Delinquents at Wholesale
DON, who had committed murder, was again showing his homicidal tendency. He picked up a chair and tried to brain me when I corrected his variation from the standard multiplication table. Fred, eleven years old, saved me that time. He has committed sixty-nine robberies in his day, and been much advertised as the ‘baby robber of the state.’
But, robber or not, Fred is a very affectionate child, and much devoted to the primary teacher at State School. Naturally he seized the table raised against me, gave Don a vicious punch in the stomach, and the fight was on.
I commanded, but in vain. I pulled, but in vain. Then clumsy, goodnatured Frank came to the rescue with his powerful, overgrown body. He gave Fred a disentangling pull and shoved Don into his chair, with this judicious admonition, ‘Mind the teacher.’
‘If Frank would only follow that advice himself! ’ I sighed, as he went about the room waving a rope, hitting all those who happened to be in the way. Fortunately this did not start another fight, as Frank was thirteen, and powerful even for his age. He was not vicious and had no intention of hurting the other children, but to his dull mind it never occurred that rope waving in a schoolroom was dangerous.
I asked Frank to get a broom and sweep for me. He beamed from ear to ear. In all the world no joy like this of sweeping during school hours!
‘Oh, what a drag!’ groaned three or four small voices.
‘What a drag!’ in State School parlance meant ‘ What favoritism! ’ Frank was not the only one of my boys who preferred sweeping to more intellectual pursuits.
This brief battle upset the whole roomful of nervous, overemotional children. They ran about, upset the bookcase, talked, threw spitballs, or made for the windows. No, not to run away. They were all of them having too good a time where they were; many of them were having the time of their young lives. My juniors left running away to the older boys.
They merely wanted to climb out of the window to see how their new teacher would meet the situation, or to have a little walk about in the sunny courtyard. I did n’t blame them. The air was fragrant with orange blossoms; there were birds outside, and snails.
I knew the two boys nearest a window would go out anyway, so I said, ‘Conception and José, will you kindly go out the window and get some snails for our nature study? . . . While they gather snails, the rest of us will go with Sinbad the Sailor.’
There was some grumbling about how much nicer snail gathering and room sweeping were than Sinbad the Sailor. But, as most of the boys admired the adventuresome old hero, they finally stopped grumbling and took their scats.
Quiet, relatively speaking, reigned in my schoolroom. For relativity applies to schoolrooms as much as to interstellar space, and a relatively quiet room at State School would be a relatively noisy room elsewhere.
My first hectic day at State School is unforgettable. After the principal had introduced me, she left me to my fate. Never again were the boys all seated at the same time for the rest of the day. Spitballs, erasers, pencils, books, flew about the room. Fred, often the target, found it necessary to build a barrage for his protection. Snug in the corner, with his table turned over in front of him, Fred proceeded to do some good work; for he is my only bright child.
While I was trying to get the others to stop throwing things, to sit in their seats, to stop melting crayons over the steam heater, to quit fighting, to stop tipping the tables around at a rate unprecedented in any spiritual séance, my smallest, John, climbed up to the chalk shelf. By crawling along the shelf he was able to reach the pictures above the blackboard moulding; down came Little Miss Muffet, the Pieman and his wares, and Humpty-Dumpty repeated his great fall — no, I could n’t even keep the pictures on the wall my first day at State School.
On succeeding days the pictures stayed on the walls; but a room full of delinquents will never be a peaceful spot. I was thankful when in looking over the place it seemed to be inhabited solely by soles. The boys had a way of humping down in their seats, their faces hidden by their tables, and their feet, in the large, lumbering shoes furnished by the school, exhibited on those tables. When I saw the feet thus I knew the children were in their seats, not breaking up the furniture, slamming books about, or trying to murder other children with a pair of scissors.
Nicknaming was another pursuit of my boys. Roland was oversensitive and had a quaint dislike for his nickname, ‘Rolling-Pin.’ When the boys discovered this the room resounded with calls of ‘Rolling-Pin! Oh, RollingPin!’
This was such an innocent name compared with those usually given at State School that I tried to teach Roland not to mind it. ‘A rolling-pin is such a useful article. I should be happy were I as useful as a rolling-pin.'
‘Yes,’ piped up several small voices, ’Maggie found the rolling-pin useful to throw at Jiggs.’
Nicknames often started fights, as did many other trifles: a piece of string, a bite of stale cake, a kite stick, a cross-eyed look. I had to use force to separate the boys, although the force was only a vigorous pull.
We are never, under any circumstances, allowed to use corporal punishment in State School. Several excellent men have lost their positions for indulging in light slaps. I hope I shall never lose mine for hanging on to Don’s shoulders; otherwise the rest of us would all be killed in his passion for throwing chairs and tables around.
Every time I go near him he shrieks out, ‘You’ll lose your job if you touch me!’
No State School teacher ever has a chance to forget the penalty for striking a boy. The boys keep us reminded of it, in season and out.
