The Greatest Place Next to Hell

By charlesoh

(upload incomplete, full text available on the web)

The Greatest Place Next to Hell


Charles Oh

Dedicated to the wise and select few who know there is more to life than money.

Much more.

The Introduction.

When you have a lot to say, and no one really to say it to, the first opportunity you get to speak may make you sound insane. There's a lot on your mind that comes pouring out, tangents that barely connect to an outsider when they don’t have a direct relationship to your experiences. Partly, this is why I am writing this now. The other part, is because I want to do this before I go completely insane.
During the past four months I have been employed with Los Angeles County, to work at a juvenile probation camp as a Paraeducator. A Paraeducator is like a school assistant, but your job duties will vary depending on your abilities. During the past four months I have served as tutor, assistant, gopher, laborer, computer tech, teacher, probation officer, and mostly-- individual struggling to maintain his sanity in an otherwise insane environment.
A teen probation camp is much like a juvenile hall, except it is usually located in some nondescript area, like in the foothills of a mountainous area away from society, and serves to rehabilitate criminal youth. It is basically prison. The minors are issued garb, told where to go, what to do, when to eat, and when they can shit. During the day, they are sent to a school within the facility where they verbally, and sometimes physically, assault staff with nothing less than primordial mayhem. This may sound like much to deal with, but it is only one-third of the battle. Top that with administrators who are clearly insane, teachers who have lost their sanity, and probation officers who don't give a fuck, and you begin to visualize the ridiculous notion that is Los Angeles County's juvenile detention program. It is no wonder the only thing this system turns out is adult offenders. I take that back. There is a small minority of youth who make it out to become productive members of society. I would estimate maybe ten percent, tops.
My past four months here have been amazing. Every day is insane, I tell anyone willing to listen, and often find myself forcing this information onto people who won't. I have met some brilliant teachers and some very good people. But the gross majority of people I've met are insanely gruesome fictional characters who have invaded reality. And I'm not even talking about the kids. More on them later. Take the assistant principal of the school, for example. A kind woman who has always had my back. But her eyes are always hidden behind dark glasses. Her face haunts me as others tell me she is out to lunch. She serves as more of a messenger than an administrator. She always says she is on my side, and I believe her. She is always on everyone's side. She makes no executive decisions unless put on the spot. Perhaps that is her job duty. I am tempted to believe she can be convinced of anything with little pushing.
The principal is a character as well. He is a man in his sixties, bald, white-haired, mustached, tall, lanky, and perpetually pushing karmic approaches to teaching juveniles who are only interested in violent crime. When I first came here, the teachers spoke ill of him when he would be standing four feet away. They would call him an asshole and an idiot with raised voices. I thought this curious, as I'd only worked in places where talk like that occurred behind peoples' backs. The teachers are protected by a very strong union, I later came to learn. Still, no excuse for such non-diplomatic ways of going about things, I thought.
When you work for Los Angeles County, I've discovered you haven't made it anywhere. Many of the employees are people who lacked the professional skills to work in a professional setting. Bickering, tardiness, refusal of work... all examples of County work ethic. And it occurs in the open. It's difficult to get fired from a County position, which is probably why no one ever does. Someone told me the other day the principal was sent here after being charged with sexual harassment from another school he oversaw. I don't know if it's true. Nothing here makes sense.
I've enjoyed my past four months here because under all this top-heavy insanity are children who have been abused by society. They've been abused by their families, their peers, their neighborhoods, and their heroes. They, more than anyone, recognize the insanity of this place. I had one student tell me that a teacher was insane. He followed it up by saying the teacher probably went insane because he had to deal with kids like him. There is truth in that.
But since I've been here, I've dealt with the kids with respect. I respect the fact that they come from where they come from and carry themselves the way that they do. They are incredibly witty, funny, and crazy. I should mention here, that the camp I work at is a mental health camp, meaning the kids are all medicated and considered mentally unstable. No one told me this until my second month working here. Again, that is County.
But the kids don't disrespect me. In fact, I've come to realize that when I tell them to do something, they do it. Some of them refer to me as the big homie, which in gang-lingo means an older peer from the same gang. I look young, which helps me, and during my youth I was not far off from them. I speak their language, which also helps me. The biggest plus for me, would probably be that I don't come down on them as hard as everyone else does. If they make any sort of gang reference, someone yells at them. If they use bad language, some staff members chide them. If they act wild and looney, any adult within earshot will yell at them. I don't. I sit there and watch. I let them act their looniest, their craziest, and wait for their worst. But that's it. That was their worst. That wasn't so bad. If they gang-talk around me, I let it happen. Just because I stop them from gang-talking isn't going to make a shit of difference in their lives when they get out. When they get out, they're going right back to the hood they came from, surrounded by the same people that brought them here.
They recognize that they get away with more around me, which helps me when I have to tell them to do things. When I do, they respect it. Strike that, I don't know that these guys respect anything. The only difference they display towards me is that they don't disrespect me. When I tell them to do something, they'll do it without cussing me out. Everyone else they do. Another thing, I don't yell. If I have to tell a minor to do something, I'll walk over to him and speak gently into his ear. Just do what the probation staff is telling you, I'll whisper. Don't make shit worse. Just do what the fuck he says and get it over with. They do it.
