There's nothing juvenile about the Prairie View School–at least from the outside. Its an old State Hospital–built in the 1930's is my guess–set on a hilltop on the outskirts of Waseca, a farming town in southwestern Minnesota. Foreboding on the outside with heavy roofline brows and stone sides, wire-meshed windows and fenced passage ways between buildings, the school has a similar gloominess inside. Worn granite flights of steps, heavy cast iron radiators cranking out the heat in the classrooms–and keypads on every door.
Buzz in, buzz out. Know the code. I have arrived with my books, my thoughts, and my No. 16 stock car and "motor novels" for young adults. I'll be here all day talking to the kids, ages 13-18. My crew chief and some staff unload the car from our enclosed trailer, and secure it on a (fenced) tennis court between buildings. I head inside to get oriented and prepare.
The Prairie View staff is a mix of men, women, younger and older, and they have the tonal quality of outdoors people. They are always watchful, observant; they seem to know what's happening behind them and in all directions. They have peripheral vision–especially when the students arrive.
Single file. It's an arresting image (poor choice of word) to see the kids enter in single file and wait for instructions. A handful of girls must sit on the left. Boys on the right. They are conditioned to ask permission for nearly everything. I do not know and have not asked why they are here, but a staff member confided that a few will eventually be "sentenced" for "up to two years." Some quickly re-offend in order to get back here, where there is order, not family chaos; where there's food and heat and a bed. Some say outright that their future will be prison.
In my first session (20 students, which is good), there is no real introduction, and I tell them about myself. Farm background. Small town high school. Hunt, fish, write, play some piano, father, husband. etc. I need them to have a sense of who I am. I go around the room and get their first names and where they are from (all over MN).
I talk some about college days, when I was partying too much my first two years, and had to change my scene. There's an uptick of interest, and I get a few questions about that. I talk about how sometimes we all need a different, a new set of friends. . . .
They've read a couple of my books. "Kids read quite a lot here," a staff member told me earlier. There's very limited TV, no internet access except in class. I talk about writing books–it's a process not a miracle–and make a big point of writing realistic fiction (as opposed to sci-fi or fantasy). Writing out of my own experiences. Taking my own life seriously. Trying to make sense of the life and times I landed in through no choice of my own. They have some good questions about the fiction.
When we talk about my stock car novel, I tell them about Skyler Smith, my 18 year old driver–how he was supposed to be here today but he's in "trouble". That he's in danger of not graduating from high school, and so losing his "ride." Trying not to be heavy-handed, I talk about Skyler holding up (or not) his end of our bargain. Of being (or not being) a good team member. The staff, interspersed around the room (and always watchful) nod their heads slightly. Their entire curricular theme is about Personal Responsibility....
To break up the session we go out to see the "Bookmobile" close up. Single file. Girls first. I notice something else about their movement: the kids stop at every doorway, every threshold, to look up or to hear permission to step through.
Outside in the biting air, we move in an orderly circle around the car. I explain things: the engine, chassis, safety features. "No, you can't sit in it. No we can't start it up!" The students laugh and are having fun. Then, too soon, it's back inside.
I read to them for awhile, do more Q & A, and soon my first session is over. On the way out, in a stolen moment at the back of the line, two boys pause. "Tell me again about why you had to switch schools and ditch your friends?" one of them asks. There's an urgency in his voice.
I say, "I had this feeling that I wasn't going anywhere. I was stuck. I wasn't moving forward."
"That's us, right now," the other boy says, and they laugh.
But it's a good laugh, and the first boy adds, "I've only got four months left."
After two more sessions, interspersed with a pot luck lunch put on by the staff, I meet with the teachers for half an hour of "professional development" chat--as if I could help them. But I promise to follow-up with a list of good YA fiction, authors I know that these students will like. We deconstruct the sessions. I ask about a thin, blonde girl in the third session, who alternated between annoyance and being totally absorbed in my talk--even raising her hand a couple of times to ask me things.
"She's new," a teach says. "It takes them a few days to let down their guard and understand that no one here is going to bully them or pick on them, like in regular high school. That doesn't happen here. Once they understand that, we can start to make progress."
Then I press them a bit about their jobs--about how they remain positive. "Humor," they say, and all laugh. A couple of older boys appear in the doorway. They each hold one of my books. They are 'graduates', in transition to the community on work internships, and I go to say Hello and sign their books. We chat briefly. They have a strong handshakes–a built confidence from their time here. Their grip on my hand, and their eyes directly on mine fill me with hope for all the kids, and a deep appreciation for the adults who help them.
As I leave the building, a sheriff's van arrives. Four teenagers get out. A large Deputy ushers the kids toward "Intake", as its called in the prison business. The kids walk awkwardly, and then I notice that they have leg restraints to keep them from running.