Rewriting The Destinies Of Juvenile Girls, One Story At A Time
By Julia Prescott
You can see the downtown skyline almost perfectly. Its looming metropolis standing proud amidst the smog and the freeways and the street posts. But you are not in downtown. Instead, you’re in transition. A purgatory of buzzing bodegas peddling piñatas; a lingering promise of hot dogs wrapped in bacon; an unmarked door and a nameless buzzer. This is Destiny Academy, a life raft charter school several miles south of the flow of freeways; off the beaten track of its intended destination.
Destiny Academy is part of LACOE (Los Angeles County of Education). It is one of 12 community schools operated by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, a regional agency that provides classroom instruction to students not well served in regular public schools. Some are arts high schools, others are science magnets. For some of its student body, Destiny is a home for those who have wandered the tightrope of probation. Though not all of its students have been incarcerated on the juvenile level, the road to Destiny is often riddled with setbacks. Many of its student body are repeat offenders, hopping on and off probation casually. Destiny’s mission is to navigate them toward a positive life path. The school’s purpose is to insulate its at-risk students in an effort to absolve them of their fates — to empower them in a world that treats ambition like a dirty word.
When you arrive at Destiny, your presence is known. Security guards man the door, video cameras nestle between the corners of its sterile concrete walls. Weeks before, you must send your I.D. to their administrators so they can conduct the proper background check. No risks are afforded here, no postal workers wander in unannounced. Everything must be done to protocol.
“Make sure you don’t photograph her,” is a common order. Girls on probation must remain off the Internet grid: no interviews, no names, no mark. Perhaps by design, it’s remarkable how similar this classroom feels to a normal high school, until you notice the security outfit looming down the hall.
When I arrived at Destiny for a recent visit, I was shadowing a nonprofit organization, WriteGirl. The organization’s mission statement is to “promote creativity, critical thinking and leadership skills to empower teen girls,” according to its website. Their volunteers range from writers to actors to teachers. Destiny is by far, their toughest challenge.
Today their lesson was “nature.” Leaves stacked over shells stacked over twigs that sat unattended on a local table. A teacher asked the question, “What is your connection with nature? How does it make you feel? What is nature like where you’re from?”
My guide pointed out one girl in particular “to watch out for.” She slumped over a computer desk, feigning exhaustion, dignified by her isolation. She wore a pink sweatshirt that rumpled at the collar with sleeves that barely concealed her fingers. “Misssss,” she howled. “Missss, how much longer?” Her whines intermingled effortlessly with the din of classroom chatter. “Misssssss” she howled again. Eventually, a local aide addressed her. “Yes?” A beat. Then she mumbled under her breath, already bored. Moments later, Pink Sweatshirt headed out to the hall. No one stopped her.
According to WriteGirl volunteer Carolyn Allport, a big obstacle Destiny volunteers face is “the anger, turned against other girls, against me.” Though WriteGirl conducts frequent training sessions to prepare volunteers psychologically for these encounters, it’s never lost on them that they are not professionals. Sometimes the girls will give them the cold shoulder, most of the time they talk back. It’s not uncommon to be cursed out.
There’s also the matter of random attendance. Allport says it’s frustrating to see girls drop out of school left and right, for reasons never disclosed. Match that with the unpredictability of seeing a student be “attentive and ‘on it’ one week, and the next as if it never happened.” Volunteering at Destiny can be a maddening process.
On any given day, you may witness an instructor endlessly repeating the same line over and over until at least one girl responds, often taking upwards of five minutes. Another time you may experience a volunteer run the gamut of seven different “conversation starters” in order to retain just an ounce of observation. The simplest inch of progression is a landslide victory.
Then there’s Jaquita Ta’le. Jaquita is feared. When walking into the Destiny classroom, there’s a palpable shift in the environment. Girls stop wise-cracking and there’s a calm silence. Jaquita first became involved with WriteGirl in 2013 through an online call for volunteers, and has been showing up to Destiny ever since. There’s no concrete formula as to why she has a hold on the unruly student body, but she doesn’t forsake it. She’s here to work, and so should they. They’re lucky to have her.
“They listen to Jaquita,” Shermaine Mills says, who’s been working at Destiny for about one year. She wears a smart blazer and an authoritative pose; she’s obviously the boss. Through her brief time here, she’s seen their development waiver, but one of the most impactful activities they engage in is storytelling. This is no doubt a testament to Writegirl’s efforts.