I've enjoyed the hell out of the past four months and I've received an incredible amount of recognition and support. My first month here, a senior member of the school staff tried to utilize me in her best interest by trying to make me her personal assistant. She did it under the guise of County procedure, with help from a tenured school counselor. All of the teachers here, there are six of them, came to my rescue. They told me I wasn't supposed to be doing that. They told me I was supposed to be working in the classrooms with the kids. They went up to her and told her not to utilize me in this way. They advised me to write what was occurring in writing and submit it to the assistant principal. I did. She immediately called a meeting and told me to stop. I walked by her office one day and saw her chiding the senior member of the school and the counselor who had duped me.
This past week, there was a substitute teacher in one of the classrooms normally run by a teacher whom I deify. More on him later. Just to preface, whenever there is a substitute teacher in these classrooms, there are six, this class explodes into anarchy. Books are thrown, minors fight, everything is stolen, and substitutes cower in fear. Not all of them, but most of them. The real problem, is that when a minor gets out of hand, he is sent out to the principal's office. Normally, the assistant principal is there. She doesn't want to deal with them, so she sends them right back. They come right back in and act as crazy as before. The teacher will send them out to a probation staff member sitting outside somewhere who will equally refuse to deal with them and send them right back in. The probation staff member is supposed to restructure the minor by counseling him or making him run laps or do push-ups or something. They rarely do. They sit there with them, talk about how much pussy they got the night before(sometimes from other staff members), then send them back in. The minor will continue acting up until the teacher has no choice but to write up a behavior referral that goes to the minor's probation officer. Most of the time, the probation officer doesn't give a shit about these write ups. All they want to do is go home and fuck.
But this past week, there was a substitute schedule in a teacher's classroom whom I greatly admire. More on him later. Before he left, he asked me if I could have his students do what they normally do, which is computer work. There is so much technology in his classroom, and because I have so much respect for this man, when he asks me to do something I give one hundred and fifty percent effort into seeing it get done. Which is what I did. I always mind my P's and Q's in my work environment, so when I greeted the substitute the first day, I let her know what the teacher had told me. She said it wasn't going to happen because she had a piece of paper in writing the students were not to use any computers or internet. She showed me the paper and I recognized it as an old document that the normal teacher always laid out. This man whom I greatly admire, will sometimes tell me to do something when he doesn't really mean it. I began to wonder if his instructions to me weren't really meant. Regardless, the substitute called the assistant principal and told her that she had a Paraeducator in her room telling her what to do. I assure you I wasn't. The assistant principal came over and told the substitute since I was a normal faculty member and I was familiar with the teacher and his students, we should go ahead and do what I was saying if I was willing to supervise. I agreed.
I gave one hundred and fifty percent into making sure all students did their work. I promised to print them song lyrics, much of which contains profanity(another thing the kids are yelled at for having which I see as making no real difference in their lives). I walked over and whispered into the ears of those minors not doing their work. I sat right next to and guided some into their sign-in webpages to begin their schoolwork. I did whatever the fuck I could to see that this man's orders were carried out. And they were. All the while, I had this substitute asking me condescendingly if I had a teaching credential. She would ask me if I was a credentialed teacher. She would tell me I would know better when I actually became a real teacher. She would do all this in front of the kids. Some of the kids saw this, and said they would get her for me. I didn't tell them not to. I had a kid who I had helped learn to read tell me I should knock her out. I told him I was going to do something worse. The next day, I left her alone with the kids.
I don't know what happen that day, until I was leaving. It was after school, and the regular principal and the normal teacher were in that room. As I passed, the principal called me in. He was chiding her for being on the internet all day, not coming out from behind her desk, and asking for help throughout the day when he had heard reports that I was being castigated out of the room by her the day before. She began yelling about how an aid was taking over the room. I explained to her, respectfully, that it was not the case. Tempers rose as she verbally attacked the principal for allowing this to happen. The normal teacher backed me and my professional approach. The principal backed me and my reputation with the students and the school. She tried to put more blame on me by saying I was printing out pornographic lyrics for the minors. The principal said it didn't matter what I was doing, that I could be dancing down the street naked. The bottom line, and what he was telling her right now, was that she was no longer welcome in the school.
There have been so many clashes in the past four months. Student on student, student on staff, teacher versus administration, teacher versus teacher. I always keep my head low, mind my P's and Q's, and try to do the best that I can. I walk in with a positive attitude, mainly because I love my job. I love the insanity. But the past week it has gotten to me. If my week didn't end with what I felt to be justice prevailing, I would surely have lost a bit of my mind. I may already have. Now the principal tells me he wants me to do something different next week. He wants me to work in the special education room. I don't want to work in the special education room. The teacher in there is a huge hunk of shit who was suspended for walking out one day. He tries to regale me with stories of who's pussy he's hit when I don't ask him to. He claims everything against him stems from racism because he's black. He's a huge sack of shit who doesn't do anything and makes seventy-thousand dollars a year. He had a special education Paraeducator in that room but told administration he doesn't want her anymore because she doesn't protect him from the students. None of our jobs are to protect anyone from anything. And now the principal wants me to give it a try. The only reason I'm willing to do it with a smile, is because of how that principal fired the big guns at the asshole substitute. He tore her a new asshole and called me in there to witness it. He protected me, as the teachers have perpetually. I'll give it a shot, my principal, even though you're fucking ruining the good thing I had going. Even though you're setting me up for failure. Even though I fear that through all the successes I've had here in my four months, they're all going to come to a screeching halt when you put me in a room with this worthless sack of teacher shit. I'll give it a shot.
Sometimes, when you have a lot to say and no one really to say it to, the first opportunity you get to speak may make you sound insane.

