My Life

I was born in Chicago and I liked it as I got older. Then when I got around thirteen I started getting trouble. Ever since then I have been locked up. That’s my life.

–a 17-year-old

Every weekday morning at 8:30 the elevator door slides open and the prisoners file out. Dressed in white T-shirts, sneakers, and chino pants, they shuffle down the hall in a single line, looking tough. They are juveniles and a few of them are only 12 years old. They’re coming down from lockup and are on their way to school.

State law requires that prisoners younger than 17 attend school no matter how heinous their crimes, so the Chicago Board of Education runs a school for them, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center School. The school is on the second floor–just above the courtroom, just below the jail–of the juvenile court building, which is near the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Ogden Avenue on the near west side. The jail used to be called the Arthur J. Audy Children’s Home, and many of its occupants still call it the Audy Home.

Some of the students are being tried as adults on charges of rape, murder, robbery, or assault. Many dropped out of school years ago. But once in jail, they have no choice–this is one school they must attend. There are classes in math, social studies, science, English, and art taught by a number of enterprising teachers, including Dee Oglesby.

Oglesby teaches her students–some of whom are illiterate–to read, by encouraging them to write. “I work with the low-scoring students in a tutorlike setting. It’s just me and two students,” she says. “I give them a clipboard with some paper attached, and I have them write their name, age, and birth date on the top of the page. A few can’t write their name, or maybe they can’t write June or whatever month they were born in. So I show them how to write it. Then I say ‘Tell me what you are thinking about right now. What’s important to you?’ And usually at first what they write is the story of their life. If they can’t write, they say it, and I take notes. Then I go home, type the story up on my computer, and bring it back. They love to see their stories typed up. It makes them feel published. I have them read their stories–they love to read their stories out loud. Sometimes they stumble on the words, but they usually get through it.”

The students write about all sorts of things: girls, gangs, drugs, cops, judges, pets, sports, home. Mostly they write about themselves–what they’re in for and how they’d do things differently if they had the chance. Their prose is rough, and some of their stories are so embellished they seem like fiction. That’s OK, Oglesby says. At least they’re writing, at least they’re reading. For the first time in their lives, they’re showing some interest in education.

I Got a Lot Going for Me

A job? I ain’t got no job. I steal cars for a job. I know how to fix cars. Can’t be no mechanic ’cause you gotta know how to read to do that stuff. If I could read, I’d go to school and learn and stay out of dope and everything. I do everything. But I don’t know how to read, can’t do that. Can’t be like everybody else. I got to steal. That’s what I been doing all my life–steal. I’ll be in the penitentiary all my life. I can’t help it, can’t read. In nine months, I’ll probably be dead. I ain’t learned nothing so far, just a messed-up life. I just messed up my life. I ain’t got nothing but a bad life.

–a 16-year-old

Dee Oglesby is 61. She has gray hair, glasses, a southern accent, and a soft, easy laugh. “I like challenges, I guess,” she says. “It wouldn’t be as much fun teaching rich kids in some suburb. I did that, you know. I taught kindergarten and second grade in Palatine.” She left that job in 1969 to move with her husband to Canada, where they ran a hunting and fishing lodge. “That didn’t work,” she says. “We went broke and had to return to Chicago. I did some substitute teaching for a while, and then I got a permanent position at the Haven School at 14th and Wabash–it’s since been torn down. That was an experience. It was in a black neighborhood, and I didn’t know anything then about race or blacks and whites. I come from a little town in North Carolina–when I was growing up, blacks and whites didn’t mingle much.

“I remember one day I learned what ‘yo’ mama’ means. This kid got mad at me and said, ‘yo’ mama.’ I didn’t do anything. He said ‘Aren’t you mad at me? Don’t you know what I’m saying to you? Yo’ mama means, yo’ mama is a prostitute.’

“I asked to come to the detention center. I look at the students here and think ‘They’re just like me, except we were born in different places.’ We have a caste system that they’ve been placed into, and they have no way of getting out. They’re just as smart as me. They’re just as smart as you.

“They’re sent to school and no one expects them to learn. But they’re not dumb. I believe they could be doctors and lawyers if society led them in that direction. It’s just that they’ve been stuck in this lower caste. Some of them will make it, but most have no way out.”


I am starting this story on a cold and foggy night. This story I’m about to tell you I dreamed last night. It started on a night just like tonight. I was sitting on my back porch. Sometimes I’m out there for at least six hours, but today it seemed longer than other times. I was just sitting there and a gust of wind blew out of my house. I walked to the door and looked, but no one was there. When I was trying to get in, I fell and the wind stopped. When I got up, it started blowing again. I fell down again, and I crawled in. I shut the door that the wind had come from. When I shut the door, I saw a picture of the devil on it. I started freaking out. I got up and ran and hid. The sun came out and I woke up. At night, when you are sitting on your porch, and a gust of wind comes out of your house, come and tell me what happens, OK?

