Note: I’m doing a less-in-depth-review on this book as I had only a couple of days to read it before having to return it to our school library for the beginning of the school year. Later on I may recheck it out and do a more in-depth analysis, but I wanted to make sure I put down my initial thoughts here as this book is screamingly important for anyone passionate about working with kids of color and dismantling systemic injustice.
Title: All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island
Author: Liza Jessie Peterson
Memoir ♦ 256 pages ♦ Published April 18, 2017
Poet, actress, and performance artist Liza Jessie Peterson never thought that she would end up THERE, at Rikers Island, punching a clock for a paycheck. But due to financial circumstances in 2008, that’s where she found herself after agreeing to substitute teach for three weeks at Island Academy, the school program preparing incarcerated teen boys for their GED. What started as a three-week-stint turned into an offer of full-time teaching employment and the promise of a steady income, eventually culminating in more changes than anyone could have imagined.
Liza’s year of working with overwhelmingly Black and Latino young men is heart-achingly detailed as she teaches them grammar, writing, literature, vocabulary, and science from a self-created curriculum in “honoring our ancestors.” From the beginning to the end of her chronicle, she empowers these young men by teaching them the history of the giants who came before them, from ancient Africa to Malcolm X. Her students come to love and respect her as she showers them with tough love and high standards. Ultimately, however, Liza must decide if her art and passion or her love for these boys will take precedence in her life.
I highly enjoyed this book, with some conditions. First, it reminded me of my first career choice working with adolescent boys in a residential treatment center. Though I was a case manager and not a teacher at that time, my job entailed everything from crowd control to running groups on hygiene to modeling coping skills to making doctor’s appointments and talking frequently with judges and juvenile officers. The boys I worked with were often on their last chance before jail, but as we worked with them, it was easy to come to love them even as you wanted to shake them for things they would do and say. Working there is what showed me that kids are kids are KIDS. And that kids who make mistakes are in need of intervention and deserve to take that opportunity instead of being carted off to jail.
Secondly, Liza effortlessly works in key details and reminders about the unapologetic racial inequalities present in today’s judicial system, such as the school-to-prison pipeline and much harsher sentencing for youth of color. She gives example after example of wealth and status determining whether or not a teen’s life and learning will be interrupted; for example, a Black child whose family cannot afford a private attorney may sit in prison for months to years as his sentencing continues to be delayed over a marijuana offense. She draws attention to the fact that many marginalized youth would rather falsely admit guilt by taking a plea deal than try their luck at trial because at least a plea deal is a shorter punishment than waiting around for your public defender to, well, defend you. Over and over again, Liza pulls the reader into the lives of these children, some of whom’s offenses were nothing more than traffic ticket warrants, some whose offenses included murder. She is not hesitant to point out that in a full year of teaching, only two white kids came through her class and were bailed out within days.
Also, Liza very much speaks to the burnout that so many professionals experience in the fields of teaching, social services, and mental health. The reason I ended the summary with “she must choose between her art and her love for these boys” was quite intentional: lots of people might assume that makes her selfish beyond words. But I’m here to say IT’S NOT SELFISH AT ALL. For one, she has continued to work with kids in the prison system, just not in a full-time teacher capacity. For another, holy cow, “the system” is HARD work. Hard, hard, hard. Back-breaking. Exhausting. Emotionally and mentally crippling at times. Liza is not shy about describing the anxiety attacks, the stress, the fatigue. Watching COs that enjoy slapping kids around. Teen inmates being murdered in their cells. Teachers being forced into using curriculum resources and lesson plan templates that do not resonate with learners. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning, arriving home after dark, living life IN THE DARK of a prison system that sees Black and Latino youth as disposable criminals, and barely hanging onto optimism. Liza does a fabulous job as a teacher, and I often found myself cheering her on as I read, wishing desperately for more teachers like her to be working with our kids–
But ultimately, if one’s mental health is suffering, one cannot be at the best for others. So I fully support her decision to leave Rikers Island, and I applaud her for now working in the justice system for over 18 years. I appreciate that she is using her art and performance and writing to draw attention to the plight of our Black and Brown youth. To the plight of the poor. To the continued strength and power and resilience our children display. To the need for lightworkers to illuminate these injustices and bring down the walls of shame, prejudice, intolerance, fear, and hatred.
I do feel that she could have focused more on her own adjustments over the course of her year. For example, she talks about having panic attacks, but she doesn’t ever really describe being scared in the classroom (other than, “I can’t teach science!”). She describes herself as partly “thug genie mama” and details explosive moments in class in which she verbally lays in to the kids, but never describes any self-reflection–leaving out these self-reflective pieces seems that she’s writing from a place of “Man, I’m an awesome teacher! I’m not scared, so go me! I can get angry, too, and humiliate these kids if they deserve it! My only problems are with THE SYSTEM, not with myself!”
Now, I highly doubt that’s what she was going for, but the tone was definitely there. And it’s a distinct possibility that I’m reading too much of myself into it based on my own experiences of being scared in the classroom but remaining confident and calm; or losing it on my kids and immediately feeling like a pretty awful human being and apologizing to them for not being the adult in the room–and I’ve been working with teens since I was one, and professionally since 2005. Self-reflection is hugely important, especially in working with kids, and I just didn’t see much of that in this narrative.
However, this still ranks as one of the most important books I’ve read so far this year, and I would recommend it for older teens and all adults. I hope this becomes required reading in sociology courses, cause it’s that flagrantly and unapologetically in-your-face about what needs to change in our justice system. You can order a copy of All Day through Center Street Books!
About the Author*
Liza Jessie Peterson is a renowned actress, poet, playwright, educator and advocate. Liza has written several plays including her most recent one woman play The Peculiar Patriot, which embarked on a national prison tour where she performed in over 35 jails and penitentiaries across the country. She recently performed The Peculiar Patriot, opening for Angela Davis, at Columbia University’s conference on mass incarceration. Her plays have been featured in notable theater festivals and performed in various theaters, nationally and internationally.
Also known for her exceptional poetic skills, Liza began her poetry career at the famed Nuyorican Poets Café in the mid-90’s and was a vital member of the enclave of notable poets who were part of the “underground slam poetry/spoken word” movement before it attracted television cameras and became a national obsession. It was this electric group of artists that inspired Russell Simmons to bring “spoken word/slam poetry” to HBO where Liza appeared on two episodes of Def Poetry. She has shared the stage with luminaries such as Nona Hendryx, Toshi Reagon, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, Craig Harris, Vernon Reid, Rakim, Carl Hancock Rux and Sandra St. Victor to name just a few.
Liza has taught theater and poetry to urban and incarcerated youth for more than 15 years and counting. She created and developed The Urban Folktale Project, where her students created original plays based on their most pressing issues and performed it at several theaters around New York City. The project was so successful that it received a grant from Russell Simmons’ Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. The Urban Folktale Project has successfully produced three plays. Liza remains steadfastly committed to this population of youth (both at Rikers Island and at community based programs) where she has discovered inspiration and light in a dark place. *(taken from mappinternational.org)
To learn more about Liza, you can find and follow her on Twitter.