How the Justice System Pushes Kids Out of Classrooms and Into Prisons

The playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith explored the link between schools and incarceration in her one-woman show Notes From the Field.

wavebreakmedia / Skylines / Porfang / Shutterstock / Evgenia Eliseeva / American Repertory Theater / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the third installment in our series examining the intersections of education and entertainment in 2016. Read previous entries on a documentary and late-night comedy, and check back for future pieces on animated movies and television.

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to a system in which school-discipline practices—from suspensions to corporal punishment to disturbing-school laws—push children out of education and into the criminal-justice system.

It’s a pipeline with which disadvantaged kids and families of color are particularly familiar. Black children, for example, comprised just 16 percent of the country’s student population in the 2011-12 school year yet roughly a third of those suspended at least once or expelled (and nearly half of the preschoolers who were suspended). They were also disproportionately referred to law enforcement or subject to school-based arrests. The problem, of course isn’t limited to black children—or to, as stereotypes might suggest, boys: In equally insidious yet perhaps more invisible ways, it also afflicts girls, Native Americans and Latinos, and students who identify as LGBT or have special-needs. Earlier this year, an American Bar Association task force called the school-to-prison pipeline one of the “nation’s most formidable challenges.”

Despite the gravity of the problem and growing attention on the issue, the discipline numbers continue to rise and continue to funnel children who already have it rough into a vicious cycle of low expectations, criminalization, and lifelong disenfranchisement and poverty. It’s almost as if a sense of apathy, or some other sort of disconnect, has hobbled efforts to address the pipeline beyond the isolated pockets where schools are actually rethinking student discipline. Maybe it’s the buzz-phrasey-ness of the term “school-to-prison pipeline.” Maybe it’s because the pipeline has become so entrenched that people feel there’s little they can do except give up. Maybe it’s because, as dire as the problem is, for privileged people it’s also incredibly abstract—something intangible that happens to faraway communities because of a foreign set of forces.

That’s what makes Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field, a production about “a justice system that pushes minors from poor communities out of the classroom and into incarceration,” so striking. As a journalist who’s written, read, and edited countless stories about the school-to-prison pipeline, I entered the theater anticipating an intensely artistic experience but not necessarily a dramatically educational one. Largely because of its language—the words uttered or not uttered, the movements made or suppressed, the way they those expressions were expressed—it turned out to be an intoxicating combination of both.

The play consists of vignettes, acted out exclusively by Smith and based, verbatim, on interviews with 17 people who’d somehow been touched by the school-to-prison pipeline. They include Allen Bullock, a young Baltimore protester dressed in a hoodie and kicks; Michael Tubbs, a popular Stockton, California, councilman who was recently elected the city’s mayor; Abby Abinanti, the chief judge of the Yurok tribe; Linda Wayman, the principal of Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia; and Congressman John Lewis. One of the most raw scenes featured Denise Dodson, a mother of six children, five of whom are alive. She’s been an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution for two decades; she was convicted of first-degree murder after her former boyfriend shot and killed a man who tried to rape her. Dodson spends much of her time in prison training dogs for people with disabilities. It’s a way, she explains, for her to show love.

I recently spoke with Smith about her experience researching for and performing the play, which recently ended its off-Broadway stint at Second Stage Theatre. A lightly edited and condensed version of our interview follows.

Alia Wong: How did you come up with the idea behind Notes From the Field?

Anna Deavere Smith: A woman named Ann Beeson, who was at the time the head of North American programs for the Open Society, told me about [the pipeline], and the Open Society had been doing a lot of work in that area. So she invited about 15 program officers from around the country to come to a meeting and they all told me these stories that were very concerning to me, and that's what got me interested. There was also the fact that among the people [at the meeting] were people from Baltimore, which was my hometown, and my mother and all her friends and most of my aunts were all teachers on both sides of the family and they had really changed lives. And I just had this refresher course about what was now going on in education many years later—and it should be better, you know? They were working prior to the civil-rights movement for equitable education, and to find out that things were worse than they were back during segregation was a great concern to me.

Wong: You have this quote at the beginning, and I think it really sets the tone for the entire performance. You say: “It's impossible to talk about the criminal-justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education.” Can you expand on that?

Smith: That’s from Sherrilyn Ifill, who’s the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As the Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye said when she convened judges from across the country a couple of years ago, ‘If you're not in school, you're in trouble.’ … [But] I believe the problem is much more complicated than just school. And in fact to call it the school-to-prison pipeline unfairly blames schools and teachers for something that’s more generally about the vast results of poverty.

One of the people I dedicate this show to, the late Maxine Greene, told me schools are based on the factory. Many kids are not ready to behave that way, and one reason is that some of them are already suffering from “adverse childhood experiences.” If enough has already happened to them before they’re in kindergarten, that’s going to inhibit them from behaving in a way that school expects they will.