Magicians we must be to handle twenty or more wild ones with tact and discretion, teaching them reading and writing when all former teachers have failed, remaining calm and poised even though told to ‘go to hell’ — followed by a string of vulgarity.
Institutional régime prevents our keeping the boys after school, so our only comeback is Lost Privilege Cottage. Here the boys miss out on the weekly movie, swimming, the Harmonica Club, and other student-body activities. The older boys do rough work about the campus, but as most of them prefer it to school work, it is no great penalty.
My boys are the babies of the school. They can do no work, and so are not wanted in Lost Privilege Cottage. Therefore they gayly proceed to do exactly as they please, knowing there are no punishments in all State School for them.
My youngest boys are supposedly eight, the lowest legal age for entering State School, but some of them look and act much younger, so I suppose their parents, not knowing what to do with their unruly offspring, lied about their ages in order to have them off their hands. I have the first four grades in my room, but almost half are firstgraders who can neither read nor write. They know nothing, and they want to remain knowing nothing.
Glancing over their home records, I do not wonder that my boys are vicious and ignorant. The wonder is that they do so well. Some improve remarkably after a few months at State School, away from the miserable environment in which they were born.
John is the youngest of a large family. His mother is dead, murdered by his father, who is in the penitentiary under sentence of hanging. John’s brother is in prison for burglary, one sister is in an insane asylum, another is a prostitute, and some of the family have disappeared. John roamed the streets, blacking boots for a few cents whenever possible, and, when business was dull, stealing for his food. With a few pennies he could get a cup of coffee from a cheap restaurant, ‘and grab a lot o’ scraps’ from the plates of other less hungry diners.
John enjoyed the insecurity of his vagabond existence, free from every restraining bond, free from such irksome details as lessons. For John loathes study above all things. He wanders aimlessly about the schoolroom, thinking deep thoughts about things miles from classroom activities. He is a badly undernourished youngster whose body has to be built up before he will be strong enough to learn. He has extra milk mornings and evenings, chocolate bars from the faculty members, and plenty of the oranges which grow on the campus.
John’s laziness may be overcome as his body is built up. He is not vicious, mean, and cruel, as are some of our children from better homes. He never bites or pinches the other children, nor does he cut up live cats with scissors or sear dogs’ eyeballs with heated pins. For these horrors, which would nauseate the average child, merely give an added thrill to our little epicures in terror.
Then there is Dave, whose mother lived in a house of prostitution owned by his grandmother, who was also a practising abortionist. Father unknown. Dave was not wanted, but lived just to spite them all. He was thrown around for anyone to care for who would, and lashed unmercifully if he became too meddlesome. His relatives tried to ship him off to State School two years before the legal age, and the day he was eight Dave arrived in my primary room. He knew nothing. He still knows nothing.
I gave him bright-colored pictures, blocks, toys, and building sets in order to interest him, but in vain. As a class we have made kites, boats, airplanes, cut paper dolls, decorated our room with patriotic paper chains in red, white, and blue, and worked on projects making our tiny stage illustrate the lives of the cave twins, the lives of the Eskimo twins, and the lives of our Chinese cousins. Out Dave’s interest has never been roused. It remains to be seen whether he is in a shell as the result of his terrible environment, and needs to be brought out, or whether there is nothing to bring out. I am inclined to think that a home for the feeble-minded will settle Dave’s life problem.
Conception’s father is a minister of some strict and austere sect which believes in no earthly joy. Conception had no toys, and no place to play except a tiny grassless back yard, and no one with whom to play except his tiny half brothers and sisters. When his zeal in caring for these waned, he was punished by being placed in the baptismal font.
In these pre-State School days Conception regularly gave the excuse of ‘staying after school to help the teacher’ and spent the time so gained in roaming the streets with a mangy cur, stolen from a neighboring storekeeper. Walking became tedious, so Conception stole a bicycle. Bicycling, with Gyp, the dog, following after, became such sport that Conception — never bright at school — played hooky for a few days. Then one starlight night he forgot to return home, and spent the night cuddled up with Gyp in his arms.
In the morning boy and dog were hungry, and Conception had either to beg or to steal. He saw no convenient chance to steal, so, with tears in his eyes, he told a dramatic tale about trying to return to his aged and sick mother, and as he did so he held out one grimy hand for a penny. He was bountifully remunerated, so it seemed to him, for he had never had any spending money.
Life looked gay to the young man, when the school attendance officer appeared on the scene. The bicycle and dog were returned to their rightful owners, the truth about Conception’s truancies discovered, and Conception placed in State School until he mended his ways. Conception does not wish to mend his ways, for he prefers State School to home.
Fred came front an auto-park home, tended by his old grandmother. His mother, whom Fred idealizes, ran off when he was a little fellow and has never been heard of since.
