“In the Building,” a chapter from my memoir, “The New Plantation: Lessons from Rikers Island” that was adapted by “J Journal–New Writing on Social Justice”

In the Sprungs, I had grown completely comfortable with my job. I assumed the experience I had gained would be an asset in the Building. I was a little nervous that first day, but I was only nervous the way I always am when I meet a new group of students. If I had known that essentially I was going to have to start from scratch, I would have been far more nervous. 

I had no history with the kids. I hadn’t proven myself to them. I was just some “herb-ass” White man. 

I was given a nice, large classroom right across the hall from Ms. Peterson. When the first kid entered the room, I said, “Hey, what’s up?” I told him my name was Jason. He laughed at me. 

In the Sprungs, kids would definitely laugh at you. But normally, only if they were in a group. One-on-one, if a kid didn’t like you, he might not respond to you, but he wouldn’t laugh at you until his friends were there. This kid didn’t need a group. He could laugh at me all by himself. 

Now, while he didn’t need an audience, neither did he mind having one. In all, twelve kids entered the room that period. As soon as his friends joined him, he said, “This nigga a corny-ass motherfucker. He be talkin’ to me like, ‘Hello there. How are you today?’ ” 

I said, “You a lyin’ ass mo-fo. That’s not what I said. What I said was, ‘What’s up?’” 

“Say word to mother you didn’t say, ‘Hello there.’ Say word to mother.” 

“Word’s bond. You playing yourself. I hope someone’s got a shovel. Cause this motherfucker so full of shit we need ’ta start shovelin’ right now so we don’t drown.” 

The other students were smiling. They were looking back and forth between the two of us. They weren’t taking my side because I was new and I’m White. The good news was they weren’t not taking his side either. In the Sprungs I would have had them laughing by now, but up here in the Building they obviously had a better sense of humor. To get them to laugh, it was clear, I was going to have to work. 

The first kid I spoke to was beginning to look amused too, like maybe I had more game than he thought. I ask him his name. 

He told me his name was Elijah. I said, “Well, golly gee. Elijah. Now isn’t that a name that originates in the Bible?” 

He said, “See what I’m sayin’? That how he be talkin’ to me.” 

I said, “What ’chu talkin’ about? How you say I’m talkin’?” 

“Like you just did. ‘Golly gee’ and shit. 

I said, “Yo, man. Are you for real? I didn’t say that. Did any’a you hear me say ‘Golly gee’?” 

One kid said, “No,” and he was grinning big and then another kid agreed and Elijah started going nuts. 

He said, “Oh, so it like that, ha?” He was grinning now. 

I asked them their names and they all told me, though one kid claimed his name was “Nun-ya.” 

I said, “Oh, Nunya. What a nice name. Let me guess. Is your last name ‘Business’?” 

He looked annoyed and put his head on his desk. The rest of us talked for a while about what they’d been doing in English before I came. They were pissed off because their English teacher before me was Ms. Davis, an exceptionally nice Black woman whom I knew and respected. And here I was, neither Black nor woman. They didn’t seem to hold it against me. They held it against Ms. Jaynes for moving Ms. Davis to the other hall. 

At some point during that first class, a female correction officer walked past our door. One of the kids said, “Yo, Mister. Get that CO in here. She lookin’ for me.” 

I stepped into the hall and called to her. “Ma’am?” There weren’t a lot of women COs out there, but she was definitely the prettiest one I had seen. I told her a student in my room was claiming she was looking for him. 

She smiled as if she knew what was up but she came over to the door and stepped in. The kid who’d called for her had his hands in his pants and he was overtly jerking off right there. When I saw what was going on I said to him, “Man, you really know what’s up with women.” I apologized to the CO and she left, all smiles. This had apparently happened to her before. 

The kid said, “Why you be tellin’ her to go. You’s a dumb motherfucker.” 

“You’re catchin’ money in front of a woman you don’t even know, and I’m the dumb motherfucker? You’re killin’ me, bro.” 

“Where you hear that at?” one of the kids asked. “Hear what?” 

