"When you row another person across the river, you get there yourself." --Jeraldine Saunders
In the last month, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the local youth prison. What with Christmas, and one of my guy’s birthday party, I’ve become a familiar presence in the “launch pad” area. That’s the multi-purpose room that is a sports center, and, with some plastic tables and chairs, the visitor’s area, and special events arena. The youths had their Christmas dinner there, and other special events occur there.
Some of the youths’ art work is tacked onto the walls, as well as a few decorations for the holidays. Still, the cinder blocks and the harsh lighting from the industrial strength lighting keeps the institutional tone to the place, especially when every door is under the command of the control room.
“Launch pad” is an odd term for me, but it comes from the idea of this room being the place where a new inmate enters the prison, and the inmates getting out on parole leave here, saying their goodbyes, and moving out into the world. Sort of the Cape Kennedy of the juvenile prison system.
This was the room where high school graduation occurred last June, young men in cap and gown, giving speeches, being recognized for their work, as staff and families beamed and applauded. But, the biggest smiles that day were the guys who, despite the odds, and despite most of their family cultures denigrating an education, accomplished a big step. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
It’s where my mentoring work goes on, every week, over some coffee and popcorn, across a plastic table, as we talk, and get to know each other, on deeper and deeper levels. Our conversation often goes into my buddy’s struggles with himself, and his fellow inmates, his work in the kitchen, his schooling, his treatment.
I see my buddy growing a lot in this last year. Physically, about three inches in height, and putting on more muscle. But, deeper than that, I’ve seen his spirit grow, too, in leaps and bounds, adding inches to his self confidence, his determination.
I’ve been bringing him books, books on native American life, books with heroes and imaginative stories. The stories and characters are ones I’ve made part of my life, giving me a sense of adventure and imagination. I want him to experience those stories, and see life through the eyes of my heroes. More importantly, I want him to gain a sense of his own identity, and his own power of imagination.
He can be anything he wants, and he’s starting to realize that. In December, he finished all his work for high school, becoming the first member of his family to finish high school. He’s proud of that, and scared, too. Scared to deny his late father’s expectations that he would never amount to much in his life, and would never graduate from high school.
We celebrated his twenty first birthday last week, complete with a party, chocolate cake from Costco, and his favorite ice cream. He invited three friends and we watched in awe at their ability to consume sugar, wear party hats, blow on noisemakers, sign “Happy Birthday”, and play a board game. Not what most guys turning twenty one would want.
What was really special is that he had never, yes, never had a birthday party before. So, the event had a lot of meaning for all of us. Another boy hadn’t ever had a birthday party, either. The energy of all that youth and excitement reminded me of a ten year old’s party. But, then, ten is a good age to celebrate, too. I guess it’s never too late to celebrate a birthday.
As we packed up the remains of the party, and put the party hats away, I realized I had received some presents over the holidays, and for my buddy’s birthday party. I received real joy, real excitement, and a real sense of belonging in a young man’s life.
We all receive gifts we don’t think we deserve, or gifts that come into our lives unexpectedly. And, now, it’s my turn to be gracious, to say thanks, and to let the gifts I have apparently needed to come into my own life. It’s all part of my own launch pad.