It’s my 6th month in my position as the Art Therapist at the Newport News Juvenile Detention School. They tell me that I now belong to a privileged group, sense in that short period of time, I’ve experienced my share of fights, theft, and threats. I’ve learned the lingo and the slang and I’ve been to enough gang training to warp my brain so that even simple hearts remind me of Crip symbols.
The kids know me, they know that to expect, and I have no choice but to enforce the rules because (lucky for them!) I ran over the Juvenile Detention handbook with a fine toothed comb just months ago when I started this job. The students often comment that I “should be wearing a maroon shirt”- the color of the detention staff uniform. And, after years of refusing to be a disciplinarian in my art therapy groups, I actually embrace this supposed insult. I like that they see me as someone who, no matter what, will always expect the absolute best they can give me.
I teach art to seven groups of delinquents, ranging in age from 12-17 and with charges for everything from robbery to murder and in between. Strangely enough, I feel safer here than I ever felt in the 24-bed unlocked residential treatment facility on the eastside of Detroit where I worked for the last 3 years. (I don’t recommend visiting this part of the city!) I love the structure of Detention. The no-nonsense rules. The zero tolerance policy about gang conversation. Yet as a teacher, I want my students to learn the weight of an apology. The value of admitting you’re wrong. If you slip up, and they always do, they know that they’ll be given another chance as long as they own up to their actions. In my classroom, there’s no cursing, and this includes the “n word.” (Imagine that for a moment). My students think that this is completely ludicrous, but when a new student joins the group, and I ask my veterans to “share Ms. Kemp’s most important rule,” they’ll say, almost in unison, “You can’t curse.” Then, they’ll usually go on to say that they have to be nice to each other. No Name calling and no trash talking.
I teach the students about technique and art history, and we incorporate the necessary technology, reading, and writing enrichment. But, on any given day, I am known to throw out the curriculum and hold a discussion about the changes the students are hoping to make in their lives or set them loose in their sketchbooks to draw whatever comes to mind. It can’t hurt to give them a little taste of freedom and autonomy for 1 hour, twice a week. And, really, that’s where my roots in non-directive art therapy come through. My students may receive assignments and grades, but they always have say in how they interpret the directions. And if they can come together as a group and propose a better idea, I’m all for it!
So, as I continue to develop my structure and struggle with morphing group therapy exercises into lesson plans, I’ll continue to make it my primary goal to teach my students compassion and tolerance. To lead by example and consistently enforce my expectation that cruelty and hatred will not be tolerated. If they forget who Van Gogh is or how to create a watercolor wash, maybe they’ll at least remember that they were once held to a higher standard.