“Catchin’ money.” 

“I’ve been teaching in the Sprungs until now,” I said, “and that’s where I heard it.” 

“Why you be coming over here now?” one of them asked. 

“Good question. I don’t really know. Ms. Jaynes told me to.” 

“Niggas in the Sprungs got you under pressure?” 

“Yeah, just like you guys got me under pressure. I don’t know why they sent me here. I liked it out there, but it looks like it’ll be okay here too. I don’t much care.” 

“How long you be out there for?” 

“Nearly two and a half years.” 

“Which trailer you in?” 

“The third one.” 

“Who be teachin’ there?” 

“Mr. Scott, Dr. Steele, Mr. Paddin, Mr. Cumberbatch, Mr. Malcore. Why? Did you spend some time out there?” 

“Yeah, but before you came. When I was there Mr. H was there.” 

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard he was a nice guy. I took his place, actually, after he left.” 

“Mr. H, he a good teacher.” 

“That’s what I’ve heard.” 

When that first class ended, though I felt relieved, I believe that was the first moment I considered leaving Rikers. 

Most of the classes had under fifteen students except the one in Ms. Peterson’s room. She had about twenty-five kids and going in there seemed like hell after a while. But on the first day I didn’t have any problems. 

It was always like that out there. As long as you didn’t try to get anything done other than get to know the kids, things went smoothly. But as soon as you began to put pressure on them to do some work, it got difficult. They were in jail. They were worried about what was going to happen in court. They were worried about what was going on at home with their friends and families. Expecting them to do school work under those conditions was asking a lot. I could barely get myself to do school work when I was their age. 

I spent the first class focusing on getting to know them and just talking to them about things that mattered to them, and I let them ask me questions about my personal life. They all wanted to know if I was married, if I had kids, how old they were, where I grew up, if I lived in Bensonhurst, if I ate “the pussy,” if I’d ever had sex with a Black woman. 

Another question they asked me was the one about if someone offered me a million dollars to kill someone and I knew I wouldn’t get caught, would I do it. 

By now I’d come to realize that this was the question many Rikers kids asked adults to see if they could trust them. If the adult answered, “No,” then the adult was clearly a liar. The thought that someone would not kill for a million dollars on principle was unthinkable to most of them, given the people they had encountered and the bits and pieces of news they had heard about politicians and the rich and famous. 

I asked them how many of them would do it. Every kid in the class raised his hand. I said, “I realize that in asking that question, you’re trying to find out if I’m a bullshitter. Kids in the Sprungs asked me that same question. The thing is, I believe if I’d grown up like some of you may have grown up—and I don’t actually know how any of you as individuals grew up, but I know how many of the kids in the Sprungs told me they grew up—and if I had grown up like that, I suspect I’d kill for a million dollars too. But I’ve got to tell you, if you were to ever meet my father, I think you’d believe me when I say that I wouldn’t kill for a million dollars. When he was twelve years old, he bought a .22 for something like twelve dollars from Sears and Roebuck.” 

“Twelve dollars for a .22?” a kid named Tyson said. “Your father be telling some stories.” 

The kids all laughed. 

“No, seriously,” I said. “Twelve dollars. He still has it. I’ve shot it.” 

“Okay,” he said. “Then, you telling stories. Didn’t no one buy no .22 for no twelve dollars.” 

“Sure he did. You guys ever heard of inflation? Anyone?” 

“Yeah,” said a kid named Brunel. “That’s when your money isn’t worth anything.” 

“Yeah, basically. When there’s inflation, money becomes worth less and less over time. So it takes more money over time to get ahead. And when my father was a kid you could buy a loaf of bread for like twentyfive cents and a simple house for a couple thousand dollars. And you could buy a brand-new, single-shot .22 for twelve dollars. It’s actually a very nice gun. It’s a bolt action, single-shot .22. At any rate, when he got it—” 

“Where’d he get the money at?” Brunel said. 

