On Being Bad and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Conversation with Author Crystal Laura

By Bill Ayers

Bill Ayers has written several books on education, including Teaching Toward Freedom and A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court.

In Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Crystal Laura’s riveting account of her younger brother’s odyssey through school and detention and prison—a brutal journey that often feels meticulously designed to entangle and ensnare him—she makes an eloquent and urgent argument that schools can only succeed with all our children when they are built on a foundation of “love, justice, and joy,” a pursuit she describes as “dangerous and worthwhile.” Laura’s case for vigorous and vital schools, and against the prison nation, is also a brief for a healthier society.

I asked Crystal Laura about the interaction and meaning of these matters, and the question of what is to be done.

Being Bad stands at the juncture of several critical conversations: school improvement and urban school change, adolescent identity and the plight of Black boys in America, criminal justice, and the immense prison nation that has become a defining characteristic of our national life. What do you hope to contribute to these dynamic dialogues with this book?

The way I see it, many of the most important conversations about these huge, crashing issues are happening in separate learning environments—either among researchers in scholarly spaces or families and communities in activist circles—and the primary barrier between them is language.  We are often talking amongst ourselves and working for justice in silos. How we speak to these issues tends to be limited by our affiliations. Researchers usually have difficulty with what the young folks call “real talk” and activists are often straight shooting to a fault. I have tried to write at the intersection of both worlds through Being Bad.

I also agree with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, who argues that people think in metaphors and learn best through stories. Being Bad follows my brother, Chris, a young man designated as a “bad kid” by his school, a “person of interest” by the police, and a “gangster” by society along a heartrending journey from systems of education to systems of criminal justice. Readers first meet Chris in a Chicago jail where he is being held in connection with a string of street robberies, and then again in several insiders’ accounts that stretch across time and space to reveal key events preceding this tragic moment. Together, these stories explore the social ecology of discipline—the under-education of black males, the place and importance of scapegoats in our culture, the on-the-ground reality of zero tolerance, the role of mainstream media in constructing black masculinity, the relationships between schools and prisons—and at the center of it all is my brother Chris, an African-American teen approaching adulthood and negotiating a range of institutions along the way.

What do you mean by the “social ecology of discipline?”

The phrase is a double entendre that first points to the people, places, and things that work together in support of the American commitment to policing, containing, and disposing of certain populations of people—a commitment which is suddenly visible now that there is a growing awareness of the sheer size and composition of the U.S. prison system. In my book, I focus on how overlapping spheres of punitive influence shape the lives of Black boys within and beyond schools and how, in some contexts, Black boys are being prepped not for college or gainful employment, but for the streets or permanent detention. The idea could be theorized in relationship to other groups that have traditionally been underserved—girls and women of color, the poor, the homeless, the undocumented—in a wide range of institutional settings, but what I am trying to name and push back on is the normalizing of what prison abolitionist Kathy Boudin calls the “paradigm of punishment.” This is the assumption that some of us are inherently “bad” and the perception that retribution is the only path forward.

In a completely different sense, the “social ecology of discipline” is a useful handle for people like me who work the hyphen in researcher-activist and need the words to describe the antagonism that we feel when grounding what we do in a place of love. The “social ecology of discipline” calls out the discipline of Education’s obsession with conceptions of science that, for the past 50 years, have divided the research community along predictable lines of epistemological and methodological approach: quantitative camps of scholars with their emphasis on the separation of facts and values in the interest of objectivity are pitted against their more “touchy-feely” colleagues, many of whom use a range of exploratory and qualitative methods. The space and tolerance for social inquiry that is committed to documenting the complexity of human lives, oppression, and resistance is shrinking. As ethnographer Harry Wolcott says: “If you don’t do or present research as our self-appointed standard-bearers feel it should be done or presented, they [your colleagues] may do you in.”

In what ways is your brother Chris’ incarceration what you describe as “a completely preventable tragedy?”

I see now with a kind of guilt-laden clarity and conjecture one only has in hindsight that my brother’s trajectory could have been disrupted.

Chris was the kind of student who could easily fall through the cracks of any big urban high school: smart as a whip and bored out of his mind, disengaged, spotty in attendance. My brother’s grades weren’t remarkable. He wasn’t an athlete, or a band geek, or otherwise active in any extra-curricular programs that may have connected him to the school in some meaningful way. So when he stopped going altogether, in 2008, not a single school adult noticed, or if anyone did, nobody seemed to care.

No one called or stopped by my house to see what was up. Had my parents been asked, they would have likely shared the same tidbits I was recently told—that Chris had never quite properly healed from school wounds he’d sustained back in 4th grade, that his curiosity and bounding energy had been mistaken for an inability to sit still and think straight, that with repetition he’d learned to believe this. And that Chris had checked out of school long before he dropped out.