Wong: Tell me a little bit about the research you conducted for the performance. You say you interviewed well over 200 people. How did you decide on the people you featured ultimately in the performance?

Smith: I didn’t work through any theaters until I was actually at the production phase ... so I first had to build this project and raise money to do that. And in anticipation of that, I promised [in my grant applications] to do work in three geographic areas (it ended up being four): Northern California, starting in Stockton and then moving up to an Indian Reservation (the Yurok tribe is at very the tip of the top of California); to Baltimore, which was my hometown; Philadelphia; and then all over South Carolina. As I knew I was going to a certain place, I found people who could tell me about that place and make suggestions …

And then there were obvious things. Before we went to South Carolina, Mother Emanuel had happened, so we started finding out who could talk to us about that. And also before we thought of even going to South Carolina, the young girl was thrown across the room ... and that video went viral, and we knew we wanted to find about that and head down there. And in fact, one of your colleagues at The Atlantic was also working on that story: Amanda Ripley. So, you know people and you meet people and—just like what you’re doing—you start sniffing around and making relationships. For example, with the Indian tribe—which in my experience is a community that is rightfully cautious about inviting people in—their chief judge welcomed me, took a liking to me, and supplied one of the people out of her office to take me around. Otherwise, I would’ve met absolutely no one. You hit the jackpot when you find the person who understands what you’re doing, feels it’s worthwhile, and lends you one of their people to take you around.

Wong: I thought the vignettes about the Native American individuals were particularly enlightening. You never, or at least rarely, hear about the relationships between Native Americans and the criminal-justice system.

Smith: Well, you’d hope that given all the attention that Standing Rock has gotten that somebody who was there will see that the problems there involve more than the [Dakota Access] pipeline ... All my work is under this umbrella—“On the Road: A Search for American Character.” Notes From the Field is the 19th play in that series. When I was a kid my grandfather said, 'If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.' So my real enterprise in my adult life has been to become America word-for-word—it’s a pretty audacious thing to try to do [chuckles], but that’s really what I’ve been doing with my life. And so again, Native Americans have in the past been very cautious, but that community, when it comes to problems and catastrophes, is rife with them. The amount of addiction to alcohol and methamphetamines; the amount of suicides, teen suicides; the great injustices done to them historically and still. The ways in which they are often still close to rich national resources and the sorts of things that happen there.

Wong: I know this style of theater—these one-person performances—is something that you are known for. What, if anything, was different about this particular performance for you?

Smith: I don’t know—it’s hard to say. On the one hand, I could say maybe that it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever done, but on the other hand, when you’re an actor, you ultimately can’t help but make it to some extent be about you. In a sense, some people could say artists are always writing about ourselves.

I've dedicated my life to something else, which is what I call “The Broad Jump to the Other.” I really am dedicated to those people who aren’t like me—I'm not that interested in putting myself on stage. In that way we could say that all my work is personal. But we could also say that this work is particularly personal if you look at whom I dedicated the play to: my late mother and Maxine Greene, who was a great philosopher of education. And I’ve been in education and have never left it—even though it probably would've been wise to do so at certain junctures in my career, because, you know, it does take time. Some people could say, 'Why don't you just go to Hollywood and drop all that? That was silly.' But I am still a teacher—I'm a university professor at NYU, and it is profoundly the case that I do feel that education matters, and I am intrigued in my own life, in the life of my students, when you’re able to get those lights switched on and you learn something about what you can do. So I have a huge belief in and understanding of the possibilities in education.

Wong: How if at all did you insert yourself personally in the play? You do such a fantastic job acting out these other, very different people.

Smith: My mother was a person who taught elementary school and eventually became a principal of an elementary school. When I was a girl she’d have these great, big boys home sitting at the dining table teaching them to read. She taught sixth grade, and [in her mind] no one was going to leave elementary school without being able read.

And meanwhile, I’ve taught very privileged people since 1973. I taught at Carnegie Mellon, taught for a while as an adjunct at Yale, taught at Stanford for 10 years, now I teach at NYU … it's a very elite group of people, and I think I’m very uncomfortable about that. To hear about some of the things going on today—put aside the prison part, just the part of what's going on in schools, the kids aren't learning to read—it was heartbreaking. That’s the best way I can say it: It's heartbreaking.

Wong: One message that comes across in the scenes featuring teachers or principals is just this sense of hopelessness—this feeling of doing what they can day to day but ultimately working within a system that's rigged against the students that we're talking about in this performance. Did you get that sense from teachers?

Smith: I guess that is a so-called trope in the play: people making the best out of very little. But when I think about those people making the best out of very little is that they have a kind of genius that we don't celebrate, that we don't know enough about. We don’t respect or know enough about what love is other than romantic love or the way you love your child or maybe the way you love your country or your sports team. I’ve asked many people over the course of this research a kind of trick question: Did you take a course in Love 101? And they kinda laughed. But there should be a course in Love 101 because the people I've met that you're describing as working against impossible odds—actually what they have is the gift of love. They can love beyond who's in their house—not everybody can do that—and they can love across the aisle. We don't know how to do that anymore and that's awful. So I propose that we start teaching Love 101.

