First, welcome to the 2nd blog post for the 3rd season of “Beyond Scared Straight”. The next episode, which takes place in Jacksonville, Florida, focuses on a jail program that incorporates the help of other social agencies (including a bunch of stray dogs!) to reach teens and their families. But more on that later…
When we are interviewing teens for our series (not easy when very few teens actually want to be interviewed) and we ask them what they are most looking forward to when they visit the jail, they always say things like “I won’t let the inmates push me around.” and “Seeing my uncle.” and “Showing the cops that I ain’t no punk.”
Mostly, though, they almost all tell us the same thing: “I get to miss a day of school.”
When I was in 6th grade, my science class took a walking field trip into the woods in the hills near our New England middle school. In search of items for our terrariums, we found mushrooms, moss, salamanders, ferns and the skeletal remains of a man who had been missing for a couple of years.
No kidding. We really did.
I will spare you the gruesome details of what we saw. You would think that it would have completely messed up the minds of the kids who witnessed it. I’m not going to swear that everyone I went to school with has turned out to be completely sane (many of them still only listen to classic rock) but for the most part, they’re no more nuts than anyone else. It wasn’t scary to us. In fact, it was kind of cool. It was certainly more interesting to talk about in the schoolyard than ferns and mushrooms.
Remember, this was 1977, an age before Slasher Flicks and CSI. To most of us, there was a disconnect between the bones we saw lying on the ground and the human being that once used them to walk around in 70’s polyester pants. A skeleton was something you dressed up as on Halloween. It wasn’t a person.
It’s probably just a coincidence that Maine resident Stephen King, who certainly would have heard about the incident on the local TV news, wrote The Body (the basis for the movie “Stand By Me”) just a few years later. Or maybe our gothic adventure actually did inspire the best film of Corey Feldman’s career. You’re welcome, Corey.
But the truth is, this was someone’s son. He was someone’s brother, cousin or uncle. He was a living, breathing person. And somewhere in my hometown, a family that had been in anguish for months finally received word that a member of their family was gone. As the father of the greatest two-year old in the history of two-year olds, I can’t imagine that pain.
I’m older now and I’ve personally seen the effect of loss on a parent. My grandmother lived to be 96 and she outlived five of her six children. My first wife passed away from cancer when she was 26 and left behind a devastated family.
Many of the teens featured on “Beyond Scared Straight” have seen tragedy at some point in their lives. Many come from urban areas where walking out their front door is like stepping onto a minefield. For some, sadly, death is just a part of living. They talk about drive-bys as if they were as common as drive-thrus. What they seldom feel compelled to talk about, however, is the impact those deaths have on their families, on the mothers of the fallen.
Having done this series for a few years now, I can tell you that no mother, no matter where they call home, handles well the loss of a child.
This week’s episode of “Beyond Scared Straight” takes us to Jacksonville, Florida, where the accents are thick and the sub-titles are abundant. Two of the teens we meet are brothers KeShawn (15) and Kevon (12). (If I had a name that rhymed with my older brother Michael, maybe today this blog would have been written by Motorcycle Coyne. Totally freakin’ awesome.)
Kevon is following in the footsteps of older brother KeShawn, because that is what little brothers are supposed to do. In this case, though, KeShawn is headed down a path that even he doesn’t want his brother to take. It’s a path that could lead them both to jail – or worse.
Jacksonville’s teen diversion programs incorporate a wide number of agencies. For this episode, we visit a terrifying jail so the at-risk teens can see their possible future home; a Humane Society dog kennel where they connect with caged, neglected animals; and finally, a morgue where they experience the final stop on life’s criminal road.
What happens to KeShawn and his mother in the morgue is something you will never forget. As KeShawn is zipped up into a body bag, his weeping mother reveals a family secret so devastating that few of us would even attempt to imagine the depth of her pain. Then, as KeShawn sees his own brother zipped up, he collapses in a way that is sure to leave you stunned.
It’s probably the most emotional moment we have ever had on our series. These are children, no difference in age to me when my class discovered that body in the woods, who are seeing firsthand the impact of their life and death decisions on their mother.
Will KeShawn and Kevon be changed by their day in jail? You’ll just have to watch and find out. Was I changed by the discovery my class made in the woods? I’m not sure.
I do know that I waited decades for blogs to be invented so that I could tell you all about it on the awe-inspiring “Beyond Scared Straight” page.
One last thing – I want to thank everyone for watching our show and for all the messages I have received over the past week. It has been fun interacting with so many of you, learning about your own lives, hearing your opinions about our series, trying to decipher what you are saying even though you don’t use punctuation.
If any of you know someone who needs help turning their lives around, I implore you to reach out to your local police, sheriff’s office, jail or social agency and see if there are any diversion programs that can help. You don’t need to be on TV to take advantage of the thousands of public servants out there willing to help you. In fact, Beyond Scared Straight has nothing to do with whether or not our featured teens become lawful, productive people.
We just document the work of people who actually do facilitate change.
Until next week, try to stay out of jail. I don’t think they let you watch “Beyond Scared Straight” in lock-up.