Why would any sane man with a self-preservation instinct teach a writing class for violent prisoners in his spare time? Mark Salzman, author of True Notebooks, didn’t volunteer at LA’s Central Juvenile Hall because of some idealistic notion of conquering juvenile delinquency through art, one misunderstood youngster at a time. No, Salzman just needed some exposure to young offenders to help flesh out a character in his latest novel, and the writing class was suggested by a friend. Salzman wasn’t crazy about the idea and tried to talk himself out of it by creating a list of reasons this was a bad idea:
- Students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s
- Still angry about getting mugged in 1978
- Still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1986
- Still angry about my wife’s car being stolen in 1992
His wife settled his indecision by telling him, “You don’t get out of the house enough.”
Salzman was afraid of these kids at first. They were known as HROs, or High-Risk Offenders. Most of them were there for murder, rape, or armed robbery. They weren’t eligible for CYA (California Youth Authority, which releases offenders at age 25). They were to be tried as adults and sent to state prison when convicted.
Salzman’s recollections of the conversations in that class will alternately make the reader guffaw one minute and shake their head with sadness or disgust the next. The book is filled with actual essays and poems from the kids, most of them shockingly honest. They confess their deepest fears, hopes, and regrets. One of the writing prompts Salzman had given them was to write about a constant in their life; a personal North Star. Most wrote about an important person such as a parent or sibling. Family was always a popular topic, and a lot of the kids expressed regret at how their actions had affected those they love.
Many admit that they don’t really care about gang affiliation or race; that gang-banging is just what they have to do to survive in their neighborhood. Their insight into the foolishness of gangs is surprising. Most of them realize the gang was their downfall, and that their “homies” don’t care about them at all. There is the occasional exception to that though, such as the inmate who said, “The day I get released, I’ll go right back to bangin’. Only I’ll be better at it, ‘cause I’ll have had years of advanced study. Didn’t y’all hear? I’m goin’ to the pen—that’s graduate school on full scholarship, for y’all who don’t know.” Then, of course, there is the occasional piece that’s more what you’d expect from criminals—graphic, immoral, and just plain stupid. Salzman recounts a brief exchange between himself and a withdrawn, sullen student who had never actually written anything before: The boy asked him if he could help him spell a word. Salzman, eager to help him come out of his shell, agreed. The word that the barely literate young thug couldn’t spell? ‘Titties.’
Salzman repeatedly makes it clear that keeping order in his class doesn’t come naturally at all. He constantly worries about an inmate starting a fight, or disrupting class so much the guards have to intervene. Happily for Salzman, although he doesn’t demand respect, he gets it. The kids appreciate his time and don’t want to do anything that will make him stop volunteering for that precious hour every week. Still, the kids couldn’t resist his naivete; they had to needle him occasionally. One young man, Nathaniel (the same inmate who insisted he would go right back to ‘bangin’ if released), pretended to be sorry to the point of tears after a particularly difficult class where Salzman had to reprimand him. Salzman softened at the boy’s apparent remorse and told him, “I’ll do my best, I promise. All I ask is that you make an effort, too.” Salzman then sees that Nathaniel isn’t crying at all. No, he’s trying not to laugh! Nathaniel gives his teacher a reality check:
“I gotta tell you, man—you’re way too nice for a place like this! You gonna get played here, over and over. Only it won’t be by somebody like me, who tells you you bein’ played. It’ll be by somebody who really plays you, for somethin’ that matters.”
One inmate, though, impacted Salzman more than the others.
Kevin Johnson, incarcerated for one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder, was the prisoner who seemed to affect Mark Salzman the most. Kevin’s story was tragic: both his parents were killed in a car accident when he was just nine years old, and he and his older brother both turned to gangs and crime. He was a model prisoner. He never gave Mark any trouble, he was looked up to by the other inmates, and even helped to keep order in the writing class. He earned his diploma while locked up, and mentioned it in an essay:
“Graduating from high school taught me a lot about the courage to keep going. I feel I will make it because the look on my aunt’s and my grandma’s face made me feel like the man I was supposed to be.”
Salzman fought LA traffic for several days to attend Kevin’s trial and sentencing. At trial, he learned the full story. Kevin and a group of friends had gone to a movie theater. They were on their way in, and another group from a rival gang was on their way out. Gang signs were thrown, and someone asked Kevin, “What’s up, cuz?” In gang language, that particular phrase is very threatening. This young man then punched Kevin in the face. Fearing for his life (he claimed), Kevin pulled a gun and shot all three of the rival gang members. Two of them survived, but one of them died before medics arrived. Kevin and his friends fled the scene and went to another theater where the same movie they wanted to see was playing. They got there too late, however, and continued to cruise around the city. They were pulled over and arrested a short time later that night. Salzman wrote this about his thoughts and emotions after the trial:
That night I went to bed with a broken heart… One of my students’ victims had a name and a family now, and I had to wrap my mind around the fact that someone I had grown so fond of, and who seemed so gentle, had been foolish enough to go to a movie theater carrying a loaded gun, violent enough to shoot three people with it—two of them in the back—and then callous enough to want to go to a movie afterward.
Kevin was found guilty and sentenced to a total of sixty-six years, eight months for all his crimes. In spite of Salzman’s ambivalence about what Kevin had done, he took it hard. True Notebooks ended with a poem written for Salzman, sent by Kevin Johnson from state prison. The last line of the poem was ‘Dear old friend, North Star,” in reference to the earlier writing prompt.
This book will get you thinking. The kids featured run the gamut from those who seem to be in the wrong place to young delinquents who appear to be rotten to the core. There’s Kevin Johnson on one end of the spectrum; he expresses remorse, he’s well-behaved and respectful, and he has a great work ethic. One has to wonder if sending him to prison is really the best thing for society. Of course this brings up the issue of justice for the victims, and there’s just no decent answer. Then there’s Ibrahim, who writes stories about a thug named T-Bone who goes around robbing and killing. One fictional clerk was shot for “disrespecting” T-Bone. Salzman asked what, exactly, constituted disrespect. Ibrahim’s shockingly depraved answer? “Tellin’ him to pay for stuff.” This young man genuinely did not understand what was wrong with that. It’s frightening that there are people out there with zero morals or empathy.
More than once I wondered why Mark Salzman kept returning week after week. I’m not the only one; his father and several friends had asked him why he continued teaching the class. After much consideration, he decided that the reason he went there was not because he always enjoyed it, and not because the boys always enjoyed it, but because everyone seemed to agree that it was a good thing to do, and a little good has got to be better than no good at all. That makes a lot of sense. True Notebooks is a thought-provoking, fascinating, hilarious, moving read. Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll get your fix. I definitely recommend it.