Several years ago during my tenure as an educational consultant, I was sitting in a classroom watching an excellent teacher engage every student in her room. They volunteered answers, respectfully commented on each other’s opinions and seemed genuinely thrilled about learning. No one acted out and no one refused to do what the teacher asked. It was the dream lesson teachers strive to achieve every day they teach. It was the ideal classroom.
Then I remembered where I was sitting: juvenile detention.
I scanned the room, noticing the gray sweatpants, various-colored T-shirts, and the slip-on Vans. No one held a pencil longer than three inches since it could be used as a weapon. Many had tattoos creeping up their respective necks or down past their wrists. When it was time to do their independent work, they focused on their computers while two correction officers strolled down the aisles.
I knew each child had a heartbreaking story and to be sentenced to detention meant the kid had done something horrible or couldn’t stop committing a minor infraction and detention was the last resort. Yes, these were the bad kids but they sure didn’t act like it. What was different? As a school principal, I knew kids like this—in fact, I saw one there that had been at my school. They were constantly in trouble and consumed dozens of hours in finding services, working with the courts, supporting the families, and working with the police. Still, very little improved.
When I asked the detention principal, Frank Burnsed, why these habitually unsuccessful students were suddenly finding success and planning for a bright future, he explained that once the temptations were removed, as well as poor role models and a culture of the streets, many of the kids thrived. We spoke about life after jail and he shook his head. While some of the students would never see the inside of a cell again, many would return and a decent percentage would face prison. A lot of the kids hated the idea of leaving detention because they knew what waited for them.
I thought about those kids and what it would take to change the trajectory of their lives so they could thrive and be successful. It would take a lot of money, changing a lot of laws that keep the poor and minorities down, dispelling some long-held notions about “family,” and admitting that for many of our kids, the current educational system is broken.
The Convincing Hour is both a love letter to all of my students and an answer to the question I asked myself. Story Black is a survivalist, taking care of herself and her genius-I.Q. mother, Patty, a meth addict. Story wants something better for herself and she realizes that road leads through the local juvenile detention facility to a school designed by Charlotte Barnaby, a former principal who wins the largest lottery ever. The only person standing between Story and her future is Patty.
Can Story stand up to Patty and rewrite her predictable future?