What I Learned Teaching Music in Juvie

Read this reflective narrative about having a change of heart.

As a college junior, Jessica took a course on criminology that changed the way she viewed opportunity and privilege. She decided to work with other students to bring music to kids in her local juvenile detention center — this is what happened.

I was registering for the classes I’d take in my junior year of college, and I had just a few general requirements left to hammer out. Something in the social sciences loomed large on my list, and a sociology major friend had been raving about a certain professor, so I checked whether he’d be teaching a non-major course.

“Introduction to Criminology” was his listed course — okay, not really what I’d envisioned, but whatever. I’d been promised I’d laugh a lot with this professor, and this would at least free up my senior year to only take classes I really wanted to. Just like I’d planned.

What I didn’t plan on was this class irrevocably changing my heart. Much of what we learned broke open the way I thought about “criminals.” I was exposed for the first time to the ways crime is related to income and race, and my heart broke over and over again at the disparities in the system that leave people at a significant disadvantage.

But never did my heart break more than when we watched a documentary about minors who were tried as adults. When the filmmakers let their subjects experiment with their expensive equipment, they saw them transform from the sort of sullen teenager you’d expect to see in juvie into creative, curious kids who ended up shooting much of the footage for the documentary themselves.

This made me wonder how other kids might receive and respond to the same sort of opportunity for creativity and curiosity. My own background in music seemed like a natural fit: a way to bring beauty into perhaps a less-than-beautiful place. When I learned of someone else who had started a Spanish program for our local juvenile justice center, I jumped at the chance to pick her brain about what it took to start the program.

I quickly discovered some constraints I hadn’t anticipated. I’d be working around my own student schedule, and recruiting and working with other students as volunteers meant scheduling was a challenge. This was a short-term facility, unlike the one I’d seen in the film, so we wouldn’t be able to form any long-term relationships or be any sort of consistent presence there. Strict confidentiality meant that we wouldn’t be able to keep any contact with students after they left, either; because their records would eventually be expunged, we sort of had to pretend this had never happened.

But we resolved to do our best anyway. I worked with some friends to develop a four-session curriculum that we would teach to different groups over two weeks at a time. We tried to spend as little time talking as we could, instead giving over our time to our students’ voices, allowing them to express themselves and experience the joy of music-making. We taught them to write notes on a staff and we’d play back the songs they’d written. We brought in drums and other percussion instruments and invited them into utterly chaotic sessions of improvising different rhythms to a beat. We sang songs together that were just fun (“I Believe I Can Fly” was always a huge hit).

Perhaps most importantly, we had them write lyrics to songs. Some were silly — I remember one about the facility’s bad sloppy joes that brought in lots of laughter. Others were utterly heart-wrenching, speaking to experiences of isolation and hopelessness that no human should have to experience, especially at a young age. I still think often of the teen mom whose time in detention separated her from her baby and who wrote him a lullaby from behind bars.

Because of the demands of anonymity, I really have no idea whether this experience had any lasting impact on these students. All I can do is hope that our brief encounter gave them the experience of finding their voice and that some of them went on to continue developing and using their unique and beautiful gifts.

But I do know that there was a lasting impact on me. My heart was opened and softened in these encounters, brief as they were. I had crossed a boundary and stepped outside my comfort zone, sharing in a human experience that was previously foreign to me. And I was never the same.

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