My students were incarcerated at the Los Angeles Probation Department’s Challenger Youth Center, in Lancaster, California. “Youth Center” was a nice name for jail. The facility housed about 600 teens in dorms surrounding the school. Each morning I presented my ID at a window in the reception area and passed through a metal detector on my way to the classroom. Tall razor-wired fence surrounded the compound. Thus, the rescue equipment couldn’t just pull up in front of my room. Several locked gates would have to be negotiated, a time-consuming process.
The young man who was the reason for the call and another boy had arrived that morning while the class was reading a play. I said to the newcomers, “Have a seat at the round table. We’ll be finished in a bit, and then I’ll get your names and other information; get you started in class.”
By the time we finished the play one of the newcomers had fallen asleep. I tried to rouse him. No luck. I phoned the nearby room where probation personnel were available for help, if needed. “I’ll be right there,” said the worker on duty.
But he had no luck, either. He poked and prodded, obviously thinking the boy was faking. Eventually he put him on the floor and yanked his arm painfully behind his back. A low moan was the only response. Time for the paramedics.
“What’s the kid’s name?” asked the probation man.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He fell asleep before I was able to get to him.” Neither boy had brought paperwork. Students weren’t trusted to carry informatioin. We asked the boy who came in with him if he knew the name, and he ventured a few guesses, one of which eventually was confirmed by phoning the office.
While we waited for help to arrive, the probation guy said, “Let’s get these other kids back to the dorm.” My class did NOT want to go to the dorm, I knew this. They most likely would have been made to sit on their beds, on quiet, until the situation cleared. If they talked they could have been ordered to sit on the iron rail at the foot of their bed, a painful way to pass the time.
“We’re in the middle of a project here,” I said, a partial truth. “This is a really good class. They can work quietly and I will make sure that nobody interferes with your situation.”
The really good class knew what to do. Delinquents tend to be good at faking it. They pulled out books, buried their heads and pretended to concentrate. I walked from desk to desk, pointing at the books, mumbling indistinct phrases, pretending to teach.
The front of the classroom presented a dramatic scene. The school principal came running, along with a counselor or two and many more probation people. When the paramedics finally worked their way to us, they labored diligently, but they couldn’t wake our sleeping beauty, either. Thankfully, they didn’t have to resort to painful methods.
The decision to transport came slowly. Finally our boy was put on a gurney and wheeled away. Our audience of officials and looky-loos began to dwindle. When we were finally alone, we all heaved a sigh of relief and began to chuckle at the success of our subterfuge. We didn’t say it, but we all knew that we had won. The kids got to stay in the room and the principal didn’t seem to notice that we weren’t actually doing much of anything.
Apparently he didn’t notice. The next morning in my mail box I found a congratulatory letter praising my class and their teacher for being so calm and diligent during a time of stress. When I read it to the class, everyone smiled.
Five or six months later, when most of the class members present that day had been released or had moved on, my door opened and in came the sleeper. I asked him what had happened that day, if he had ever gotten a diagnosis of any kind. I asked how he was feeling now, if he was okay. Our boy had no information at all. Soon it was clear that he had no recollection of the fact that for one day he had been the center of attention at Challenger.
He stayed with me only a few days. Teachers were never privy to probation files. The sleeper simply disappeared into a world which I fully realized I could not possibly imagine.