I was so excited for this book, which tells the tale of a substitute teacher for adolescents at Rikers Island, the infamous New York prison. It’s a relatively new release that is very expensive in hardback, not available in paperback, not sold secondhand anywhere and which my library did not have. I was so desperate to read it that I personally requested that my library purchase a copy, which they kindly did. Unfortunately.
Summary: ALL DAY is a behind-the-bars, personal glimpse into the issue of mass incarceration via an unpredictable, insightful and ultimately hopeful reflection on teaching teens while they await sentencing.
Eighteen years ago, performance artist Liza Jessie Peterson never thought that her day of substitute teaching at Rikers Island C-74 would change the course of her life, but it did. It ignited a lifelong passion–which continues in her work with incarcerated kids today–to make a difference in the lives of youth in trouble.
Her powerful narrative captures the essence, humor, intellect, creativity and psychology of children in the penal system. She intimately introduces readers to her students. We see them, smell their musk, feel their attitudes, hear their voices and learn how they came to be jailed–residents of “the island.”
I really, quite intensely, disliked this book. Firstly, Liza Peterson managed three months in full-time teaching before she before she quit. I’m not sure where the ‘year’ part of the title came from. The author is very unlikeable, the book distinctly does not have the ring of truth and it ends up being more about the glory of art, and racial issues, than about incarcerated youths. It’s not about the criminal justice system – it’s about Liza Peterson.
She was already an established poet and creator of several one woman shows when the accepted the post as a substitute teacher. You can find her work on YouTube here. She had run several poetry workshops at the prison when she was offered the one year role, which she accepted as a steady way to ensure her bills were paid. Unfortunately, she seems to feel like she was very badly done to by this arrangement. She goes on about how she’s an artist, and has to get up early, and have a regular schedule constantly. She has to punch a time card and practically has an aneurysm the first time.
Because having a full-time job is just such a burden, you know?
Her persona as an artist is a constant theme of this book. People walk up to her on several occasions and say things like, ‘”Even if I didn’t already know you were an artist, I would have guessed it just by the way you decorated your room,”‘ and ‘”We artists have difficulty in adjusting to the energy here.”‘ It’s okay that teaching incarcerated adolescents isn’t her first love, of course it is, but she acts like she’s resentfully dragging this huge burden around with her. And so, naturally, people apparently come up to her magically recognising that she has an artistic spirit and feeling the need to tell her so, constantly.
I remain unconvinced that All Day hasn’t been drastically ’embroidered.’
That’s my main issue with this book, and I know it’s a very offensive line for me to take. I don’t mean it to be a personal attack on the author, as she was there and I wasn’t, but I can’t get over how false this book feels. ‘Embroidered,’ at the very least. She’s delivering heart-wrenching soliloquies on her first day that leave her class speechless. She instantly quells any classroom disturbance with her razor-sharp wit, and comes out tops in any disagreement. She has in-depth discussions with coworkers on the bus about racial injustice, also on her first day. Could I teach incarcerated adolescents? Is that in my skill set? No, absolutely not. Do I doubt that Liza Peterson pulled it off quite this well? Yes. Yes, I do.
Passionately I’m pointing and perspiring as I walk back and forth in front of the class like a preacher delivering the sermon. The kids are leaning forward with laser-focused attention. Their body language encourages me. I start to feel lightheaded and am suddenly aware of energy moving quickly through my body. It’s an electric sensation. I am catching the spirit. One kid is leaning so far on the edge of the seat, it’s a wonder he doesn’t slip onto the floor. He has tears in his eyes as he embraces my words, shaking his head affirmatively as I speak. I am in a zone and he is riding the wave with me.
It’d be a lot more impressive if it didn’t happen every other day.
Her mischief with the truth is never quite so apparent as when she’s discussing race, which she does frequently. Apparently every person she comes across, adult or adolescent, refers to her as a ‘Nubian Queen’ and she seems to always be administering eloquent speeches about the injustices that her charges will face. I 100% believe that the system is not set in their favour due to their race, I just doubt the veracity of her alleged discussions.
Problematic conspiracy theories with zero references.
I know that there are a huge amount of problems with racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and also with how adolescents are dealt with generally. Combine the two, and the teenagers in Ms Peterson’s classes face a raw deal. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book helps. She throws out some statistics every so often but doesn’t state where they came from, and doesn’t provide references or a bibliography. She also, problematically, states as fact that the government decides when children are seven whether they will go to prison based on their reading age, and then twists the system to make sure they get there because they have a quota to fill. She states this as fact, and does not provide references.
On a personal note, I struggled to connect with the religious and spiritual references. The author firmly believes in past lives and spirits, which is fine by me. But she uses this as a reason to haaaaaate a fellow teacher with the casual reason that she must have done something heinous in a previous life.
She makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, my spidey-senses tingle; my intuition says she’s a dangerous and treacherous woman. I don’t know why and I have no rational explanation for it. The woman has triggered some genetic memory in me. I once got a vision of her that dropped into my spirit. I saw a lady of gallantry, a white heifer in the post-Reconstruction South who lusted after black men and would cry rape if they rejected her advances or if she got caught with her bustle up. Then she’d fan herself while sipping a mint julep as her Black buck was being lynched in front of a bloodthirsty cheering mob of savages for sport
My protective spirit for the boys is on high alert and my aversion toward her is so palpable that every time I see her I get a momentous rage to slap her fucking face. This definitely has to be some past-life shit for real, because on face value it makes absolutely no sense why I despise this woman, who has done nothing to me. And it’s not because she’s white.
Wow. That’s a lot to dump on a fellow teacher you don’t know. You know what the woman ends up doing to the author? Nothing. She’s forgotten about, other that casual references to Little Miss Muffet.
The writing itself… which I also disliked. Perhaps, by this stage, unsurprisingly.
Aside from my issues with the author and the content, I also wasn’t a fan of the writing. The author jumps from amusing anecdote to lengthy, angry rants without any warning, which can be very jarring. A lot of the same phrases and comments are repeated again and again, which I suppose makes sense considering she was only there three months. She refers to herself as ‘thug mama’ constantly and uses incongruous slang even in the prose sections. I found it really difficult to get on board with it. She does provide a glossary at the end of the words that the teenagers use, which is helpful, but I’d prefer that those were used solely within the dialogue.
I’m disappointed because I was very much interested in the subject matter, and it wasn’t really discussed. I wanted to know how the system works – are teenagers required to access schooling in prison? Are they separated by age or ability? Is there a curriculum and, if so, is it the same as in regular schools? She just doesn’t say. Instead, we get an ego-stroking, barely researched tribute to Liza Jessie Peterson and the place where she worked for three whole months.
So help me. Can anybody suggest any books about teaching incarcerated adolescents? Or incarcerated adolescents in general? I’d really like to learn more about this fascinating topic.