Six years later, I was sitting in a hiring hall on Court Street in Brooklyn. My license had just come through. The school year had started the week before and most of the new teachers were already placed. I would have been thrilled to get any kind of teaching job.
The woman ahead of me wasn’t happy because she was being sent to a high school in the South Bronx.
“We also have openings in drug rehabs and on Rikers Island,” the man in charge told her. “But I can’t send you to any of those places unless you’re willing to go.”
When it was my turn, I asked about the job on Rikers.
“It’s not easy,” the man warned me. “Most of those kids aren’t interested in school.”
Then he showed me where it was on the big map of New York City hanging on the wall.
“From here you take the N train to Queensboro Plaza, and then the Q-101 bus straight over the bridge to Rikers Island,” he said, with his finger running along the route.
I sat quietly and listened.
He took my picture and gave me an official ID.
When I got home, I called the school to say I’d be there the next day.
“Do you understand that this is a jail and that the students here are inmates?” asked the secretary who’d picked up the phone.
I told her that I did.
I was up all night thinking about going back, and how it might feel.
When the bus first took me over that bridge, I thought about my last ride across as an inmate. I was filled with a different kind of panic now. There were no shackles, no court case, and no big need to watch my back. Instead, I wanted to carve out a place for myself on the Island again, and have it mean something this time.
I didn’t want to just hold my ground.
I wanted to make a way for kids.
There wasn’t anything to hide. The cut on my face pegged me as having been through the system. It was like a stop sign for inmates and COs.
Right away, kids saw it and wanted to know everything about me. But I would play my history way down. I wanted to be a teacher to them first, not somebody who used to live on Rikers Island.
On my first day, I walked into the school trailer to find the principal.
Carter and Dawson were sitting behind the officer’s desk.
Except for the extra stripes on their sleeves, they were the same. Like lots of COs, they were doing time, too, counting down their twenty years till retirement.
They had two kids playing patty-cake in the hall and Carter saw me spying the action.
“Just a little game we play to keep things loose around here,” he said. “You’ll learn all about that if you last.”
Ms. Jackson wasn’t the principal of the Sprungs anymore. She was the Superintendent of Special High Schools now. I guess that was her reward for making sure inmates stayed awake in school. But the kids in the Sprungs were the real winners, not having Ms. Jerk-off around to treat them like furniture.
The new principal was a black man named Dr. August Hamilton. He used to have a law practice and talked to kids a lot about their cases. They’d run up to him in the hallway just to see if he had time for them. He usually did.
During our first meeting, I didn’t tell Dr. Hamilton I used to be an inmate in Sprung #3 and went to this school. I was worried about what he might think. But the kids asked point blank about my face. I didn’t want to sidestep anything with them. And after the first day, almost everybody knew.
“Let me ask you a question,” Dawson said with a big grin. “When you were here, did me and my partners ever smack you?”
“Why would you want to know that?” I jabbed back.
“Because you straightened out and grew up to be a teacher. Maybe there’s some good in getting smacked every once in a while,” he answered.
My first week in the trailer, I had to concentrate on grabbing for the door to the staff bathroom, instead of the one marked, “INMATES.”
The first time I saw a student in the hall with a cut on his face, I just froze. It was like looking into the negative of a picture somebody took a long time ago and you’d just found. I was taller and heavier than that kid, but I grew up right out of his shoes.
I nodded my head as he walk by and asked, “How are you doing, son?”
“I’m all right, mister,” he answered, and kept moving.
He was teaching a class and I saw him through the window in the hall. I saw how focused he was on the faces of his students. He could get the attention of a kid who was messing up in the corner without ever taking his eyes off the one who was giving him an answer.
I’d never noticed that when I was one of his students.
I slipped into his class and sat in the open seat on the end. The students turned to give me the once over, but he steered them all back to what he was teaching. Every ten seconds or so he would switch his eyes over to me for an instant. Then they were right back with the kids.
When he had them all reading to themselves, he came over to me.
He put out his hand and said, “I’m Demarco Costa.”
“It’s great to see you again,” I said, shaking his hand.
“I should remember you then,” he smiled, studying my face.
I told him how he used to remember everyone’s name. But if he forgot mine, it would be all right. He’d have time to learn it. Then I went into my pocket and pulled out Sanchez’ GED score.
His eyes opened wide.
“My name is Martin Stokes,” I said. “But everybody, except you, called me Forty.”
“I do remember you,” he said, looking at my pass. “Congratulations, Martin. You’re the first student of mine who’s ever come back to Rikers for the right reason.”
Demarco helped me to get started, and showed my how to plan lessons. But he didn’t work cheap. He wanted to know what it was really like to live in the Sprungs. He had as many questions about that as I did about teaching. It felt good to think that after all this time I could help him out, too. But he didn’t need much tutoring. Demarco already had the big trick in his hip pocket. He looked at kids in jail like they were somebody.
Lots of things had changed since I was in the Sprungs last.
Demarco told me that Ms. Archer had become Mrs. Williams. She married one of the COs from the main building and even had a couple of kids. Now she taught high school in a wealthy section of Long Island.
“Yeah, she traded in one Island for another,” said Demarco.
It was no surprise that Corrections found a way to keep Mr. Daniels from ever coming back after she made that abuse report.
And thank God, Mr. Rowe had retired.
I would get to class a few minutes early and sit with the kids while Demarco finished up his lesson. I didn’t want to lose the feel of seeing things through their eyes.
Sometimes I would sit with the kids while I was teaching.
More than once, Carter busted into the room wanting to know where the teacher was. The kids would all point to me.