–a 15-year-old

The school’s principal, John Hahn, rarely raises his voice. He has the calm, confident air of a man who knows that you know that he has the final say. “Most of the residents respect me because I’m the principal,” he says. “I don’t try to humiliate them. I tell them, ‘These are the rules. You’ve got to follow the rules.’ That’s all I ask. After that, I just treat them with respect.”

Hahn has put more than 40 years into the Chicago public school system, starting as an elementary school teacher in 1946. For 14 years in the 60s and 70s he was principal of Gage Park High School. The southwest-side school was undergoing racial change, and Hahn had to deal with student brawls, outside protesters, and sensation-seeking reporters. In 1979, he figured enough was enough and asked to be transferred to the detention school.

“The way a kid gets here is he breaks the law,” says Hahn. “Or, I should say, he allegedly breaks the law. We have two major groups of residents here: automatic transfers and itinerants. Automatics are being tried as adults for serious crimes like robbery with a gun, murder, rape, or sexual assault. Their cases are heard at the Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California. Until they’re 17, they’ll stay here. After that, they serve the rest of their sentence in a state prison, or wherever the judge says.

“The itinerants are youngsters picked up for less serious crimes. They don’t stay here that long, no longer than about 18 to 20 days on the average. This is a temporary detention center. Once their case is adjudicated, they can go home–or get sentenced to a detention center like the one in Saint Charles. Or the judge might say: ‘Hell, this is a good kid victimized by bad circumstances,’ and send him to Boys Town.

“We’ve got roughly 285 kids,” he says, “40 to 50 girls, the rest boys. We have 45 teachers. There are about 10 kids to a class. We keep it pretty orderly. I’m not scared to be here. I’ve never been threatened. I’ve had to break up fights. But we’ve got pretty good security in here, too. I know the youngsters don’t have any weapons.”

When they’re not in school, the students stay in the upstairs lockup, which has 16 cubicles per section. Each cubicle has a sink, a bed, a desk, and a chair. “It’s not so bad,” Hahn says. “Some of the youngsters call it ‘three hots and a flop,’ meaning three hot meals and a place to sleep.”

Hahn isn’t sure how much good his school does. “I’m not going to feed you a line,” he says. “I can’t say we’ve raised their test scores. We don’t have any way of determining that. We can’t follow up–most of the kids are not here that long. If they straighten up they usually don’t want people to know that they were in the system. I’ll get phone calls from parents saying, ‘My boy never enjoyed school so much as he did at your school. How do I get him back in?’

“Mostly, our objective is attitudinal change. We want them to sit down. We want them to behave. We want them to be compatible with their classmates. We don’t want them to fight. We give them a lot of Dutch uncle talks. We tell them about their court report, which the teacher writes for the judge. The teacher writes: ‘Johnny was a disturbing factor in the classroom,’ or ‘he didn’t do his homework,’ or ‘he did do his homework.’ The judge pays attention to the teacher’s comments. And the youngsters know that.

“If they act up, we tell them: ‘You’ve got to go upstairs.’ That means they sit in their cubicle and they can’t go to school. You might think that’s an easy punishment, but it’s not. These youngsters want to be social. They don’t want to be alone upstairs.”

Love Dawn

There she was, in an all red dress! The perfect red glimmer in her hair from the lights. She was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. My heart started to pound. I was very nervous, wondering, “Will she dance with me?” My hands were shaking. Finally, we caught eyes! She called me over the dance floor with her finger. We began to talk, got to know each other. The DJ played “Lady in Red.” She asked me to dance. We were slow dancing until the song ended. She looked at me dead in my eyes, opened my hand, and put a piece of paper in it. And kissed me on my cheek and said good-bye. That piece of paper had her phone number in it. I called her the next day. We made plans to meet at a restaurant. Finally I asked her out, and she accepted right away. These were the best moments of my life!!!

–a 16-year-old

“I’ll give you an example of one student,” says Dee Oglesby. “Let’s call him Peter. He was about 15, and he said he couldn’t read. So he started telling me a story. It was about guns–that’s what he wanted to talk about. He started to draw pictures of his guns. He labeled the pictures, and said how many bullets each gun had. I typed it up and brought it back to him the next day. He could read most of the words.

“Then he wrote a letter to his mother, and at the bottom of the page he wrote: ‘In my own words, Ma.’ He was so proud that he had actually written the letter. He spent about an hour decorating that part of the letter with flowers and designs. We kept it up for a while, and then he complained that his eyes were burning. It turned out he needed glasses. So a social worker arranged for him to have glasses.

“After a while, he really opened up. He wrote about the time he was shot and had gone to the hospital. He read someone else’s story and said ‘This is like me, only it’s a little different.’ The other kid was shot when he was riding his bike, and Peter was shot when he was walking down the street. The point is, he made the distinction by reading.

