The shouts echo through the near-empty room, and while the volume of voice and harshness of his tone would make any normal person wince, the boy he is screaming at doesn’t budge. In fact, he seems to be staring past the raving man and putting his best defiant face forward. He might seem like he isn’t listening to the man talk about how he got to prison and what all of his experiences in prison have done to him as a person, but someone thinks he is. More than likely this person is his teacher or a mentor or the head of some program that’s meant to take kids off the streets and make them realize that if they continue their behavior, they will have a very hard life.
The inspiration for such an experience is Scared Straight!, a 1978 documentary that showed a group of juvenile delinquents spending three hours with a group of convicts. Most of the delinquents had been in and out of trouble with the law and the idea was to have them face reality and change their lives. For the most part–although there definitely are critics of the program who say it wasn’t–the teenagers were “scared straight” and the documentary inspired several other television specials, including follow-up shows, and local scared straight programs that were conducted through sheriff’s departments and public schools.
I wasn’t the the type of student to ever wind up in a scared straight program. I was an honors student and my life was very straight and narrow; I hadn’t stolen so much as a pack of gum in my lifetime and never even had an overdue library book. However, in the spring of my junior year of high school, I found myself standing in the middle of a prison cafeteria watching my friend get reamed by a guy named Tracy and his fellow inmate, Cedric. Of course, we weren’t tough-as-nails juvenile delinquents and I think that the two of us would have both urinated all over ourselves if we went on the trip not knowing that we were going to get yelled at by felons because we were not in the scared straight program but part of an 11th grade social studies elective called You and the Law.
In the annals of Sayville High School electives history, You and the Law was probably considered one of the second-tier courses. It wasn’t as sought after as Urban Studies, which was the New York City trip-heavy class that every senior and his or her brother seemed to take; however, it wasn’t as niche as humanities or creative writing. The subject matter seemed boring in the course catalog because nobody outside of mock trial geeks like myself really had that much interest in the law, but I think that served the course well. Our class didn’t have as many idiots enrolled as I had to deal with in my psychology elective, and it really wasn’t as hard or boring as you’d think. Our teacher was Mr. Gerbino, who was also my social studies teacher at the time and was more or less “the voice of Sayville High School,” so called because he ran the PA at Saturday afternoon football games and there are many fall afternoons that I remember standing in my yard and hearing his “First down, Sayyyyyville!” from two miles away. The guy was a very easy teacher to get along with and honestly, the course proved to mostly be a way for him to show the episodes of Law & Order he had on tape.
So there were movies, and guest lectures from police officers, but the one big incentive for taking the course was that You and the Law had two field trips attached to it (and anyone can tell you that field trips were crucial when scheduling): one to the Suffolk County court, and one to Suffolk County jail.
The court trip was pretty boring, but then again, any court trip is. We went inside the courtroom of a judge who insisted that defendants and witnesses dressed for the occasion and if they weren’t, had neckties on hand for them to wear. All we were able to see were two assistant DAs accept a plea bargain before the judge took a few moments to talk about his job and what goes on in his courtroom. Then we went to McDonald’s.
The jail trip, on the other hand, was for my naive sixteen-year-old self, an earth-shaking experience. I had thought, when we were headed out, that we were going to like one of the prisons we’d seen in some of the movies we’d watched in class, but as we passed through the metal detectors and met our tour guide, I discovered that this was more or less “lock-up” and not Sing Sing or Attica and that prisoners didn’t wear the black and white stripes that I’d seen Lex Luthor and Otis wearing in Superman II. I was also surprised at the amount of work the prisoners did for themselves in the jail and that despite the fact that this was a place for punishment there was some sense of community, even if the prisoners did seem to like to do nasty things to the food that was headed out to the cafeteria.
After our orientation, the guard who was leading us on our tour took us through the cell block and I was reminded of the hospital tour scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, although to my knowledge, Jeff Spicoli didn’t stow away on the bus and tell Mr. Gerbino that he was in the class “today.” Anyway, we were led through that cell block and the prisoners, who were mostly hanging around and watching whatever daytime talk show was running on the television mounted to the wall outside of the cells, decided to take time out from that busy schedule of hanging around to yell at us from the other side of the bars. As we walked by, we heard cat calls at the girls and nasty language for the guys. I am sure, though, that I heard one of them tell me how pretty I looked. I was dressed in a maroon Aeropostale button-down shirt with antique-washed Gap jeans and a brown braided leather belt. I looked like I was going to go take a family portrait or something instead of tour a home for the incarcerated. Although I honestly have no idea why any of them would have thought I was pretty.
