Told with equal parts raw honesty and unbridled compassion, Liza Jessie Peterson’s ALL DAY (Center Street; April 18, 2017; $27.00) recounts a year in her classroom at Island Academy, the high school for inmates detained at New York City’s Rikers Island. A poet and actress who had done occasional workshops at the correctional facility, Peterson was ill-prepared for a full-time stint teaching in the GED program for the incarcerated youths. For the first time faced with full days teaching the rambunctious, hyper, and fragile adolescent inmates, “Ms. P” comes to understand the essence of her predominantly Black and Latino students as she attempts not only to educate them, but to instill them with a sense of self-worth long stripped from their lives.
“I have quite a spirited group of drama kings, court jesters, flyboy gangsters, tricksters, and wannabe pimps all in my charge, all up in my face, to educate,” Peterson discovers. “Corralling this motley crew of bad-news bears to do any lesson is like running boot camp for hyperactive gremlins. I have to be consistent, alert, firm, witty, fearless, and demanding, and most important, I have to have strong command of the subject I’m teaching.” Discipline is always a challenge, with the students spouting street-infused backtalk and often bouncing off the walls with pent-up testosterone. Peterson learns quickly that she must keep the upper hand—set the rules and enforce them with rigor, even when her sympathetic heart starts to waver.
Despite their relentless bravura and antics—and in part because of it—Peterson becomes a fierce advocate for her students. She works to instill the young men, mostly black, with a sense of pride about their history and culture: from their African roots to Langston Hughes and Malcolm X. She encourages them to explore and express their true feelings by writing their own poems and essays. When the boys push her buttons (on an almost daily basis) she pushes back, demanding that they meet not only her expectations or the standards of the curriculum, but set expectations for themselves—something most of them have never before been asked to do. She witnesses many failures, but also some amazing successes as some of the boys come into their own under her tutelage.
Peterson vividly captures the prison milieu with its prisoner hierarchies, undercurrent of violence, and constant threat of potential rupture among the inmates and their keepers. She also captures the exuberance of the kids, many of whom have been handed a raw deal by society and have become lost within the system. Her time in the classroom teaches her something, too—that these boys want to be rescued. They want normalcy and love and opportunity—all of which has been denied.
“During my eighteen-year sojourn working with incarcerated youth in various capacities,” Peterson writes, “I learned that our children who wind up in the bowels of the mass incarceration beast have bountiful resilience, breathtaking creativity, and tremendous promise. They deserve our fierce attention, unyielding nurturing, and iron fist with a velvet glove kind of love. They don’t need sympathy but rather compassion. They don’t need coddling but discipline and direction. They don’t need to be lectured to but listened to and skillfully challenged. They don’t need to be condemned but encouraged. They don’t need to be written off but re-imagined.”
About the Author
LIZA JESSIE PETERSON has worked with incarcerated youth—both male and female—in various capacities for eighteen years as a teaching artist, poet-in-residence, NYC Board of Education full time GED teacher, re-entry specialist, outreach coordinator and most recently as a program counselor with the NYC Department of Corrections. She appeared on two seasons of HBO’s groundbreaking Def Poetry and was featured in Ava Duvernay’s critically acclaimed film 13th. Her one-woman stage play, The Peculiar Patriot, toured in over 35 penitentiaries across the country and the full production is scheduled to premiere in New York in Fall 2017. Liza is currently a freelance writer and actress living in Brooklyn.