By Richard Ross
“Mos def. Mos def,” says Ronald.
I fly from Santa Barbara to Miami. The flight is late. I book a hotel near Liberty City, Miami Gardens — not the best neighborhood. I get to the desk at one AM. There is Ronald, with his NYC t-shirt and his gleaming grill. We exchange hugs, pats on the back and an interlocked handshake. Being too tired to speak after delays and 12 hours to get there I say, “See you 9AM. Interview and photographs.” “8:50 my friend, 8:50 Mos def,” says Ronald.
After a quick shower, I crash into bed and then awake in the morning, three hours misaligned. In the lobby I wait for Ronald, and wait and wait. 8:50, 9, 9:15, 9:30. I call, I email, I text. Repeat. No Ronald. 10, 11, 12, 1. I call, I email, I text. Still no Ronald.
Two weeks later I wait in LA at a restaurant for Lionel. Same deal. No Lionel. Rather than several hundred dollars as a plane ticket, here I am only hit for $40 in downtown parking fees.
My editor, writer wife, Cissy, proofreads a 10-page paper for a graduate student at UC Berkeley. She puts in a full afternoon of editing and receives a one worded email response: “Thanks.”
I can’t get mad at these kids. The cultural histories are different. It is not that they are rude, but rather that they are thoughtless. They have not been taught to think in this direction.
Project this to a kid showing up to court. It’s far easier to either forget the court date and presume it will go away — or transportation may be an issue, or phone reporting on a cell phone, which may have died or have been lost. Perhaps there is a parent that can’t get off from work. So many kids are brought into the deeper end of the system for not fulfilling the expectation of institutions structured to think as adults.
I can’t get mad. I can be frustrated or saddened, but not mad. My world assumes a calendar, access and time. Their world may have more distractions—the distractions may be needs of survival and less people to be accountable to.
I can’t get mad. Ronald spent seven years incarcerated with all the structure of a prison. Lionel left “the compound” at Sylmar. Who helps them write a thank you note? Lionel explained how he was held for months in a case of mistaken identity before release. He related his story to a group of potential donors for CFYJ held at a home in Pacific Palisades. He came from Compton, some 25 miles south where he took time off from his job as a cook at Denny’s. What is it like to make it to a meeting of 50 white, wealthy potential donors to describe isolation and confinement in a case of mistaken identity when you believe you are wrongly incarcerated and sentenced to 25 to life? How can I get mad?
Who is making the larger leap to communicate. Do these kids have the time to be responsible? Why would it not be more important to presume Ronald would rather spend time with a girlfriend than me? Or, for Lionel to feel comfortable with a call several hours later to explain his cell phone died and he needed extra credit for a class.
I haven’t been close to these experiences. I have few points of reference. The only thing I can do is show patience and be there when they do show up. They need help and it has to be our responsibility to offer.
These kids will miss court appointments, urine tests, school and meetings with probation officers. They have not learned the rules of the institutions and time compliance, a concept foreign to many teenagers, not only those on probation or formally incarcerated.
The system we’re in has to show patience. Rather than forcing the kid how to comply with the probation and detention system, probation has to figure out how to be responsive to the kids. We have to give them the tools and the skills to succeed rather than be mad at their failures.
I will be patient.
I will not get mad.