Camp Glenn Rockey.

Let me tell you about Camp Glenn Rockey. It is located in the Angeles Forest, about forty-five minutes east of L.A. It is located about one-third of a way up some mountainous roads. It's not exactly in the mountains, but it is far enough up that families of deer are constantly walking through the parking lot and, one time, I had to stop in the middle of the road for a bear walking through. It is a circular facility of red bricks and grey blocks. At the top of the walls are barb wire fencing, just installed recently after two juvenile AWOLs. By the way, one of the kids that went AWOL was honored by the camp director of probation as an outstanding inmate and was granted a job as a front office orderly, a position that entitled him to keys to several off-limit rooms in the camp. It turns out he and his big homie planned it all out by his ability to access a change of clothes from one of these rooms. A black eye to the director of probation for sure. He and his big homie stacked garbage cans and scaled the walls late one night, two weeks prior to his release date. I knew the kid. He was incredibly down. One time, I gave him a couple cigarettes.
There is only one entry-way other than a sliding wall for trucks and emergency vehicles. The front entry-way is a thick, glass door, a few feet of hallway, following by another thick, glass door. Probation and mental health is located inside this second glass door, and once you get up to it you have to knock and flash a County badge. They will buzz you in. You walk through a front lobby that is entirely grey. There are no real colors inside Camp Rockey. Everything is either grey, or an offshoot of grey. In the lobby is a large desk, a visiting room, a small probation stations, and-- to the east and west-- the offices of the probation officers which include beds(they sleep here during their two-and-a-half day shift). Once you walk out a back door of the lobby, you see the main grounds: a couple basketball courts, a high school sized gymnasium, a field large enough for a softball but not baseball game, a running track around this field and the school in the back.
The school is one long building divided into five classrooms. To the left of the rooms is the main office which, once inside, pretty much resembles a regular high school's faculty lounge. The respective classrooms are rooms 1 through 5. Room 6 is a large portable located at the opposite end of the building. Beyond the portable is a small nurse's station, and then the dorms where the boys sleep and do God knows whatever. So far I know of tattooing, piercing, and underground fights taking place in those showers. Some of these kids tell me things they shouldn't. The day after the two minors went AWOL, one of their friends told me they were headed to Mexico and no one would catch them. I told him good luck.
I forgot to mention that between the front lobby and the dorms is the kitchen, where the boys and all staff eat. The food is supposedly good, but I've never eaten it. We get an hour and a half for lunch, because it takes that long to file the boys out of the classrooms and into the kitchen in an orderly fashion. The boys, whenever moved, are done so in single file lines. Anyway, anyone who works here is allowed to eat food from the kitchen for free. The teachers do, but I haven't. Some of these boys are given jobs and some of these jobs include helping in the kitchen.
There are no colors in the classroom. The walls are all made of heavy bricks and are either dark brown or beige. In most of the classrooms, everything is covered in tagging. There is even some on the ceilings. There are windows in the back of the rooms, but they don't look out into anything, just a gated fence and mountain brush. The carpets are dark blue and dirty as fuck. There is tons of tagging on them as well. Nearly every textbook, dictionary, desk, and wall is like a bible of Southern California gangs. There is one class, however, that is clean as hell. It is room 5. I asked the teacher how he managed to keep his room so clean. He said he's on them like a hawk. He said either you give a fuck, or you don't. There is no middle ground.
Throughout my time here, different people have told me different versions of how this camp used to be. Some have told me the camp used to be crazier. Some have said it used to be better. It depends on who you ask and what job they do. There is a janitor here who does nothing. He walks around having one inmate do his job as a special recognition, and naturally-- the inmate does a half-assed job. Nothing is clean here, so an investment in hand sanitizer is a must. The boys walk around all day with their hands down their pants. Their issued garb is a grey t-shirt and black, elastic-waist pants that say Rockey across the leg. On cold days they are given a grey sweater, and on really cold days they are given a brown jacket, which inside is lined with the same material the carpet is. I have heard several things about how Rockey used to be, compared to how it is, but there is one that remains particularly in my mind. I remember a substitute who was subbing in room 1(which has computers) told me that before there were no content filters on these computers and the boys could access whatever they wanted. He pointed across the back of the room and said that the entirety of the back floor was covered in sperm.


Before I tell you about the teachers at Camp Glenn Rockey, I must tell you about Mckinley. Mark Mckinley. Mr. Mckinley, or just Mckinley. Most of my adult life has been led under the belief that deifying or idolizing another human being is unhealthy to one's own potential and aspirations, so I never did. Until I met Mckinley.
When I began here several months ago, I was assigned to two classrooms: half my day in room 1, half my day in room 3. From what I was told, the teacher in room 3 had a history of problems with the students. He had problems keeping them under control and often times was suspected of no longer caring. I was not told anything about room 1.
My first introduction to Mckinley came before I ever entered either rooms. I sat in the Principal's office awaiting my assignment. The Principal let me know I would be placed in rooms 1 and 3, and that he had called the teacher from room 1 to come by and introduce himself. In a flash, in walked a man about 50 years of age. He was about 5'6 tall, 160 lbs., bald but with a shaven head of short, grey stubble, serious-looking and scanning the room with suspicious eyes, no outstanding features on his face, and a tribal tattoo around his right bicep. I noticed his suspicious eyes the most, as he took a seat. His face was stern and he had a bit of growth on his goatee area. He was told by the Principal that I would be the Paraeducator assigned to his room. Mckinley rubbed the growth on his face in what appeared to be a disapproving manner.
I need him third period and sixth, was all Mckinley said in a booming, deep voice.
Okay, sounds great, the Principal smiled.
Mckinley extended his hand out to me and I shook it. In the same booming, deep voice, he told me that I could call him Mark. I've never called him Mark. I always call him Mckinley, or Mr. Mckinley.
I'm not very well liked here, was one of the first things Mckinley ever said to me. To be honest, my initial response was to think that he had brought it upon himself. My first impression of him was somewhat shaky, and I admit that I initially felt a little trepidation about being assigned to his room. Mckinley can be picky and hard to please, but that's what they say about geniuses.
Anyway, I remember walking into his classroom that first day. The first thing that occurred was me being tested by the kids. I remember they all stared at me, trying to sniff out fear. I recall that as soon as I took a seat up front, a student left his seat to come sit directly next to me. As Mckinley spoke to the class, the kid kept looking directly over at me, glancing me up and down.
Wussup, I said, in a friendly, street-type way.
Wussup, he said back.
I smirked and turned my attention back to Mckinley.
This is Mr. Oh, Mckinley boomed to the class, gesturing towards me. The most daunting thing about Mckinley is his voice. For a smaller man, he has an incredibly loud, deep voice that can overtake anyone in any room. Mckinley explained to the class that I was a new member of school staff, and-- just like he, I had the ability to send kids out of the room or write them up on a behavior referral. To this day, I'm not exactly sure whether my position permits me to do any write-ups or kick students out of class, but the fact that Mckinley announced it to those kids in that room made a supreme difference in their approach towards me.
I watched Mckinley do a lesson that day and my jaw dropped. My head spun as if I had just witnessed Haley's comet from the inside. Mckinley had the class read a short-story from out of their textbook aloud, beginning with one student and having him call out the name of the next reader. Each time one kid finished, the next kid wouldn't know where they had left off. I watched the kids as they read aloud. Some were tagging in the books, others were talking to their neighbors, another was writing a letter, two were in the back slap-boxing, and the rest were doing other things completely off-task. Once done, Mckinley boomed to the class to close their books.
He began asking them questions about what they had just read. He asked them probing questions. When a kid answered a simple question about what the author said in this line or that line, Mckinley followed up by asking what that kid thought the author meant.
I don't know, the kids would reply.
I'm not your mental toilet paper Mckinley boomed back. Think
We can't think, we did too many drugs another kid yelled, laughing.
I think this class is fucked another kid yelled.
Watch that 'fucked' talk Mckinley yelled back.
Fuck you another kid yelled.
Come here Mckinley boomed back, walking towards the door. I've got a place for you
The kid immediately began apologizing and saying he was kidding, which made Mckinley walk back to his desk. Mckinley's class is like this every day. Every day he does a lesson, or assigns work, or takes them to P.E. Every day they smack talk, horse-play, resist, defy, sometimes fight, and generally do all the bad things bad kids do. Every day Mckinley runs the show in that class. It's almost like an act, because when I talk to Mckinley outside of class, he is always speaking very softly, very lowly, and like a mature adult. In class, he is running things like the spawn of a prison warden and a stand-up comic. Sometimes I would sit there and try to hold in my laughter, either induced by the kids or by Mckinley's grand, tough persona. My first day, I thought all the teachers were like this, but it turns out they aren't. It's just Mckinley. I swear to God he's my idol. No one can control a classroom full of juvenile delinquents better than he. And he teaches, which is rarely the case in places like this.