“I was just blown away when I heard some of their stories,” Mills says.
“One girl wrote something and I still remember it. …I started crying immediately. It was a poem about her not feeling beautiful, but loving who she was anyhow. She said, ‘don’t try to change me, don’t judge me, you don’t know what I’ve been through.’ She had a really hard life, but her words were so powerful.”
A large chunk of the Destiny student body are not there by choice. They’re assigned to Destiny as a sanctuary…a ‘Hail Mary’ pass for their potential. In 2003, the neighborhood that hosts Destiny was changed from South Central Los Angeles to South Los Angeles in an effort to rebrand it from its criminal past. Despite this, the administrators at Destiny are keenly aware that the crime rate remains — that true change doesn’t come from the top, but rather through their own student body.
“I think these girls are starved for someone asking their own personal response, something that comes out of their own life — their family situation, their choices and the consequences they are still dealing with, and their hopes for the future.” Allport says. “I think oral storytelling can be a successful approach for getting students to open up because it’s the most relatable” Jaquita adds.
It’s almost 1 p.m. and Pink Sweatshirt has reemerged from the hall. This time, her energy is distinctly subdued. She makes no show or ceremony of slinking back into her seat, her fingers robotically disappear into her lap; her peers barely acknowledge her. “What is your favorite part of nature?” Pink Sweatshirt doesn’t look up.
Mills turned to me in a sober whisper, “When she volunteers,” she points to Pink Sweatshirt for emphasis. “It’s the realest thing you could ever imagine, and she shines in that.”
“Her?” I ask, concealing my surprise. Mills smiles, pointing again. She’s used to this expression, and deflects it masterfully.
“When she volunteers, no matter what the topic is — she’ll come from left field. Like, they were doing something about ‘I woke up this morning, and the first thing I heard was…’ Some people were saying the kettle boiling, or my Dad snoring — she heard things like her Mom and Dad fighting or bullets and gunshots. Things that she’s talking about, you know she’s not making it up. That may be a typical morning for somebody, but Oh My God — that’s my nightmare.”
“She gets in trouble because she doesn’t fit the norm,” Mills informs me, “we’re trying to make her fit the norm. She’s been through a lot and you can tell her experiences are of a 30-year old. As a joke, we refer to her as a 30-year old.” Mills starts to chuckle. “But if you can tolerate her movement or her verbal outbursts…that’s the girl who produces the answer that makes you say, ‘Wow!’ I can’t wait to see what she’s going to produce in the future.”
What do the Destiny girls need? “They need what we all need, the presence in their life of a person or persons they can’t manipulate, who will listen to them and accept them where they are in the present moment and encourage, support and challenge them,” adds Allport.
Jaquita says: “Reading a wonderful well-written story can be incredibly effective, but hearing a story that’s unequivocally personal straight from the writer’s mouth might encourage the listener to share their own story. Basically, ‘if they can do it, so can I.’”
“I hope the students take the creativity and writing skills they’ve developed in WriteGirl and are able to apply them in college, at their first jobs, in their careers… and throughout the rest of their lives,” she adds.
By now, Pink Sweatshirt has looked up for the first time. There’s a small huddle by the table up front. A young girl with large brass earrings and a messy ponytail is shifting a shell between her hands. Pink Sweatshirt reaches over, contemplating her next move. She gently taps the shell; satisfied, she slinks back. “That feels rough,” she says. The teacher nods. “What else?” “I don’t know,” she reflexes. Then, “Like really cold.” She slinks back, her focus returning to her extended sleeves. A WriteGirl volunteer tries to engage the table in discussion, but Pink Sweatshirt’s already out to sea. Mills doesn’t look worried. There’s always tomorrow.
“Keep coming back,” is Allport’s simple oath. Keep showing up to work, keep asking questions, keep inciting discussion even when you’re shut out. “I can only do what I can do each day…[You] never know what word you offer might get through somewhere down the line.”
The hope is, that that word will reveal itself sooner than later; while these girls are still in attendance. While they still have a chance.
For more information on Destiny Girls Academy, visit lacoe.edu. To volunteer with WriteGirl visit writegirl.org. To learn more about LA County’s criminal youth programs, and how you can be involved visit: http://www.lapdonline.org/youth_programs.