“He had a paper route. He delivered papers to people every morning before school. He probably didn’t even make a dollar a week doing that, but he saved his money and bought the rifle. He’s always been like that. I can’t save money, but he’s always been good at it. So like I was saying, when he got the thing, he took it out in the woods near where he lived—” 

“Where he be living at?” said Tyson. 

“East Wilton, Maine.” 

“East Wilton, Maine? They be fucking pigs out in there, right?” 

“Why?” I asked. “You looking for a place like that?” 

Everyone laughed, Tyson too. 

“I’m sayin’,” he said. 

“What are you saying? Are you saying yes?” 

They laughed some more. “Anyway, so he was out there in the woods and he saw a squirrel and he shot it. And when he saw the squirrel’s body, he sat down on a tree stump and cried and vowed never to kill another thing in his life.” 

“He a herb,” someone said. 

“Well, maybe,” I said. “But he was also a war hero.” 

“Wait a second,” said Brunel. “I thought you said he didn’t kill.” 

“That’s just it. It was something that bothered him even though he personally never did any killing.” 

“Well, if he didn’t kill, how was he a war hero?” 

“He was in the Air Force—well, actually, the Army Air Corps. He was awarded two Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was a navigator on a B-29, the largest airplane that existed back in World War Two. It was a bomber. But he didn’t drop the bombs. He was the plane’s navigator. That’s the guy who figures out how to get the plane to where the bombs need to be dropped. And he always felt ambivalent about it. You guys know that word? Ambivalent?” 

“Yeah,” said Brunel. “That’s how I feel while I’m fucking your wife.”

 “Oh,” I said. “So you’re that guy? She’s been talking in her sleep about some guy with a little dick.” 

Everyone laughed and Brunel smiled. 

“Anyway,” I continued. “In terms of killing, my father made an exception for insects and fish, but even with those two species, he would often catch them and let them go. And he brought me up to think that life—all life—is precious. It’s really the only thing that’s worth anything, when you think about it. You know? Cause when you die, it’s not as if you can take your possessions with you.” 

“You can’t take your life with you either.” 

“That’s true.” 

“So how’s life different?” 

“That’s a great question, Brunel. I think life is different because it’s what makes everything else possible—at least temporarily. Without life you couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t have anything, you couldn’t know anything, you couldn’t feel anything, you couldn’t experience anything. What else is there that’s like that? A million dollars isn’t like that. If you’ve got a million dollars but you don’t have life, there’s no you to spend it. But if you’ve got life without a million dollars, a lot can happen. You don’t need a million dollars, but you need your life.” 

“Yeah, but if you’ve got life, you can experience bad things too.” 

“That’s true.” 

“So what’s so great about life?” 

“Another good question and, ultimately, I guess I don’t have a good answer for it. But at least if you have life, you have the potential, the possibility to experience good things.” 

“What if someone give you a million dollars if you kill some homeless man,” said Tyson. 

“No. I couldn’t live with myself. I would feel terrible for the rest of my life that I had taken the only thing the man had, his life, and that I had done it so that I could be living large.” 

“What’s wrong with living large?” said Brunel. 

“Nothing, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of another person. And just think about his relatives. I don’t want to steal this man from his relatives.” 

“What if he was homeless and didn’t have relatives?” 

“I wouldn’t do it.” 

“What if he was a killer?” 

“No.” 

“Now you’re bullshitting,” said Brunel. 

“Okay,” said Tyson. “What if he a killer and homeless and he don’t got relatives and he gonna die in ten minutes anyway.” 

“No.” 

“Man, you a freak,” he said. 

“And a liar,” added another kid. 

I said, “Do you think killing is right? Do you honestly believe killing is right? And I’m not talking about if you’re the one doing the killing. Do you want people running around killing each other whenever they feel like it?” 

Some of them thought they did. I asked how many of them either had kids or wanted to have kids. They all raised their hands. I said, “Imagine you’ve got a baby daughter, and someone comes around and kills her for a million dollars. How are you going to feel?” 