But that was nothing compared to the cafeteria. We had seen Scared Straight: Ten Years After, so we weren’t surprised that the tour guard asked us to line up shoulder to shoulder in two rows facing one another and that two men were going to talk to us. I am not sure that we expected to be yelled at, considering that we weren’t kids from the ‘hood. Shit, I don’t think any of us had even dared see Boyz ‘n the Hood in the theater because we’d seen so many news stories about people getting into fights outside of them (which, when you think of it, was pretty racist on the part of the media. Don’t go see the black movie … you might get jacked! And sadly, I bought into that bullshit as a teenager).
Cedric was the first. He was wearing a jumpsuit but it was dark green and had an afro that had balded in several places, so it looked like there had been paths carved out of it. He was shorter than I was (I’d hit six feet earlier that year) and seemed to be pacing very deliberately up and down the room between our two rows of students. Tracy stood behind him and was a mammoth presence, being probably six foot four and with the build of a linebacker. I guess you could say he had his boy’s back.
Cedric and Tracy talked about how every day in prison you had to watch your step, adn how they had done things to other prisoners to show how tough they are. This included roughing people up as well as depositing various bodily waste and other fluids into cafeteria food. If you were the scared new kid you weren’t safe because you were going to taken down and made someone’s bitch right away. If you were Mr. Tough, you weren’t safe because there were plenty of people out there who were going to prove how tough you weren’t and you were going to be taken down and made someone’s bitch. I suspect that the men hooting at me thought of me as the former and knowing how much of a pussy I was through high school, I’m sure I would have been.
It’s funny how selfish you become in this situation. As the two were going on about a life of crime, I thought of how I wasn’t going to be that person. Every detail of Cedric’s violent past came out and it was meant to make us make promises to ourselves that we wouldn’t wind up like him. But I was thinking things like, “Well, that won’t be me because I’m not like you,” and I found myself getting more smug with each factoid. By the end of their lecture, I was doing my best to avoid wearing a shit-eating grin that said, “I’m out there and you’re in here, sucka!!!” And I would have walked out of that place with my head held high if the yelling hadn’t started.
Cedric began asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was innocent enough, probably a way for him to make a point about how we all need to have direction in our lives (although honestly, I know quite a few people who spent half of their twenties with little to no direction and seemed to turn out fine. But I digress), and it was rather germane until the girl standing next to me said, “I don’t know.”
“YOU DON’T KNOW? HOW DO YOU DON’T KNOW?!” he started screaming. She said nothing and her face went beet red, so Cedric decided to get right up in her face and rant and rave about how he killed people and beat up people and shit in their food and how she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life and if that was the case, SHE WAS GOING TO WIND UP EXACTLY LIKE HIM!!! The tour guard at the end of the row stood there with Mr. Gerbino and did nothing. In fact, I think that Cedric could have unhinged his jaw and swallowed her whole like that woman in V and they still would have done nothing.
He ranted for probably about a minute but it honestly felt like five or ten and when he was done he turned to me and screamed, “WHAT ABOUT YOU?!”
“Lawyer,” I blurted out as quickly as possible before he moved on to my friend Brendan, who had a grin plastered on his face. I’m sure that one or more people in the room did have a case of the church giggles–we’d all seen teachers go off about bad test grades or piss poor behavior and it was sometimes hard not to laugh our asses off when they were doing it–but he wasn’t the type for that. No, Brendan would laugh his ass off in a situation like that because … well, that shit was funny.
“WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?!” Cedric began to rant and rave. I think Brendan replied, “Nothing,” but the inmate never heard that because he was already off again on his vivid descriptions of bitch-making and cafeteria food ejaculation. Tracy remained silent through most of it but joined in a few times and then took the time to yell at a couple more classmates before the tour guard asked us to thank them for their time. Then, they headed back to their cells and we went to McDonald’s.
I pulled an A in You and the Law and my life of crime? Well, the most trouble I’ve ever been in with the law has been a speeding ticket or two; then again, I was never bound for a record anyway. Still, I think it serves anyone well to spend a few days being yelled at by a guy you’d never want to encounter in a dark alley.
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