“Oh, Jeez, I’m sorry Mr. Stokes,” Carter would say. “I didn’t see you sitting there with the rest of the inmates.”
Mrs. Daniels’ report had made a dent in the way the COs treated kids in front of teachers.
“Don’t let it fool you, Mr. Stokes,” a kid said. “We get smacked double-hard back at the house to even things out.”
The first time I heard Dawson kicking a kid in the ass, I walked out into the hall. Carter tried to get me to go back inside. But I wouldn’t. Demarco saw me and came out of his classroom, too.
I knew Demarco only did that to take the pressure off me.
Dawson saw us both standing there and cooled down.
Teachers can’t change the way jail is run. Kids are going to act stupid and the COs are going to smack them. But you can’t always just stand there blind.
Mrs. Daniels had her way, and Demarco had his.
I didn’t know what I’d do if a CO really let loose on a kid in front of me for no reason. I was still feeling my way around.
And most of the COs saw me as an inmate with a pass.
Mom was proud of me.
She worried that Corrections would either find a way to kick me off the Island or keep me there for good one day.
“I didn’t put you through college to wind up back to jail,” she’d say.
But she understood how I felt, and that it was more than just a job to me.
My sisters were growing up and I tried to help Mom keep them straight. They were teenagers now and open to all the bad directions you could get out on the street. I’d talk to them about everything that was waiting to trip them up. I was honest about it. The same way Pops was with me in that letter.
Grandma was still going strong. She watched over the neighborhood from the front stoop and her window.
When I told her I was back on Rikers she asked, “Is it still mostly all our boys?”
But she already knew the answer.
Mom was on edge because Pops was finally coming home soon.
“I’m nervous about him starting a new life,” she told me. “He’ll need a job and people’s respect again. And I’m not sure how much of that damn prison he’ll bring home with him.”
I’d been to visit Pops with Mom and my sisters every month since I got released from Rikers. He had all of my respect, and I knew that he was strong enough to make it.
One day during school, Dr. Hamilton assigned me to give the GED test back at the house where it was quiet. It was my first time inside since I’d left.
I was in the day room of Sprung #3 with eight kids and Ms. Armstrong along to keep watch.
Everyone else was in the school trailer.
When the big tennis bubble is nearly empty like that, you can hear the echo of almost everything that ever happened there.
While the kids were moving the tables and chairs together, I felt the pull. It was the kind of gravity that doesn’t let you turn away.
I walked over alone to look at the beds, taking slow and easy steps.
The mattresses were new but the metal frames were still the same from when I was here. I turned up the last row and sat down on bed number forty, feeling it give a little beneath me. Then I looked over at Sanchez old crib, thirty-nine.
“I guess I can trust you not to sneak-thief anything over there,” Ms. Armstrong called out from the day room.
“Nothing here I’d want to take with me,” I answered.
Before the test, Ms. Armstrong gave a pep talk, telling kids about how her son got a scholarship to college because he’d studied. And that she was there to make sure they worked hard, too.
“One day I want you all to catch up to him, and push him even harder,” she said.
Kids ate that stuff up, and I knew she meant every word.
After the test started, kids began asking to use the bathroom.
That cave had been on my mind from the second I walked into the house.
I remembered how I never wanted to see it again. But everything was beginning to turn. So I asked Ms. Armstrong to keep an eye on the testing and went over to find out for myself.
I stopped a foot in front of the open doorway and looked inside.
Then I took a deep breath and finally crossed over.
For six years I’d been waiting to put it behind me.
Before I could raise my head, I saw the tile that Johnson had split that night with his fist. They’d pieced it back together with cement, but you could still see the scar across its face.
I looked up and found the sink that Sanchez stood on to hang himself.
I walked over and touched it.
It was cold and white. I ran the water for a while just to block out the sound of my heart beating. Then I stared up at the wood that covers the hot water pipe now. I looked hard but I didn’t see him hanging there anymore. There was no horror movie to replay and no ghosts in bed sheets.
Instead, I saw what I could do for these kids. I’d missed my chance to save Sanchez. I didn’t want to miss out for anyone else like him.
I washed my hands and face at that sink and looked into the metal mirror screwed into the wall before I went back to the day room.
I asked Ms. Armstrong if she remembered Sanchez.
“I remember that morning when I got here,” she said. “It was terrible.”
Then I asked her about Brick.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” she said.
A few weeks later, Demarco was offered a job for a year as a teacher trainer in our district. That meant he would travel from school to school helping new jacks. He would only be on Rikers a couple of days a month, probably to work with me.
Demarco asked what I thought about him leaving for a while before he accepted. I guess he didn’t want to leave me just starting out. But I told him I was ready and that I’d found my legs here.
When Demarco left, it was the first time I was ever in the Sprungs without him being there. But I was so busy with kids I never got a chance to feel alone or lost.
Sometimes when I’m coming onto the Island an ambulance will come screaming over the bridge. The COs will stop the traffic going both ways to let it pass. I’ll wonder what happened. Did an inmate get cut or a CO get stabbed? Was it some kid who got jumped over dumb shit? Did somebody try to hang up? Will the whole damn jail be on lock-down today?
I stop at the house every morning now before I get to the school trailer. I want to see what kind of mood the kids are in, and find out if anything went down the night before. I worry about these kids, like I worry about my family and myself.
I don’t want them going back out on the streets without feeling like they can make it. I want kids to understand that they can provide for themselves and their family without sticking a gun in somebody’s ribs or selling crack. I want them to feel like they’re better than that.
But I worry about what I can teach them and where they’ll wind up.
And I worry about what they’re learning from everything they see and feel every day on Rikers Island.