Tyson said, “I’m gonna feel like bustin’ a cap in that motherfucker’s ass. But first I’m gonna bust a cap in his hands, in his arms, in his feet, his ankles, his shins, his dick, and I’m gonna leave him like that so he suffers. And then after he passes out, I’m gonna wake his ass up and kill his sorry self. Don’t no one be killing my baby daughter.” 

“Exactly. And do you want to live in a world in which people are going around and killing each other like that?”

 I went into my Thomas Hobbes spiel about how without the social contract life would be ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ 

“You want to live like that?” I asked. “If you had a choice, wouldn’t you rather have everyone having all the shit they need and no one is killing anyone else for their shit?” 

They thought about it for a while. Brunel laughed and said he’d like to have everyone else be peaceful and for him to be the only criminal. That idea was one they all went for. 

“So,” I said. “It looks like you wouldn’t be the only one for long. All of your classmates would join you. And other people are going to have the same idea. If you want to live in a better world, then you have to stop doing that shit and have faith that other people are going to stop.” 

They told me that life wasn’t ever going to be like that on this earth. I agreed that there would always be crime, but the fewer people who did it, the better, and every time one person stops, that makes things a little better. And the only person that I could really stop from doing crime was myself. And if I do that, then my kids will know and hopefully they won’t do crime either. 

“What about smoking buddha?” Brunel asked.

“What about it?” 

“Is smoking buddha a crime?” 

“It is right now, but I don’t think it should be.” 

“So you think weed should be legalized?” 

“Definitely.” 

“Why?” said Tyson. “You be smoking that shit, right?” 

“I think it should be legalized because it doesn’t work to make it illegal. It didn’t work to make alcohol illegal either when they had the prohibition. How many of you are in here because of selling weed?” 

Four of them raised their hands. 

“How many of you who are here on weed never stuck anyone up or committed a violent crime?” 

One kid raised his hand. When he saw he was the only one, he lowered it and looked embarrassed. One of the other kids said to him, “You a herb,” and two other kids repeated it. 

I said, “How’s he a herb? He’s never stuck a kid up. How’s that being a herb?” 

Without having to stop to think about it a kid said, “Cause if he don’t stick people up, then other people be stickin’ him up.”

 I said, “I don’t follow your logic. What do you mean?” 

Tyson explained it: “There ain’t but two types of niggas. Niggas who be robbin’ and niggas who be getting robbed.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’ve never robbed anyone and I’ve never been robbed.” 

“Yeah, but you don’t be livin’ where we live.” 

“I live in Williamsburg. I’ve met kids in here from Williamsburg.” 

“Where you live in Williamsburg?” 

I told him. 

“People don’t be robbin’ people up in there where you be living. South of Metropolitan down toward the bridge, down there niggas be robbin’ niggas. Go down there in about three more months, and I’ll hook you up.” 

We all laughed. 

I wanted clarification. “So you mean to tell me that where you come from, everyone either robs or gets robbed.” 

They all agreed—that’s how it was. Then one of them added, “Some be doin’ both.” 

A few years later, I began teaching in a small town high school in Maine. One day a group of honors freshmen asked me what teaching on Rikers had been like. I told them about it and I mentioned being asked the question: “If you were promised a million dollars for killing someone and you knew you wouldn’t get caught, would you do it?” The honors kids asked me, “What did you say?” 

“What do you mean what did I say? I said no.” 

I could see from their faces that they were surprised. So I asked the question of them: “How many of you would kill for a million dollars?” 

One of them asked, “And I wouldn’t get caught?” 

“Right,” I said. “You wouldn’t get caught.” 

Nearly all of the kids in the room raised their hands. Here they were, middle class kids. They’d all grown up in relative comfort and relative stability. 

I said to them, “Are you kidding me? You would actually take another person’s life just so you could have a million dollars?” 

One of them said, “A million dollars is a lot of money.” 

Later that year I had those same kids write persuasive essays about capital punishment. Nearly all of them were in favor of it. I said, “But what about the fact that you said you would kill for a million dollars?” 

One young woman justified it with, “But you said we wouldn’t get caught.”

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