No one asked Chris where he thought he was going, except for the counselor who documented my brother’s “transfer” to another educational institution rather than calling it what it was and counting it as a loss—an awfully common and commonly understood practice to protect institutional interests by manipulating the numbers. Had someone expressed genuine concern, they’d have discovered that Chris was heading to the Job Corps, of all places, the U.S. Department of Labor’s boarding school for “the bottom of our society.”  Not my words, of course, I lifted them from another Chris—Chris Weeks—a political staffer who was on the ground floor of the Job Corps’ origin back in the 1960s.

My brother had a different, benign, self-gratifying outlook of things. He was sold on the incentives that drew over 300,000 applications from all across the country within three months of the program’s inception and today pull in some 60,000 youth each year. In the Job Corps, Chris thought he could get a GED, three square meals per day, spending money, help finding work, and a small stipend to hold him over until his first paycheck came. He’d have ample spare time for sports and recreation, to pick up a trade, and live away from home for the first time with people of his own age. I have my reservations, but I suppose I can understand the allure: Whatever his everyday life was like in high school paled in comparison to the sexiness of the Job Corps.

Chris left school with pleasure but without a diploma in the funk of a recession, a time when basic necessities like food and gas were more expensive than they had been in the past, homes were less valuable, big spenders had turned frugal, and dignified jobs paying living wages were hard to come by. I remember that moment especially because I was a broke doctoral student at the time, and I knew that even with an advanced degree, in a flooded market, my chances of finding a position were slim. So what a teenager would do with few skills and no credentials scared me to consider, and as commendable as Chris was for having a plan, his didn’t allay my fear.

Oh how I wish there had been someone from the school—a teacher, a counselor, a dean, a principal, a superintendent—to say to Chris, 1) being in school is a lot safer for you than not, 2) you matter to me and to many other people here, and 3) we’ll go to the depths to figure out why you want to leave and to keep you around.

I wonder if anyone has thought of Chris or his whereabouts since he went missing in action. Do folks know that he graduated from the Job Corps to part-time work selling shoes and, within months, found himself in a maximum-security wing of Cook County jail? Probably not. If they did, I’d like to think that there’d be some serious soul searching happening in the school. I’d hope that the devastating news would spread like wildfire and open up spaces for painful conversations about what happens, what to do, what it means, when students disappear. And then I’d want the school community to respond, or as my friend and colleague Rick Ayers put it, to “enter the heartbreak of it and find a way to repair the gash in the social fabric.” To fight and act like an overprotective family whose young lives depend on it.

What are the key lessons educators and youth workers might take away from your book?

I am lucky enough to teach teachers and other school leaders at a comprehensive university on the far south side of Chicago for a living. So, I consistently have the opportunity to teach and learn from school adults who are responsible for the wellbeing of hundreds of young people like Chris. I share with them what writing Being Bad has illuminated for me, which is that every adult who works with young folks in our education systems should love and respect children, should wake up each day to struggle and strive toward social justice, and should find pure joy and pleasure in it all, or go do something else.

What did you learn from writing Being Bad and centering your brother in your book? Were there moments that took you by surprise?

Almost everything in the book, I learned from writing it. Being Bad is a personal essay, a kind of informal essay, which is unbound by the scholarly conventions. The gift of the personal essay is that it offers writers permission to wonder and wander on the page, intelligently and thoughtfully, and to tell stories in ways that create resonance about complex issues without boring readers to death.

When I started writing, I honestly couldn’t understand why my brother’s life had taken a downward spiral and I came to the page to work out some hunches. What you will find is me testing the limits of my own thinking about Chris and the broader contexts within which his life unfolded. Being Bad is the record of a conversation that I needed to have with myself and that I thought others would be better for overhearing.

Are there reasons people ought to read your book even if they are not directly involved in or personally impacted by the urban education or prison systems?

I would argue that everyone is personally impacted by the urban education or prison systems.  There is a broad audience for this book: scholars, community organizers, youth workers, youth, college students, urban K-12 and university teachers and administrators, direct-service organizations, policymakers, and anyone else who cares deeply about the social and academic worlds of black boys. Being Bad is especially intended for people who appreciate sound education scholarship, particularly when it is presented in everyday language or through a good story; people who desperately want to understand what the “school-to-prison pipeline” looks like on the ground; people who want to learn more in order to do more; people who seek methodological imagination and intervention in the field of education, and people who need to be in the know and on guard for the subtleties of these important problems.  


Crystal Laura is an Assistant Professor of Education Leadership at Chicago State University. She researches, teaches, and organizes in Chicago to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for youth everywhere.

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