What with her rheumatism and Uncle Herbert, who ‘snitched Grandma’s money for booze,’ and what with her grandson, who had a natural child’s cravings for sweets, dogs and cats, cinemas, and soda pops, the old lady had a lively time. Uncle Herbert cursed and kicked the boy when drunk, but when sober gave him spending money from his stolen gains; for by now Uncle Herbert had discovered that burglary was more profitable than thieving from Grandma.
Suddenly Uncle Herbert disappeared from the scene altogether, regretted by no one except little Fred, who was out of pocket money. Grandma took sick and Fred had to care for her. How? Where was the money coming from? Fred stole, and gave his grandmother the food she needed. He lied about the money, saying Uncle Herbert had sent it to him. No, he did not have the letter with him. He had lost it.
Fred’s thieving became remunerative, as he was clever, and therefore not so easily detected as most of our boys, whose stupidity causes bungling errors that nip their crime careers in the bud. Fred found lots of things to do with his money. He fed all the hungry cats and dogs in the neighborhood, gave pocket money to poor little boys who had never had any before, enjoyed the cinema nightly, and drank plenty of ice cream sodas. The police were suspicious of his affluence, but at first could not actually catch him. Then came Fred’s raid on the oil station, his arrest, the discovery of sixty-nine of his previous robberies, and his trip to State School as the most successful baby robber in the entire state of California.
Fred says he ‘won’t steal again when on the outs.’
José informs him, ‘That is what you think now, but when on the outs you will want to steal as badly as ever. My brother did, and he is back again.’
José’s father is a bootlegger with nine children, and his third wife — at least, we hope it is his wife. Four of the children have been at the State School. Two are here now, and the younger ones we expect as soon as they are old enough. Apparently even bootlegging does not bring in enough to feed nine hungry children and pay their doctor bills. All the children need medical care when they arrive, which is rendered by the State School medical staff, and all the children are undernourished. José gained three pounds during his first month at State School.
The father is an uncouth, stormy, violent man, and the children are much frightened when at home. Consequently they seldom go there, preferring to roam the streets, seeking convenient pockets to pick, tempting bakeries from which to pilfer, old men to tease, and cats to abuse. José states that ‘he kept the cops jumping up and down.’ He turned in false fire alarms, burned buildings, played truant, and stole everything from pennies to automobiles, and did anything he could think of for a ‘thrill.’
He is very artistic, so one day I suggested, ‘José, could n’t you possibly find thrills enough in art work, so you would n’t have to pester people for blocks around in search of excitement?’
‘All right, Miss Green,’ he answered. ‘Tame me down if you can’ — grinning at the impossibility of such a thing.
José is very proud of his misdeeds, and this is characteristic of our boys. We try to drop a curtain over their past, but they love to tell or write — if they can write — of their wayward acts, decorating them and gleefully concocting more of them.
Don, the murderer, is more reticent about his past than the others. He was terrified when the policeman came along as he was trying to bring Tony, a corpse, back to life. Tony and Don had been in swimming together. Tony teased Don, who, with his ungovernable temper, threatened to strangle him unless he stopped. Tony continued, and Don carried out his threat, holding Tony under the water until all gasps ceased. He has, I believe, sincerely regretted it ever since; but unless Don can control his temper he will murder again.
These are just some of my problems: Frank, the feeble-minded; Dave, the idiot (I believe); Fred, the baby robber; John, the lazy; Conception, the truant; José, the thrill seeker; and poor tempestuous Don.
Besides these there is Juan, who looks like a misplaced, brown-eyed angel. He arrived at State School with teardrops hanging from his eyelids. Some visitors asked him why he was here. ‘Oh, for nothin’ at all,’ the little cherub sobbed. ‘I only swiped from three stores, and filched an automobile.’ The visitors gasped. Could it be true? Juan, so young and innocent-looking!
There is Jack, generally conceded to be insane, but too young to commit; Howard, an inborn recluse who loves to scrub floors during playtime in order to keep away from the other boys; Sam, the Negro who likes to act the clown, particularly during arithmetic time; and Ralph, who whistles and sings in school and out. No, he has no musical talent; he merely thinks he has. Several of our boys have illusions of talent.
These and other delinquents I have by the wholesale. Like most others of their kind, they are nervously unstable. They get excited, they laugh, they weep, they love, they hate, all over nothing. One day they hate that which they loved the day before, and vice versa. This emotional instability seems characteristic of delinquency.
And, after State School, what happens to these children, often dull, and emotionally unstable, all of whom received so poor a start in life? About 18 per cent of our boys end in various institutions: homes for the feebleminded, insane asylums, and penitentiaries of the country. The other 82 per cent become law-abiding, hardworking citizens.
These 82 per cent deserve great credit, for they persevere in ditch digging, hod carrying, piano lugging, or in other forms of manual labor. They have no chance for the thrills their overemotional natures crave, as the majority are too dull to enter more creative lines of work. They plug away, resisting numerous temptations to enter the more exciting life of crime. How many of us could do as well under the circumstances?