Reader Redux: "True Notebooks"

The memoir “True Notebooks” begins similarly to many education dramas: a man walks into a raucous classroom filled with at-risk youth. Anybody who has seen “Freedom Writers,” “Stand and Deliver,” or “Coach Carter” can predict how the rest of the story should go: the man will slowly win over the troubled teens and—despite seemingly insurmountable odds—the students will flourish and become fine, on-track young adults. The beauty in “True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” is in its ability to transcend this worn-out narrative.

In the book, author Mark Salzman tracks his challenging first year as a writing teacher at Los Angeles’s Central Juvenile Hall. Salzman is deeply wary of his memoir becoming a feel-good, bootstrappin’ tale. In fact, at the beginning of the story, when Salzman is trying to talk himself out of teaching the class, he writes, “Reasons not to get involved…The Cliché Problem: white guy with everything going for him telling dark-skinned kids in prison that art matters.” By acknowledging this risk from the start, “True Notebooks” defies cliché and instead offers a candid narrative of juvenile hall and the boys who live there. It was this authenticity of the book that gave me critical perspective at two distinct times in my life.

I first read “True Notebooks” in seventh grade. Like many great books, it transported me into a world different from my own. Through Salzman’s recollections I discovered the inner workings of L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall; through inmates’ poems and essays I saw gang fights, drive-by shootings, and Russian roulette. Yet the book gave me a different perspective than other books and movies about inner city America. Other accounts of wayward youth led me to believe that a strong role model and a positive attitude was all it took to turn someone’s life around. “True Notebooks” shattered that illusion.

Many of the boys featured in “True Notebooks” face bleak futures. Kevin Jackson—my favorite character and arguably Salzman’s favorite student—shows tremendous growth throughout the story. He becomes a leader in the classroom and helps recruit others to join the class. He shows true remorse for the gang-related shooting that ended in the death of a teenager—even though he belongs to a rival gang—and in Salzman he finds a role model. Yet, in the penultimate chapter, Jackson’s sentencing at the end of his time at Juvenile Hall results in 66 years to life in federal prison, and he is immediately transferred to a maximum-security facility near Sacramento. Kevin’s story was devastating, but it provided some much-needed perspective. “True Notebooks” stood in my seventh-grade mind as a worthy counter-narrative to standard white savior spiels, deserving in its unwillingness to be anything other than an account of harsh reality.

My second reading of “True Notebooks” left me feeling not depressed, but inspired. When I revisited the book last year, its subject matter was no longer alien to me. I was working full-time at a middle school in Watts—a neighborhood in south Los Angeles historically known for intense gang violence. I was assigned to assist a class of eighth graders, all of whom had scored “far below basic” on the California Standards Test. The harsh realities I had learned about in “True Notebooks” were right in front of me: gang fights occurred nearly every week, gunshots interrupted class on more than one occasion, and my students continued to fail test after test. I had no illusions that I would be the hero in a beautiful underdog story.

In March, my favorite student was sentenced to six months for a gang-related crime. I knew he would be sent to L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, the very place I had come to know when I first found “True Notebooks.” I picked up the story again to try to gain perspective on where my student would be spending his 14th birthday and summer vacation.I left the book once more with a renewed outlook on the world. The last page of the memoir is a poem that Jackson sent to Salzman from his high security cell. In the poem, Jackson outlines the bleakness of his situation, yet maintains a hopeful attitude:

“I still have a long journey to go / But I’ll be free again / I’ll use this time to grow / In not just one way, but all / There’s a lot for me to learn / So I’m gonna start like a baby, with a crawl.”

With my rereading of the poem, Kevin Jackson’s story—the very story that had depressed me in seventh grade—became a beacon of hope. No, Kevin’s life was not going to be filled with success or happiness. Yes, Kevin would probably spend the rest of his life in jail. And yet, the existence of a book that captured Kevin’s story was reassuring, even hopeful; I could truly believe this cautious optimism for the simple reason of Salzman’s commitment to the truth.

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