Wong: Do you think that was one of the big-picture takeaways you wanted people to leave with?

Smith: I have a friend who’s an Oxford-trained theologian … She wrote me a note that I received yesterday. She feels like my work is like parables, like religious parables. It's not really about reality, it's a metaphor about reality; it is a story that leaves the audience thinking on their own in a search for meaning. I think that's right, you know, because I'm trying to turn audiences from passive spectators into actors themselves—by that I mean change agents in the world. ...

I don’t believe in takeaways … but I hope that what I’ve done is pricked in people their recognition of what they’ve brought into the theater and therefore what they’re going to do after. It’s not clear what the answer is—I'm asking you to figure it out. I believe you can figure it out, and I believe you're smarter than me—and I really do, I'm not just being facetious. Especially in these audiences, the people who come to these performances—they’re very rarified people who can spend the time and money on the ticket. When you’re coming to this kind of theater, you're not quite sure it's entertainment. I'm very lucky to have you there and I know if you come you are a concerned citizen and that you do have intellectual or financial or compassion resources to do something.

Wong: One theme that stuck out to me was the use of footwear and what you decided to wear on your feet, or the decision to be barefoot in certain scenes. What’s the thinking behind that?

Smith: That's been in all of my works since 25 years ago. It's an outgrowth of two things. One, I do want to make a signal to you that although it's documentary, there is something that is not true, that is metaphoric, that is abstract. Secondly, whenever I was doing my shows prior to my play Fires in the Mirror [1992], there was always this problem about which shoe would be correct for [the characters featured in the play]. When the designer and I sat down to think about what to wear, there was no budget for shoes. So I was just, like, let’s just not have any shoes.

Also, as I said before, my goal is to be “The Other.” That gets back to my grandfather's adage: If you say a word often enough it becomes you. If you think about what the shoe is, if I go to a chiropractor, he or she might look at your shoes and tell you where you carry your weight; the shoe is a really important part of identity. And I’m not just talking about shopping for Manolo Blahniks or shopping for the right Nikes. It holds your weight. Different people wear different shoes. The shoe is going to carry a different soul.

When I went to South Carolina, I talked to who was then the post-massacre pastor of Mother Emanuel Church, Reverend Betty Clark. And when I interviewed her, she told me that she takes her shoes off behind the pulpit to be closer to God—that she feels closer to God when her foot's on the floor. Well, I would extend that to say that for me I feel closer to the earth and therefore more grounded and more stable without the shoe.

Wong: Who was your favorite character to act out?

Smith: Well I don’t know. My mother had five children, and she would never say she had a favorite. I will say that [I enjoyed] beating the challenge of performing Allen Bullock, given the fact that I am interested in that which is not me. (And I have been since I was a child—I was always told stop staring.) So in that way I was very interested and continue to be interested in the challenge of performing Allen Bullock, who was the young man who was seen smashing up police cars in Baltimore—the way he talks is very, very unusual to me. And I'm very interested in Taos Proctor, who was the Indian [Yurok fisherman and former inmate]. Those two men are so far from who I am and how I present myself in the world that I find them endlessly fascinating, and my work on them never stops. I'll be working on them tonight before I go on stage.

Wong: That's interesting, because at least with Allen, he's from Baltimore—your hometown—yet you really felt you had grown up in different worlds.

Smith: The generation that he’s in is very different. He uses an expression that I’m actually embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard very much before I met Allen because I don't listen to enough new hip hop. But he uses this expression “You feel me?” and it is peppered throughout what he says in different ways. Sometimes he says "You feel me?" sometimes he just says "Feel me?" It's interesting to me that the person who speaks before him in the play—Kevin Moore [who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest]—is 10 years older than him. And Kevin uses the expression “You know what I’m saying?” The generations are marked with these certain characteristic things. With Allen, he's very, very different from what I am. Forget about Baltimore—his life that he lives, running from the cops all the time. I was a goodie goodie. I was terrified, very terrified, of getting in trouble. Believe me, I'm not putting myself in a situation where I'm running from the cops.

Wong: Speaking of Allen, he was kind of funny pretty consistently throughout his scene. Obviously, some of it was quite poignant, but some of it was quite humorous, particularly when he talks about why he runs away from the cops. What was the role of humor you sprinkle throughout?

Smith: The tradition of drama is that mask—with the grief and the grin. The best actors are the clowns. So that there is something in me—believe it or not—that is the fool and the clown. It’s through foolishness, any moment of that, any moment of humor, that I think you're actually more inclined to see a truth.