walked to my car.