The Other Teachers.

Where I work, there are six teachers, including Mckinley. There are two other juvenile court schools under the direction of our Principal, but for the sake of trying to keep some sense of order, I'll only describe to you the five other teachers at my site.
Dale Vinski is the other teacher who I had immediate contact with upon my start. When I first started here, about a month in, a new Resource Specialist also came on board. She was seasoned, to say the least. She had worked at other sites, and as rumor had it, had nearly all of her job duties done by an assistant. When she started here, she was very friendly and congenial. I was friendly and congenial back. After a couple days of her and I interacting, she began asking me if I could spare a moment to help her with this, and soon-- that. Within a week, she was pulling me back into her office and directing me to job duties I didn't feel were intended to be mine. When I questioned her about this, another seasoned school employee-- a counselor, stated that technically, she was my boss. The last thing I said to both these women, in a friendly and congenial tone, was that though I hoped they didn't mind, I was going to speak to the assistant principal about this. They both said it was fine, and that the assistant principal(the woman consistently behind dark sunglasses and called out to lunch ) knew what was going on.
Then Dale Vinski stepped in. Actually, all the teachers did. I barely spoke any words to any of the teachers at that point, besides being introduced, but one by one they asked me what I was doing in this woman's work area. One by one they explained to me that my job was in the classrooms. One by one I explained to them the conversations I had with this woman, and this counselor, and one by one they explained to me that this woman and the counselor were best friends. They advised me to put my complaints and questions in writing, and to submit them to our out-to-lunch assistant principal. Later on, I did. But not before Dale Vinski intervened.
When I spoke to him about it, he ended the conversation with, hold on, I'll say something. And with that, he walked off. I yelled out that he need not bother, that it was not his problem and that I would see what I could do about it. I don't believe in leaning on others for help, especially when my problem doesn't involve anyone else's. As I watched Vinski walk towards this woman's office, another teacher, Mr. Spinner, walked by and said, don't let them fuck with you. More on Spinner later.
By then I had been so fueled by all the teachers' verbal support, I decided to write a letter to the assistant principal and tell the Resource Specialist that until this matter was resolved by the assistant principal, I wasn't going to do any of her directed duties. She responded with shock and stated that nothing transpiring was being done without the assistant principal's knowledge, and questioned whether it was Dale Vinski who was making a big stink of things. I stated it wasn't him. It actually wasn't. Though he was the teacher most willing to go to bat for me, it was Spinner's casual comment of don't let them fuck with you, that so tersely put everything into perspective.
That day the assistant principal called a meeting with me. She stated she had no idea what was going on and that I should return to what was originally assigned to me: the classrooms. Later that day, I saw her having a private meeting with the Resource Specialist and her best friend, the counselor. For a few weeks, neither of them would make eye contact with me. I would always walk by, smiling, and say hi in that same friendly, congenial manner. They wouldn't respond. About a month later the Resource Specialist quit. She hasn't been replaced yet. One day, the counselor returned my hello. Since then, we have been passing by and partaking in casual, friendly conversation. They've never fucked with me since.
Aside from Vinski, who is in his 40's, the rest of the teachers are age 50 and up. I'm the youngest staff member here, and given I still look like a teenager, separates me even more from them. Often times I feel alienated from their adult conversations, but more on why later. It is my approach with these kids. I don't approach or interact with them like the rest of the staff.
Diana Quirk is in her 50's, has sandy blonde hair, a little round-shaped, wears glasses, and has the calmest, quirkiest demeanor of the bunch. I think I have a crush on her, despite her being old enough to be my mother. Unlike the rest of the staff, she is very professional and laid back. She teaches and teaches well, and she is so calm I often wonder what's going through her head. I remember seeing her once in the parking lot, during lunch, as I looked over and saw her getting into her car. I waved and smiled. She waved and smiled back, as she opened her door and took a seat in the driver's side. As she slumped into the seat, she bumped the back of her head against the top of her car. She smirked, rubbing her head, and mouthed the word, ow. Sometimes, other teachers will make off-color remarks about race and sexuality that can be construed as an -ism. When they do, Quirk, or Q as they call her, will say-- guuuuys.
Vernon Norman teaches math and science. Personality-wise, he is exactly what you would think of a man who teaches math and science. Some may call him boring, but Vernon Norman is about as cool and laid back as jazz music. He is a black man, and stunned me my first week by speaking fluent Korean to me. Turns out he taught English in Korea many, many years ago, in the ice age, as he put it. He's always laid back, calm, and once told me, I won't allow myself to have a bad day. If you knew how these kids and this site was, you'd understand what an accomplishment that is.
Mr. Bindra.
Mr. Bindra is a madman. He, like Norman, teaches math and science, but has been smart enough to realize that rarely-- if ever, do any of these kids want to learn. So what he has them do all day, is copy pages of the textbooks verbatim. When that's turned in, he gives them grades: all C's. (These are usually referred to as County C's). But Bindra's real story is his background. Mr. Bindra was a high-ranking military officer in his native country, India. He was well on his way to becoming a Colonel or other higher-ranking official, when he decided to come to America to fantasize about his children going to ivy league schools. Since then, his two children-- a son and a daughter, have both graduated from Harvard and become physicians.
