Ali reflects on jail and detention, and the seemingly never-ending cycles of crime and punishment
The fervid morning sun was already piercing the plundered earth of Los Angeles as I walked unhurriedly under the lush green trees of our neighborhood park filled with clear, fresh air. I never hurried toward my dull school—the cause of much languishing and ennui. To make the most of my liberty, I pulled out my phone to read the news. The first headline read:
Another robber caught and thrown in jail.
I slowly swiped downward to the article:
Robber thrown in jail because he stole pain-killing Tylenol at CVS.
I stood wondering why the man had committed theft. Had he suffered a sudden migraine affecting his choices? Was he desperate for some other reason? Had he asked the manager for credit for a day? Why such harsh punishment? Why wasn’t he just fined? Was he a repeat offender? If not, why had the newspaper called him a “robber,” labeling his identity forever? Continuing toward school, I reflected on the question of why people steal and why their motives remain unknown to the public.
Just before the sterile school bell rang, the raging morning sun followed me as I ran inside the metal school doors that barred so much light and enlightenment from then on. The crowd rushing toward the classrooms carried me with it. I threw my bag into my locker and sat down in my first classroom where I would begin to waste the next eight hours of my life. The teachers’ never-ending assignments flowing in, stagnating the life-giving river, the same monotonous tasks being handed in every day just for a grade good enough to pass, the same meaningless true-false questions sucking away souls bit by bit, the same brainless one-answer questions breeding facile thinking and eventual indifference, never learning through discovering, never creating with imagination, all causing our ennui. Why do we have to suffer this meaninglessness? This loss of self-worth? Using this time, I still wondered why the man had committed theft, wondered why the media had never answered the “why” question.
After the teacher had dismissed my peers and me to lunch, I stared down at the vinyl ground, dragging my feet all the way to lunch, barely attending to the announcement:
“Kids, don’t forget to hand in the field trip fees to your homeroom teacher by the end of the day!”
The words floated out from a dark corner, hiding away from the afternoon sunlight, as I spotted Rick, panic-driven, desperate, clenching a handful of cash, about to withdraw it out of Bob’s locker.
“Rick, what do you need Bob’s money for?”
“I need the money for the field trip fees to turn in today. I forgot to bring my own. That’s why I’m stealing.”
“Rick, why don’t you ask your homeroom teacher for a chance to turn in the fees tomorrow morning? Maybe ask someone who has extra money to lend? You don’t have to steal, Rick.”
Rick hesitated. “Maybe you’re right.” Calming down, he resolved, “I will try and ask.” Returning Bob’s money, he added, “Thanks, Ali. Please don’t tell anyone I stole.”
“I wasn’t thinking.”
* * *
As I entered the lunchroom, I sat down on my usual spot and began to unpack my lunch with the sun ferociously beating down on me through the huge ceiling window. As I ate in this room full of my peers’ noises playing foosball and the sound of balls dribbling, I began what some people call the ritual of sitting Shiva—though not for a deceased person. This time for those who suffer a dysfunctional kind of punishment. Detention.
This series of steps, this practice, this ritual, I have learned to use whenever I need to think and to reflect. I started to place a hold on what was happening around me, abstaining myself from the activities in the lunchroom, and started to think about what would have happened if I had not confronted Rick. Would he have been caught and sent to detention? Would he have reflected and changed for the better? Or would he have become a full-fledged thief, stealing whenever he needed money?
Even as the loud lunch bell echoed in the lunchroom and woke me from my reverie, I picked up my unfinished sandwich and proceeded to my free period with thoughts still bouncing in my mind. As I walked near the detention room filled with sullen silence, I saw the same people waiting to serve their “sentence,” the same students who always went in and out like it was some sort of routine. Students like Mike, who was always missing from class. George, who was always making jokes and annoying the teacher. Mark, who was always seen bullying people. And as the list went on, a new insight awakened me.
I began what some people call the ritual of sitting Shiva—though not for a deceased person. This time for those who suffer a dysfunctional kind of punishment. Detention.
Detention isn’t really a place to help students resolve a problem or change how they make choices. It is a place for disobedient students to realize that, though there are consequences for misdemeanors such as stealing money, two hours of solitude merely results in the belief that their mistakes weren’t all that bad.
So what is the worth of this vicious crime-and-punishment cycle? What is the alternative? How do we learn to revise our lives? Never are they asked to consider the harm they have caused. Never were they counseled or given a chance to restore justice and relationships between themselves and those whom they have harmed.
I have to stop this vicious cycle that leads only to more crime and more punishment. I have to raise the principal’s awareness. But why would Mr. Dawn listen to me? What if he gives me time in detention for wasting his time? What if he doesn’t even give me a chance to speak?
My legs grew numb. The principal’s office was already right in front of me. I silently and tentatively reached for the door. I have to do this. I have to show that people won’t change after two hours of solitude. Not even after a hundred years of solitude!
As the office door loudly creaked open, my dry mouth opened and words flew out: “I think detention should be stopped and replaced by counselors willing to listen and guide those who have made mistakes.”
There was a moment of silence for what seemed like forever. Finally Mr. Dawn replied, “Ali, next time please knock before you come into the office. But now, tell me more about what you just said.”
“I think that students given detention will not change their ways for the better after sitting in a silent room. The isolation will not help them change the way they think. Students in detention need someone to help them understand why their choices were not the best; they need someone to guide them in the right direction, guide them to learn new problem-solving skills. Maybe a whole class offering moral dilemmas could be helpful.”
As I finished my new viewpoint, the principal and I exchanged looks. A fertile silence emerged. Finally, Mr. Dawn spoke: “I agree with you, Ali. I see where you’re coming from. Thank you for your thoughts. You should get back to your free period.”
I sighed both with relief and disappointment. Relieved he had listened to what I had to say, yet disappointed with his response. I turned around with my shirt wet and sticking to my back and started to walk away along with the rays of warm light, when Mr. Dawn spoke again: “You’re a good kid, Ali. Keep changing the world.”
* * *
The alarming school bell rang again as my feet crossed the school door just in time to avoid a late slip. I zoomed past the cafeteria, skipped past the principal’s office, and hiked up the stairs toward my classroom, but I stopped and stared in silence, disarmed by an unfamiliar, sunlit room. I noticed that the former sign, signifying Detention Room, had vanished. The room was now called something more justified, more deserving. It was now called Reflection and Learning.