“They’re so enthusiastic,” Oglesby says. “They fight over who gets to come to work with me. They see me in the hall, and they pass me things they’ve written. It gets them to open up and talk about themselves and talk about their life. Sometimes they’ll write a story and go ‘Whee! I just had to get that out.’ Sometimes the story will be something simple, like ‘I miss my girlfriend.'”

The stories made some teachers at the center angry. They said the stories glorified crime, encouraged disobedience, and advanced the stereotype that all blacks and Hispanics are hoodlums. Get the students to write about something positive, they said, or don’t have them write at all.

“We had a faculty meeting, and I defended my program,” says Oglesby. “I said ‘If you’re going to help someone learn how to write, you have to start from where they are. And this is where these kids are.’ The next step is asking them ‘Well, do you want to do this for the rest of your life?’ Ask them that and most kids will say no. Heck, with most kids I don’t even have to ask the question. They’ll be writing the story of their life, and they’ll write, ‘It’s not worth it.'”

“Now, when Mrs. Oglesby came to me with the idea for her writing program, I have to admit I was a little cautious,” says John Hahn. “They all want to write about their experiences. Normally, we discourage that because they’ll use it as a stepping-stone for their ego. It might turn into something where they’re bragging about their crimes, and we don’t want that. So we set some rules: no gang signifying and no swearing.

“Mrs. Oglesby’s got a skill. She gets them writing. The better stories get published in Bricks All Around, the school’s paper. You’d be surprised how many of them want to get in the paper. The theory is that once you get them interested in writing, you can teach them something. Again, does it do any good? I can’t say for sure. But we use every carrot that we have.

“You have to understand almost all of these kids are three or four years behind grade level. We take every kid who comes here–we have no choice. We have 14-year-olds who read on a second-grade level. We have gypsies whose families move around so much that they haven’t been in school in four years. If we get them to write a sentence and then go from there to write a whole paragraph, well, that’s progress. Isn’t it?”

My Plans for My Future

When I get out of here, I don’t intend to come back. In a couple of years when I’m 16, I’ll get a job and find a nice girlfriend. When I’m about 25 I plan on getting married, settling down, have a baby, one or two kids, living in a nice home, kids having food on the table every day, three meals a day, both me and my wife having jobs, having a baby-sitter, my clothes, my kids never coming to this place–Man–I’d ground him for a year!

I want to fight fires, and I’d like my wife to have a good paying job, something like a teacher, an easy job, easy on her. I don’t want her to work hard, and I want to come home to a respected home with meat on the table.

–a 15-year-old

By nine o’clock all but six new prisoners have been checked into their morning classes. They sit silently along the wall of the library, with their heads down. A teacher directs them to a table in the back of the room, where he delivers a lecture. This is not like regular school, he says. You are under court supervision. We will write a report on your progress. The judge will read that report. It will influence any decision he makes about your sentence.

One of the kids–a skinny white boy whose hair is tied in a ponytail–cracks a joke. The teacher ignores him, but the boy repeats the crack. The teacher glares at him. Keep it up, he warns, and see how far that gets you. There’s silence. The teacher stares. The boy bows his head. The teacher looks at the others, but no one meets his gaze. He goes on with his lecture.

Hahn has been watching this scene and shakes his head. “This happens every day. Every day it’s a new batch of kids,” he says. “They come down here. They challenge us. They want to see what they can get away with. We talk to them. We talk to them a lot.”

Hahn walks down the hallway that winds around the courthouse building. Ahead of him two boys–one large, the other small–make their way to the library, their sneakers squeaking on the shiny linoleum.

Hahn smiles at the larger boy. “How are you doing?”

The boy nods. “OK.”

“Are you really OK?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“That’s good.”

The boy giggles and enters the library.

“We’ve had some problems with him,” Hahn says. “He’s volatile. He gets excited. He gets into fights. So I say something. I say ‘How are you?’ Maybe it makes him feel better. It shows that someone’s paying attention. It’s a little thing, but little things help.”

In a classroom down the hall, a well-muscled boy shows Hahn a plaque he made in art class. “That’s nice,” Hahn says. The youth nods.

Hahn notices four boys sitting in a room with their legs sprawled across the chairs in front of them. He slips into the room and says politely, “Excuse me, gentlemen. Please get your feet off the furniture.” The students swing their legs off the chairs and sit up straight. “Thank you,” says Hahn, shutting the door behind him.

“What would you have done if they hadn’t done what you said?” I ask.

“I would have told them that I’m the principal. And that so long as they are in my school, they will do as I say.”

“And if they then told you to go to hell?”

“Well, I’ve got the security guards here. They’ll send them upstairs. But it doesn’t get that far. It doesn’t have to. This is a school. Believe it or not, kids still have some respect for their teachers and the principal. They may not admit it, but most of them want to be here. Because, when you think about it, we’re trying to give them something that they really want.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.