Tonight I teach my fourth class at a juvenile hall in New York City. We hold the class in a small chapel where there is just enough room for about five or six kids to do yoga. I have been doing smaller classes recently, as they are more manageable. A few weeks ago, in a class for about 15 girls, a fight almost broke out. A chair flew across the room and it was utter anarchy for at least five minutes while the staff tried to regain control. It could have easily turned into World Championship Wrestling III. I stood there, dazed. I’m still not sure what set it off. Soon there were girls standing chest-to-chest, name calling, and threats of violence. Finally, the chaos subsided, luckily with no punches thrown. All this in the middle of my “stress reduction” class.
The juvenile hall I teach in tonight does not mix kids from different units for fear (or the reality) of gang violence, so I get about four guys from one unit in one class and four girls in another class. These classes are smaller than I’m used to, but the population of youth this night is fairly typical. Sixteen-year-old Russell, who is “affiliated” with the Crips gang, has been in and out (mostly in) of juvenile hall since he was twelve. He is soft-spoken and uses as few words as possible. His biggest pain is that his younger brother, now 12, was recently locked up at another facility. Tyrone, a 15-year-old male, found out two weeks ago that his brother was shot in the back and killed; his death is probably gang-related. Tyrone is still coming to terms with it. He hopes to get out soon and “get a good job.” Javier, who is in for drug-related crimes, says that he watched his father do drugs as he was growing up and started himself a few years ago, not thinking much about it. He recently found out that several friends died in drug- and gang-related activity. He hates being in juvenile hall, but says he is safer here than on the streets and now has a better chance of reaching age 18 alive. Lorraine is a 15-year-old girl who can look incredibly tough one moment and endearingly sweet the next. There is also an Indian girl with a beautiful presence about her. She has a Hindi name, which (ironically) was the name of her father’s ex-girlfriend. I ask her what her name means and she asks me if I can find out for her. A number of the kids have court dates next week. Few of them know how long they will be here. A typical juvenile hall class.
So here we are together. Them and me, the only white person present. I clearly appear out of place, like I’m in some strange Hollywood sitcom. Picture this: skinny, white, middle-class guy with glasses, kind of New-Agey, goes to teach meditation and yoga in juvenile hall. We’ll stage it in New York City and it will be like these two worlds colliding. He’ll actually try to get these kids to sit quietly and meditate. Ha, ha, ha. In some shows, the kids will really like it, but as soon as the guy gets comfortable, they will lay into him. All the time he is trying to make sense of them, they are trying to make sense of him. It will air in the slot between Law & Order and The Simpsons.
Tonight we sit in a cold, dark room that sometimes serves as a chapel. We do yoga together to loosen some of the grief and pain kept in the body. We then sit together in silence to see if there is not some place of peace to be found. We then talk; I mainly listen, often simply acknowledging what they are going through and wishing I could provide more answers. There is enough pain present to fill most lives several times over. At times it all seems unbearable, but there are moments when everything seems workable—joyous, actually—a joke is made, a young woman smiles on gaining some insight, a young guy momentarily lets down his guard. Sometimes I feel like I’m helping them, other times not.
Sometimes I wish that I could find a more “normal” vocation; at other times, hanging out with them makes me feel completely whole, as if I’m coming in touch with close relatives once known, then forgotten, now found. Knowing them allows me to feel less separate with the world. I walk around feeling like I know more about my city and world than I otherwise would.
As I’m leaving this night, Lorraine says, “Where is that book you were going to bring me?” I vaguely remember the conversation, but cannot remember which book she asked for. I ask her to remind me. “I can’t remember the name of the book,” she says, frustrated.
“What was it about?” I ask.
She looks at me intently. “I can’t remember that either, but just bring it, OK?”
This conversation perfectly reflects the challenge we face. Most of the kids want to be helped, but are not sure how to be helped or forget what they need. I want to help, but either I do not know how or can’t remember what it is I should do. There are moments, however, when everything comes together, like the surfer riding the tube of the wave, and these moments can make all the difference in the world.
Soren Gordhamer is cofounder of The Lineage Project, a program that teaches mindfulness meditation and yoga to at-risk and incarcerated teens. Working with some of the most violent and dangerous youth in society, they offer tools to develop wisdom and compassion. He is Director of Lineage Project East, where he works with incarcerated youth in New York City. Contact Soren at Lineagepro@aol.com