The reason I call Mr. Bindra a madman is because of his insane wit and mental toughness. I'm convinced that if a nuclear attack hit Camp Glenn Rockey, Mr. Bindra would arise from the ashes. He is 68, has suffered at least one documented heart attack, has a Christmas list of ailing organs, and-- as I once witnessed at an off-site luncheon, still drinks like a military man. I asked him once if he ever thought of retiring. He said that if he retires, he'll probably die soon after. He still shows up to work all the time, battling, screaming, yelling, and arguing with these juvenile delinquents, all the while having an evil grin on his face.
Want to hear a joke? a student once yelled to Bindra.
Son, this is not the time for jokes, you have an assignment, Bindra responded.
I don't care I want to tell you a joke
Son, why don't you come here.
The student gets up from behind his desk and comes around Mr. Bindra's. Mr. Bindra points to his computer screen.
What do you see? Bindra asks.
Nothing. the student responds.
Look closer, what do you see?
It's not on, all I see is my reflection, the kid responds.
Exactly, Bindra nods. There is your joke.
I laughed my ass off the rest of the day thinking about that. That is how Bindra comes at these kids. They attack him with wit and insults, he attacks them back. He does everything legally, except when he's belittling these kids. They hate him for it. They absolutely despise him. Many say it's because he doesn't teach, and these kids-- as fucked up as they are, know when a teacher doesn't give a shit about them. I think it's that, plus because he's a madman.
Mr. Spinner is a unique case. He, like Bindra, is often left out of the clique among teachers. He mainly keeps to himself but is the most targeted teacher among administration. He is about 6'8, 280 lbs, and was once a professional basketball player. Every time he is targeted for reprimand, he claims it is racism. Spinner is black. He's really laid back and teaches the special ed classroom, the one I've been placed in now. Now that I've seen his approach with his students, it's no wonder he's embroiled in so much workplace drama.
Spinner is the type of person who will act as professional as he can with the students, only to be tripped up when they're smart enough to see past his facade. When they're gone, he'll lean over and give me some dap for this bitch he fucked last night. He keeps telling me about one of the substitute teachers he nailed. He says she is really fine. Anyway, when I was placed in his classroom, I noticed Spinner doesn't pay much attention to his students. He'll do a lesson, then another, then maybe another, and then go sit at his computer. The students tear away at the rest of the room, and often times try to get away with things I have to stop. Today, I caught a kid masturbating in the corner while on a computer. Other times, kids will go to a corner and try to fight, quietly. I walk over and tell them to stop, but I get the feeling Spinner either allowed it, pretended not to notice it, or legitimately didn't notice it before I was here. Mr. Spinner is not exactly a multi-tasker.
Last week, Spinner and I led the kids out to P.E.(Physical Education). Most days, this takes place on the black top directly in front of the probation window/office. While we were out there, Spinner left a couple times to go into another building for not more than a couple minutes. The thing is, these kids need constant supervision. Turn your head on them for a second and something will either end up missing or someone will end up with a bloody nose. When he came back out, he turned his back to the kids, leaned on a railing and began conversing with a minor. Two of the kids from his class began horse playing, which is against the rules, and one got another in a headlock. I could sense that Spinner did not have a good reputation with probation so I decided to yell at the kids to stop. They didn't stop. I looked over and saw that the Principal was actually crossing through the blacktop at this very moment. He had this agitated look on his face as he looked over and saw Spinner with his back to us. The Principal walked over to me and told me to make sure I vocalized something when I saw students horse playing. I grimaced in disgust, knowing he was telling me to do something that wasn't my job. I'm not happy about Spinner having his back to this, the Principal added, before walking off.
The next day, the Principal called me into his office. He explained to me that behavior modification was not my job, and that he was not evaluating me (yesterday). He was simply making suggestions. I said I was always willing to try and help. He asked me what I observed of Spinner yesterday. I told him I didn't want to get Spinner in trouble. He told me I wasn't going to get anyone in trouble. If Spinner was going to get in trouble, he was getting himself in trouble. I told him what I saw: Spinner going into another building a couple times, and having his back to everything other times. The whole time the Principal was writing. He thanked me and told me not to worry. I should mention here that Spinner seems to have always had a bad reputation in terms of being able to control his class, but it really came to a head about two months ago, when he walked off the site.
About two months ago, before I was placed in his room, one of the kids in Spinner's class threw an eraser at his head when his back was turned. Spinner, according to others, walked out of the classroom without saying a word to anyone. He walked straight off the site, telling no one he was leaving. There was a big stink about this, and the school tried like hell to get rid of him. There was a parade of substitutes for at least two months as he and his union battled for his job. It turns out Spinner is tenured, so his job was saved. Now, the school administration and probation are watching him like a hawk, looking for any minute reason to be able to write him up. They are trying to get rid of him.
That day, I told Spinner what I had told the Principal. I told him I was sorry if it got him in trouble, but that the Principal had called me out and put me on the spot. I told him I had to be honest, both with the Principal and with him. Spinner said it was cool but I don't know if it was. Some of the other teachers joke that I ratted Spinner out, but I'm not sure if they're joking. The prison mentality here seems to flow upward. I had a conversation with Spinner today about the hell he's going through. He seems to be taking it well. He doesn't seem to give a fuck. He still does the same shit. Instead of saying racism now, though, he uses the word conspiracy.

