Playing spades with juvenile delinquents

| Staff Columnist

By senior year, most students at Washington University have been to four activities fairs and participated, however briefly, in more than 10 extracurricular activities. We are flooded by opportunities to get involved, find our passions and contribute to our communities. I love this about our University; we do find time to prioritize something other than schoolwork and our social lives.

I started volunteering at the Juvenile Detention Center in downtown St. Louis my freshman year. It has been the only extracurricular activity I have participated in for all four years at Wash. U., and it has been by far the most meaningful one. Many people are skeptical about volunteering with criminals, no matter their age or offense. Year after year at the activities fair, I sit and watch people’s reactions to our cause. Every now and then I spot a person looking at my table with a mixture of confusion, fear and more rarely, disgust. I guess it makes sense: they don’t want to offer affection to the kids who have stolen cars, sold drugs or committed assault. So when they see that a group of Wash. U. students goes to hang out with these “delinquents” a few times every week, their reactions aren’t sympathetic.

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about my volunteering at the center. He was shocked. “Anna,” he said with a hint of chauvinistic concern, “aren’t you worried about your safety? Couldn’t they hurt you? Isn’t there somewhere else to volunteer?” It was at that point I realized, first, that never once had I been worried about my personal safety at the Center, and secondly, how many terrible misconceptions there are about these youth.

This past Monday was a great day at the Center. The boys were divided into units by age, and we were with the youngest unit, ages 13-14, and the middle unit, which is 15-16. I was lucky enough to play one of my favorite card games, Spades, with three of the guys. I love Spades, and I especially love playing with the boys at the Center because no matter how hard I try I am always the weakest player. I leave reminded of the fact that although these guys may have trouble in school, they are by no stretch of the imagination stupid. Their ability to count cards, read people’s plays and predict my next discard demonstrates a mental agility that I would love to have.

They kept asking me about college: “What is it like? Do you party a lot? Do you have lock-ins?” I explained as best I could what Wash. U. is like, telling about coed dorms, long nights of studying and that Thursday is often considered part of the weekend. They all told me that they want to go to college some day, preferably soon.

And then, out of the blue, one of the boys, Marcus, looked at me and said, “We aren’t bad people; do you know that? We aren’t. We are people that have made bad decisions.” I was pleasantly struck by this reflective introspection, and I reassured him that I knew they weren’t bad people; that I wouldn’t come every week if I thought they were. Then he explained to me that he made bad decisions because he grew up under tough conditions, and that it was easy to make bad choices where he was from. I was so distracted by feelings of maternal warmth for this boy that I accidentally overplayed my partner who would have taken the trick. He sighed, the other two eyed each other and grinned and I thought about what Marcus said.

This isn’t the first time one of the teens at the center asked us not to judge them too harshly. A few years ago a boy told us that the world thought that they were all monsters and wondered if we got paid to spend time with them. I think that’s why I’ve never been concerned for my safety with these boys—they want us to like them. They honestly appreciate that we volunteer because we want to, not because we have to.

I don’t naïvely pretend that every person held at that Center is a sweet child who, forced by inescapable outside influences, makes an understandable mistake that lands him there.

The majority of them have committed crimes and they deserve to be punished for those crimes. I do, however, feel very strongly that these youth want to be taken seriously; they want to be understood; many of them realize on a deep level that they are the product of their unpleasant surroundings. They are also terribly aware of what people think of them and they don’t pretend to be unaffected by it.

In the past four years I have become acutely aware how easy, and wrong, it is to underestimate the intelligence and amiability of Missouri’s troubled youth. These kids deserve a chance, and in our plethora of opportunities to volunteer, I feel lucky to have found this one.

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