How It Feels to Be a Black Woman Teaching Boys of Color Behind Bars
In her new book, "All Day," poet and playwright Liza Jessie Peterson chronicles her year of teaching mostly Black and Latino boys inside New York City's vicious Rikers Island jail. Herewith, a Q&A.
Before New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to closing Rikers Island Correctional Center, Kalief Browder’s suicide or even the public acceptance of “mass incarceration” to describe the disproportionate sentencing of Black and Latinx peoples, Liza Jessie Peterson confronted the carceral state’s racist reality head-on when she arrived at the jail in 1998 to teach poetry. A decade later, she started a new challenge when she took on a position as a full-time teacher of 16- and 17-year-old boys incarcerated at Rikers.
The poet and playwright catalogues her first year of teaching these predominantly Black and Brown youths in her new book, “All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island,” which is available today (April 18). Built on her journal entries from that period, Peterson does not shy away from portraying her most difficult interactions with her young students, candidly discussing her impromptu strategies for maintaining classroom control (including adapting looks and tones of voice that will be familiar to any teacher, regardless of environment) and acknowledging negative feelings towards the most disruptive students.
But Peterson’s ultimate message is one of affirmation and humanity. She identifies with her students, and readers witness her pride when she gets students to think outside the box, such as when she gets students to write letters to the then-recently-elected president Barack Obama. They also experience her anger at the systemic barriers imposed on her students, like when she finds out about new rubrics that mandate teachers use a formulaic model in their classrooms that she finds overly restrictive and punitive. The book also features tremendous levity, as Peterson recounts everyday classroom antics with humor. “All Day” seeks to give incarcerated Black and Brown youth the same compassion routinely given to White teenagers—one that understands and forgives adolescence’s inherent temporary chaos instead of pathologizing it.
We spoke to Peterson about the development of "All Day" and her thoughts on the planned closure of Rikers. Here’s that interview, edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Why did you choose to write this book?
I would come home from work everyday totally mentally, spiritually exhausted from dealing with teenagers and being in that crushing environment. All I could do was write in my journal about what happened. So when I finally looked back at my journal, everything was so clearly documented. I laughed so much when I was reading my journal entries, over the classroom antics that just tickled me. I wanted to highlight my students’ humanity and adolescence, because Black and Brown boys are so hyper criminalized, and my experience with them was so raw and funny. As troubling as it was to see kids incarcerated, I was able to tap into humor to see through to their humanity. I don’t want to make light of it, but it wasn’t just this “Woe is me, I have to save these children” thing. It felt like how I cut up with my family. So I wrote the book because I wanted to remind people that these are children, and to not lose sight that adolescence is a natural period of temporary insanity, no matter your race.