The Politics.

Every workplace has its politics, but not like the County level. As I mentioned before, the politics at the County level are bad. There is no professional decorum or etiquette, and I cannot count the number of times I have been told something that can be construed as sexist, racist, or just plain inappropriate. Administration usually keeps their guard up, but every once in a while they'll let an expletive fly. I guess it's not so big a deal when you work in a prison. What should at least merit a grievance, goes by unaccounted for. The problem is, the process for filing a grievance or making some sort of professional claim takes so Goddamn long it'll be months before the issue is addressed. The politics are even worse.
Last week, I was called into the Principal's office for a meeting. It followed a meeting with Mr. Spinner. The school, and perhaps the entire camp, is out to get Spinner, not because of racism or a conspiracy, but because he sucks at doing his Goddamn job. The meeting was in regards to what occurred during P.E. last week, when Spinner left his kids unsupervised, although for only a few minutes. It seems Spinner doesn't want me in his room anymore. It isn't so much that he doesn't want me, as it is he wants Ms. Morales back. Ms. Morales was the ParaEducator initially working in his room.
When I first started here, it was Ms. Morales in Room 2 with Spinner, and myself in Rooms 1 and 3 with Mckinley and Bindra. Morales was one of the types who would say bad things about the Principal when he was only standing a couple feet away. She would refer to him as Ass, a nickname others would also use but never within his earshot. If it was 3 o'clock and technically, I was off the clock, she would walk by and say, hey, you're done for the day, and pull at my sleeve when I was in mid-conversation with the Principal. I admit, the Principal does seem to make some ass-like decisions, but I really thought this was crossing the line.
Anyway, Ms. Morales was initially working with Spinner. After a couple months, for reasons I cannot say for certain, she was transferred to a different camp about ten minutes away. In it, is another school that the Principal runs. This camp is run a lot better than Camp Rockey, and the kids are said to be well under control of probation. Morales filed a grievance against the Principal, saying what he did was illegal. I'm not sure it was illegal, but I'm pretty damn sure he did it to spite her.
When she was transferred, the Principal told me he would let me into the loop and said it was because the kids couldn't relate to her. Morales is about 40, overweight, and blonde. When she was transferred there, a ParaEducator from that camp was brought here in exchange. This ParaEducator is about 35, overweight, and Hispanic. Both of them have been around for almost a decade. This ParaEducator took the place of Ms. Morales and began working with Spinner.
Around this time, the incident of the eraser being thrown at Spinner's head took place. This is when he walked out of the classroom and off the site, according to the new ParaEducator. I spoke to Spinner later on and he said it didn't happen that way. He said the kids were all taken to the Special Holding Unit(a.k.a. the SHU or the Box ) and then he left. My intuition tells me he is lying. Anyway, Spinner was gone for at least two months addressing this issue with his union and L.A. County, and his classroom was basically being run by the new ParaEducator and a string of substitutes. Upon Spinner's return(his union had saved his ass), he requested the ParaEducator in his room be removed. I was told he actually requested me by name. The new ParaEducator was removed, and I was told by the Principal that I would be placed in his room, to give it a try for a couple weeks or so. I had a bad feeling about this the day he told me. I asked him if I could plead my case against it. I told him that first of all, I was not a Special Education ParaEducator. Spinner's class is a special education class, full of kids with learning and/or behavioral problems. When I applied for this job, I was given an option of applying under Special Education or Academics. I applied under Academics because I have worked with disabled adults and kids with Autism before, and had lost the patience needed to work with these kinds of populations. The Principal told me it didn't matter, he said that technically, all the kids were special ed.
I also told him I didn't feel secure in Spinner's room because I had heard he walked out, leaving the ParaEducator in there with no explanation. The Principal told me to address this with Spinner. I was placed in his room for two months without a word being said about my future there. I did a good job, at least I thought. I have a good rapport with these kids. I talk to them like gangsters talk, and I don't overreact about little things like the other teachers do. I keep things real with them. I advise them not to do stuff because as a kid, I did it too.
The new ParaEducator replaced me in Rooms 1 and 3. I think she did fine in Room 3 with Mr. Bindra, but every time I spoke to Mckinley about his room he complained about her. He said sometimes she would sleep at her desk and that there was now a virus in the computer set up for the ParaEducator. He said, when you were here, it was fine. She comes in and now there's a virus. During these past two months I got to see Spinner's approach with the kids. Spinner, a former professional basketball player, is a huge fucking baby. He is incapable of being a teacher. He'll stand up there and do a few lessons, but none of them make sense. He teaches about ten minutes of material and then goes and sits at his desk. He works at his computer and pays no attention to the class. The kids are busy piercing their tongues with paper clips or trying to fight in the corner. I already told you about the kid I caught masturbating. If I wasn't in there, Spinner would be oblivious to all of this.
I'm not a behavior specialist and my job is not to modify behavior. My job is to tutor these students academically. I spoke to Ms. Morales about a month ago at a meeting, and she told me when she worked with Spinner, she did everything. Last week, one of the kids in the class told me the same thing. Spinner wants Morales because he needs a fucking mommy. He's a tenured teacher with L.A. County, so he says he is untouchable by administration. There's something very flawed in the system.
During the meeting I had with the Principal, he told me that in a week, I would be transferred to the camp she was coming from. He told me the new ParaEducator would remain in Rooms 1 and 3 because of her computer skills and bilingual ability. The new ParaEducator told me when she was transferred here, she was told it was to run a reading program in Spinner's room. There's a steaming volume of horseshit spewing out of everyone's mouths and I'm beginning to get sick of it.
I told the Principal that I would prefer to stay here because I've built a relationship with these kids, and that this camp has a reputation for being rocky. I told him I prefer to be where things are rocky and where I can be of greater assistance, rather than at a camp where things are well-kept. The things he said leads me to believe I will be leaving in a week.
When I told the other teachers, they laughed their asses off. They conjectured that I was being moved because if the Principal sent the new ParaEducator back, it will look like he made a poor choice to begin with. I believe them. I think I was able to contribute here, and I definitely have a good relationship with the kids.
I need to explain that the teachers at juvenile court schools make really good money. They start at $60,000 a year, and most of these teachers have been with the County for over ten years. I'm not sure if they're making a six-figure salary, but they sure as hell ain't poor. Some of them also make an extra ten grand a year for doing an extra hour after school. My second day here the Assistant Principal told me that these teachers make an extra ten grand a year for after-school programs, but the students show no success from it. ParaEducators don't make shit. We are paid hourly and it isn't anywhere near what the teachers make. I explain this because in spite of what Spinner may have expected me to do, and whether or not I was capable of doing it was not the issue. I'm not going to do more than the teacher when I make a fraction of what they do. I was willing to do fifty-fifty as a good team player should, but it seemed like Spinner wanted the ParaEducators to do more. He wants a fucking mommy. All the kids would disrespect him all day, calling him soft and weak. The black kids would say he isn't black, that he was disowned. They would throw things at him when I was in there, too. They would mock him all day and call him a snitch. After my meeting with the Principal, the kids asked me what it was about. I told them Spinner had said something to the Principal and now I was being transferred to another camp. They began cussing Spinner out and throwing things at him. I didn't say a word.

