I dedicated this novel to all of the high school students behind bars. Students who face the type of daily pressures that would break most adults, yet still find the strength to move forward with their education for themselves and their families. Some of them really are amazing in their focus.
The overwhelming majority of incidents that happen on the pages of Rikers High really occurred. I witnessed a huge number of them firsthand during the course of my six years teaching teens to read and write on Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest jails. The only fiction in the novel is in the creation of a single protagonist, Martin Stokes, who represents the actual experiences of several student inmates.
I’ve always lived in Queens, within a mile or so from the gates of Rikers Island. As a teen, I walked the streets with a basketball tucked beneath my arm. Cars would pull up to me to ask the same question over and over. “Hey, kid, how do I get to Rikers Island?” That happened to everyone in my neighborhood, because the jail is fairly hard to find off the highway. So I thought up a smart-mouthed answer. “How do you get to Rikers Island? -- Rob a bank!” My friends would howl at that response. But I could never say it to the real people asking that question. They always seemed so sad and hesitant, admitting to a total stranger that they were going to visit someone they loved who was in jail, and that they were lost. Years later, when I walked onto Rikers as a teacher and saw the faces of the students, it hit me—in a city (NYC) that was pretty much racially balanced, nearly every teen locked away on Rikers Island was black or Hispanic. Then I remembered that everyone who’d asked for directions in those cars was black and Hispanic, too. That ridiculously unbalanced population is part of our criminal justice system’s inequity. During the six years I was teaching there, I might have had fifteen white students out of a few thousand. So that ratio is reflected in my novel.
There’s a line in the novel that says, “It’s not like you could hold school in jail, and make the jail part disappear.” That’s a stark reality for student-inmates every day on Rikers Island, awaiting trial.
I purposely painted correction officers in two distinct shades—the helpers and the abusers. But those traits can be interchangeable depending on their mood or the situation. Educators, too, can either be a tremendous asset to incarserated teens, or make their lives even more difficult. And the uncaring educators could only get away with their professional lapses because they were teaching students who happened to also be inmates. So what I show you in the way of positive CO’s and teachers, along with their demeaning counterparts, is very real. The dialogues they use in my novel come straight from their mouths more than they were written by me.
I remember sitting on a long table grading papers, outside of a classroom. An angry CO grabbed a student by the neck and ran him at the wall beside me. The two of them wound up on top on the table, a foot or two from me. I slid a few feet in the opposite direction, never missing a beat in my grading. That’s how common the violence was, and how immune you could become to it.