Title: True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall
Author: Mark Salzman
I finished this book while riding the subway to my internship in New York City. It took every ounce of self-control to reign in the tears threatening to overflow. Why? I’ll tell you.
Mark Salzman writes about on opportunity he had in 1997 and how it affected his life. He was stumped while working on a novel and wanted to get some insight on the life and character of a juvenile delinquent. Somewhat reluctantly, he started volunteering in L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall as a writing teacher for teenagers charged with murder and other violent crimes. He had all these expectations of what to expect from these boys. I’m sure all of us do. That’s not a situation most of us would desire to find ourselves. Some of these stereotypes seemed to be well-labeled at first, but then…Through their writing, the boys found their voice and began exploring their experiences, their emotions, their thoughts. Many wrote about how it feels to be locked up, awaiting their court date, knowing the eventual outcome–often a life sentence in prison. Through this experience, they struggle to understand their lives now that these mistakes they’ve made define them.
A few of the boys stayed in the class for most of the book, but one of the hardest things was reading about boy after boy who came into the class, found hope in their self-expression and a positive role model in their teacher, and would suddenly, unexpectedly leave, being sent to spend a lengthy amount of years in prison. Salzman’s writing connects the reader with all the characters, no matter how vulgar or what they had done. They weren’t criminals in my mind. They were humans with passions, thoughts, creativity, longing, and personalities. Salzman humanizes the convicts and calls the reader to allow them in your heart.
One of the biggest themes the boys strive to work through in the book is their struggle with hopelessness. What would they do with their lives if they had done it differently, if they had had another chance? Some find hope everywhere they can, like being able to see a cloud out of their small window. Some are unable to find hope at all.
The reader learns about the culture of the boys and why they feel they need to do the things they do or why they wish they hadn’t done what they did. We learn about how gangs run and influence their lives and about how they believe they must be strong for their families. One boy explains that, when they go to court, they have to wait to cry until they leave because they don’t want that image to be the last version of them their families see. He wrote a long piece about his experience in court, how he was unable to stay strong, and one passage in particular hit me in the gut:
I thought about all the people that were sitting in the courtroom giving me their support and love and I lost complete control of my emotions. The tears that I had held in for so long streamed down my face as I cursed myself for letting these people down. Why couldn’t the judge see that the young man sitting before her was not the same person that had entered juvenile hall two years ago? Why couldn’t she see that I had dreams of getting out and getting my life together, to be somebody?
This book caused me to feel a wide range of emotions and feel completely connected. Salzman’s writing is uncensored and raw. He gives a real look at what life is like for these boys while in juvie, and what their lives look like after. By including the writing from all the boys he was able to teach, he allows us to feel for the characters as if they were people in our own lives who made mistakes. He makes us feel hope, fear, sadness, anger, and joy with each of the characters. The boys all discover more about themselves and their world through their writing. My only wish is that they could’ve had an experience like this before they made the choices they did. My only hope is that others can experience the therapeutic aspects to writing their hearts.
Now you know what happened. Now you know my story.
I hope I’m not just a face for you to see.
I’m a person with a past. I’m a person with a future.
So if I may, can I ask you to please pray for me?