The Notion of Juice.

Juice is real, at least in incarceratory settings. Juice means to be liked, which inevitably means to be able to get away with more, or to gain more perks than those who aren't liked, a.k.a. those who have no juice. A lot of the probation guards begin power tripping when they start to enjoy getting the kids to respond to their commands. The kids, by the way, rarely respond to commands. Teachers power trip, too, as well as administrators and pretty much everyone else that works here. Don't get me wrong, there are those who don't, but they are strictly in the minority.
Juice travels upwards, too. It begins with the minors. Every now and again, you'll have a minor come sit by you or stand by you and try to spark up a conversation. The conversation will be consistently one-sided as the kid tries to brown-nose you or ask you about your day. These kids are good at manipulation, but I would hardly call them the master manipulators that other staff do. They're still fucking kids. Any grown up with half a brain should know when a kid is trying to get juice with you. The kid will do this a few times before he starts asking you for things. It'll be small things, like paper clips or rubber bands or pens or things like that. Paper clips can be used as weapons and are often sharpened to do body piercing. Rubber bands are often utilized to hold things hidden around a kid's testicles(i.e. drugs, money, etc.). Pens are a no-no because half the camp kids are taggers, and pens and markers usually find their way onto dormitory walls. If the kid trying to get juice with you isn't asking for something, he's trying to get away with more. If I'm left in charge of a group, a kid will try to get juice with me in order to misbehave with no repercussions. If I reprimand him, he'll ask me why I'm being like that.
There was a kid who I can't name because he's a minor. He was 17 and a member of one of Southern California's biggest Mexican gangs, El Monte Flores. When I first saw him, he would never say anything to me but stare at me with these big, deadly eyes. He was kind of tall for his age and rather skinny. His neck and arms were completely covered with tattoos. I remember one day in class, he came up to me and started a conversation.
Hey, Mr. Oh, how long have you worked here?
A couple months, I said, wary.
You ever work at a juvy before?
No man, I haven't.
Uh huh. You know how it works here?
How does it work here? I smirked, knowing this kid was about to tell me how it is.
Some of us got juice here.
He went on to tell me that life in this juvenile detention camp was much like an adult prison. He said I can make a lot of money bringing in lighters, drugs, and cigarettes for the kids. I told him I would never jeopardize my job for something like that, and he went on to tell me that for him, it would be different. For him, he had juice.
He was right, too. I remember this kid because he was one of the downest kids I had ever met. When I say down, I mean crazy and down for anything. As adult gang members go, they get respect for being like that. I don't see any reason a minor shouldn't either.
Anyway, he did have juice. He was one of the worst students in class, never doing any assignments, but as it usually goes he was also one of the smartest. I would give him candy whenever I had some, and many days he would come sit by me and regale me with stories of his gang activities whenever I asked. He also told me how he had the Director of Probation fooled, how every time he saw him he would tell him how he's going to quit the gang life and go back to school. The Director eventually ended up giving him a highly-regarded job as an office orderly, which I will get into more in a little bit.
Knowing he never intended to quit his gang or hood life, I would often try to tell him to look into art or film-making. I could see from some of the school work that he did do, that he had a knack for storytelling and art. A lot of it was very macabre. His stories would involve deals with the devil, black dogs chasing him, and other things filled with blood and venom. When he told me stories of his gang, he would tell me how he would see people get shot and their bodies cut up for disposal. I don't know if he was making it up, but if he wasn't I thought it was pretty creative. I remember one time I told him to get a video camera and record 100 days in his hood. I told him it would make a great documentary. He often said he was thinking about it, but I don't know if he was just saying that to get on my good side. He said he would probably get beat up for it, but that he would do it.
Every morning I walked in, I would see him working as a front office orderly. He would be sweeping or mopping or taking out the trash and doing anything else to help the probation guards in the front. Every time I walked by he would say, Wussup Oh. That's how all the kids greet me now: wussup, Oh. No more Mr. or sir. A lot of the kids say I am one of them. This kid from El Monte Flores would ask me for things when I initially met him, but as time progressed he never asked me for anything. He would come sit by me in class and just hang out. Eventually, the kids he was cool with would come sit by me, too. Him and his friends were considered some of the bigger gangsters in camp, so before I knew it, I had some of the biggest gangbanging kids sitting in a circle around me every day. I remember one day, when I had a chance to talk to this kid one-on-one, we were talking about his release date. He had been here damn near a year and was scheduled to get out in about two weeks. He asked me if I could get him a pack of cigarettes for his release. I told him I would. He asked me if I was still unwilling to get him cigarettes. I told him I wouldn't do it. He told me other people, including probation guards gave him cigarettes. He told me his father used to come visit him and bring him a pack of smokes every couple weeks, but that suddenly he had stopped coming. He said he thought his father died. He didn't say it with any remorse or sadness, he just said, I think he's dead now 'cause he just stopped coming.
Anyway, I remember I was leaving one day and I saw the kid again in the front office. He motioned for me to come over, and he showed me with pride a little area set up for him. There was a dirty desk, a bunch of pornographic pictures taped under it, and-- in one of the drawers he opened to show me, a bunch of loose cigarettes. I smiled and told him if he ever needed more just to let me know. A few days later, in class, he asked for one. I told him this is how I would do it: I would go out for lunch, come back in and throw away some papers in the trash. In them, would be the cigarette. When I left for lunch, I wrapped two cigarettes in a crumpled up piece of paper and did it. I came back in and threw it in the trash. He sat there watching me, and as luck would have it-- the Director of Probation was right there next to him watching me.
How you doing, sir, I smiled.
How are you, Mr. Oh, the Director smiled back.
Wussup, Oh, the kid said.
I never brought up the cigarettes except to ask him if he got it. The kid said he did and he never asked me for any more. He didn't have the chance to. A few days later he and another kid escaped. They went AWOL late at night over a weekend. Two weeks before his release date. No one seemed to know why or where he had gone, but many of the minors would tell me things.
He had keys, one minor would tell me, to the room that has all the different uniforms and clothes. Office orderlies are granted keys to different rooms.
They stacked trash cans late at night and got over the wall. They put on some different clothes so they wouldn't look like inmates.
He won't be coming back. Where he's going, they won't get him.
The big homie told him if he left with him, he would become an officer[in his gang].
Juice doesn't only apply to inmates and staff. If you have juice with probation, they will have your back on everything from letting you into the building quickly or supporting you against a minor. If you don't have juice with them, they will treat you like shit and pressure you to do a better job. Spinner has no juice with probation. They are always yelling at him in public for not being able to control his class. The school administration will look out for you too, if you're liked enough to have juice with them. Everything is a game. The prison mentality flows upward as the shit trickles downward. Juice just means to be liked, and if you got it-- you can exploit it.

