“Coke or Pepsi?” “Coke.” “McDonalds or Wendy’s?” “McDonalds” “LeBron James or Dwight Howard?” “LeBron.” “Winter or spring?” “Spring.”
I’m playing a game of This or That with Dequane. He’s about 5’4’’ with inquisitive brown eyes and a soft smile.
“Jay Z or Kanye?” “Jay Z.” “NBA or NFL?” “NBA.” “Rap or hip hop?” “Hip Hop.” “Ice cream: vanilla or chocolate?” “Vanilla.”
Choosing between NBA stars and ice cream flavors is easy for Dequane. But talking about his life beyond the surface is a challenge. The 18-year-old says seeing past his bright orange jumpsuit and current address, 130 Plymouth Avenue, otherwise known as the Monroe County Jail, can be a hard pill for some people to swallow.
“They think just cause they see me in an orange jumpsuit, they think I'm a bad kid and everything just cause I threw my life away on one mistake that I made but not really I’m not a bad kid.” Dequane says.
Dequane is part of a special class at the jail called Arts, Literacy and the Classroom Community. It’s a partnership between the state Literary Center, the Monroe County Jail and the Rochester City School District. He says the class is helping him overcome some of his challenges.
“I hold my feelings back a whole lot but sometimes you gotta learn how to let everything go instead of letting it build up inside you and then you just have this volcano ready to erupt inside you but sometimes you just gotta let everything go." Dequane says.
And letting everything go for the youth inmates in this class means expressing themselves through writing. For some of them it’s the first time they’ve ever written.
Dale Davis is the founder and artistic director of the New York State Literary Center. She’s also, as Dequane describes her, the fearless leader of the class.
"She can help kids with a lot like a lot of struggles that they go through. Some kids that go through a lot they don't want to tell people so what she's doing is helping kids write it down.” Dequane says.
“I’m going around to each student to see where they are and questioning questioning to bring their writing out. These students have been on the streets. I'm asking them to reflect. In order to break that street thinking I want them to think about what they've done,” says Davis.
Writing about the mistakes they’ve made in life and sharing their feelings on paper is just the first step. Then the youth inmates read their stories, in their own words, in a recorded presentation for all of Rochester to hear.
“To tell the truth I went to school every day. This is what I was raised to do. Principals knew I was a good student, good grades, good attendance. The problem was I got in trouble with the law, and I knew I was going to jail. I stopped going. I don’t know what would have brought me to school then really….," Dequane reads.
Seven youth inmates, including Dequane, are reading their personal stories. They are stories about wrong choices, dropping out of school and even death. But they are also stories about family, love and a future.
I ask Dequane how it feels to write his feelings down on paper. "It's easy to me cause me, I don't like to talk about a whole lot - like my father my grandmother's death I don't like to talk about that so I just write it down," he responds.
“It started when I was 12 years old, the smoking, the staying out late. The only reason I can think of for these things is my father passed away on June 7, 2005. My father was my best friend. The day he died part of me died…"
“They have hearts, they have feelings and they have minds and they want a chance. And yes some of them have not done, they've done bad things…I'm not sure everyone can be rehabilitated. I know that's not the case. There are some who are not going to be rehabilitated. I’m saying let's just open our eyes and see what's in Rochester. We talk about so much but these young men are part of our community too,” says Davis.
Dequane shares what he wants most from life. "I want for myself to finish school, go to college and make something out of my life.”
A recording of the students’ reading will eventually go up on the state Literary Center’s website for the public hear. The inmates say it’s a chance to dispel some of the misconceptions people may have of them. They say it’s also a chance to reveal their vulnerabilities often hidden behind their tough exterior.