Fresh out of college, with a studio art degree under my belt, I saw a job listing for an art teacher position at a juvenile detention center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Without knowing much about juvenile detention, other than the fact that without my privilege, I probably could have landed in one myself as a teenager, I applied. When I got the job, I had no idea how my students would come to transform my life both as a person, and an artist. I have been so inspired by the strength, resilience, and perseverance that my students exhibit daily, that I can’t imagine teaching in a different setting.
The students who attend juvenile detention are kids, anywhere from age 13 to 21. They are kids who have been dealt life’s hardest hand. They’ve experienced anything from abandonment, hardship, grief, addiction, gun violence, and/or poverty. They are kind, angry, energetic, damaged, creative… you name it. While all my students have gone through a different set of struggles in life, they have one thing in common: Resilience. Despite being locked up, despite being pushed away, despite their childhood having been cut short, they are the strongest group of people I have ever met. They keep smiling, pushing, hoping. They are fighters.
Everything about juvenile detention is comparable to jail; door buzzers, pat downs, officers always monitoring, rec yards, etc. There is one major difference though, and that is our education department. Murals paint our hallways, teachers are warm and loving, the class sizes are tiny. In my classroom, my students are allowed to play *clean* versions of their favorite songs, they can dance, they can walk around the room without being asked to “relocate.” The freedoms I allow in my classroom give my students the ability to create freely, without judgement or intimidation. The work that they create in this space is powerful, enough to move even the officers to tears.
Over the years, I have watched art become an anchor for my students. I once had a student tell me at the end of class, “art is the only time in my day when I don’t feel like I’m locked up.” This isn’t a testament to my teaching abilities, but rather the power that art has on the human mind. While creating, we can turn our brains off of the negatives, we can build anything we want to imagine. There is a freedom that comes with creating, that even a locked-down facility can’t take away from you.