Probation. And the School.

I have a friend who got hired as a probation officer at Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall not long after I was hired here. My friend is really legit, and has aspirations of becoming a police officer. He's smoked pot three times in his life and says he never really enjoyed it. When we go out, he'll usually have one beer and he's never received a traffic ticket in his life. When he was hired by the County as a probation officer, all I heard was his complaints.
He said in his training class of about 45, there were less than ten he would trust. He said many of them looked like felons. He said in terms of physical standards, they were required to run a mile... in twenty minutes. He said everyone eventually did it but one. That person still made the cut. He said when they were required to do push-ups, half the class cried and complained about how tired they were, that they had kids and got very little sleep. This didn't really come as a surprise to me. Over at Camp Rockey, I've seen the probation staff. I'd say over half of them are extremely overweight. They waddle from one spot to the next and I often wonder what would happen if they were required to chase a kid.
When he was placed at Central, my friend said he was required to work overtime his first week because other staff members came into work drunk. I asked him if they were fired and he said no. He said they were just sent home. He said there is a metal detector that the staff have to walk through. Not the kids, the staff. And the metal detector company is hired by an outside company through the County. Nice. The staff overlooking the kids need to be overlooked by an outside agency.
Many camps and juvenile halls are under investigation for abuse and neglect. Camp Kilpatrick in Los Angeles County was recently written up and had a Los Angeles Times article written about them about the number of abuses uncovered by the Department of Justice. They said kids were abused, the mace-type spray they are allowed to carry was being overused, and that probation staff was found to have alcohol, drugs, and other illegal items found on them. I've never seen anything like this where I work, but then again, I haven't looked that hard. The problem with being overseen by the Department of Justice is that it is all done at the County level. When the DOJ is scheduled to show up and do check-ups, the administration usually knows about it. That's when they go around cleaning out visible trash to ready themselves for the dog and pony show. Nothing is done because it should be or because it will help. Everything is done because it has to meet compliance. I don't blame probation or the school... well, not entirely. I blame the system. The system is beyond flawed.
Where I work, probation is a tough gig. Over half the kids in camp are highly medicated because this is a mental health facility. Most, if not all the kids, are diagnosed as bipolar, schizophrenic, depressed, or any other legally binding medical and psychological tag that makes everyone's job that much harder. There are about 100 kids here, and the ratio from kids to staff is about 10 kids to every 1 staff. Where my friend works, there are about 300 boys and 300 girls and the ratio for kids to staff is about 8 to 1. He says he works in a unit with four staff members, and two of them do absolutely nothing.
Working probation starts you out at about $24 an hour. You need an AA degree and no felony convictions. I never really noticed until a white substitute teacher pointed it out, but probation staff is highly comprised of blacks and Hispanics. If you work probation long enough, you can make about $50 dollars an hour, sometimes-- sitting on your ass.
The procedure for the school at Glenn Rockey is this: the kids are brought out of the dorms in single file lines before 8am. School starts at 8:10am, and they are usually brought right on time. Each class is lined up outside the door by probation, and once the kids are inside-- they disappear. Many staff have told me they like when the kids are in school because it gives them a break. The school relies on probation as its last recourse for punishment, so hearing that probation considers school a break really bothers me. Once the kids are inside the classrooms, there are six at Rockey, all hell breaks loose. It is up to the teacher to maintain control. If a kid acts up, the kid is written an Interdisciplinary Routing Slip and sent to the office for restructure. There is one probation staff sitting outside the school, known as School Post. Whenever a kid is sent out of a classroom, the teacher must let school post know by calling it into a walkie-talkie. Example:
Teacher: Classroom 1 to school post.
School Post: Copy.
Teacher: Minor being sent out on an IRS to the school office for restructure.
School Post: Copy.
(A few seconds will go by)
Teacher: Classroom 1 to school post, minor refuses to leave, I need him escorted out.
By law, teachers are not allowed to put their hands on a minor, after all-- they are minors. Legally, probation is not really allowed to touch a minor either, except in extreme, warranted cases. If the school is lucky, the school post probation officer will come to the classr

The Greatest Place Next to Hell

Created: Jul 18, 2010

Tags: juvenile hall, crime, probation, justice

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