Articles by Debora Gordon

Debora Gordon

About Debora Gordon
Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

A Day in the Life of Lam Vo

By Debora Gordon

Lam ended a recent letter with “Write me when you find the time. I certainly have all the time in the world to wait.” This prompted me to ask him what it is really like to be living in prison and what typical days are like. He sent me a detailed account.

Five days a week, Lam gets up at 6:00 to work. Saturday through Wednesday, he’s a porter, helping with meal trays, including counting them after inmates eat to be sure they have all been returned. If not, there will be a lockdown until everything is accounted for. After breakfast, he has free time until he is allowed access to the showers at around 11:00 a.m.

During free time, he returns to his cell, which he sometimes refers to as his “room.” He uses this time to sleep, write, draw, read, listen to music, or workout. Like many prisoners, Lam improvises his gym equipment. “I get garbage bags and use my measurement bottle to fill up the bag with water to the right weight. Next, I double-bag it, wrap it with a sheet as well to make a handle for it. I would also have bag full with old magazine and package catalog to make a lighter weight. So, I would have four different weighted bags to lift, so it feels like being at the gym.”

He also drew a picture of the exercise yard to which he has access three times a week. He said it’s about half the size of a football field, and has a soccer field, basketball and handball courts, and some pull-up bars and other equipment.

Lam included this drawing of the exercise yard in his last letter Photo:Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon March 2013

Lam included this drawing of the exercise yard in his last letter
Photo:Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon March 2013

Lam also described the educational programs available. “Monday – Friday they have education and vocation which is school that does small engine and welding.  These people are put on the program because they (want) to complete the program to add to their file and receive A1A status.”

At that level, he wrote, “you’ll have more privileges, while C status when (you’re) not (allowed) much property in your cell and (not being allowed to) go to day room. C status are for people who isn’t programming an assign class.

“Besides yard, we have day room at night at 7:00 p.m.  A, B C take turn having day room for each night and it last about 1 hour 45 minutes. I lock up at 8:45 but for me,I go in at 8:00, I am in close custody which mean I can’t be out at certain time because of my case. High risk, I guess, but I should be getting out of it soon. You only have to be on it for a year. It’s basically to monitor your behavior and see if your (sic) any danger.

“Mail is usually pass out around 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 4-5 p.m is count time to make sure all inmates are in there (sic) cell, as well as head count for trays for dinner, which is serve around 5-6 p.m.”

I was surprised to learn that Lam has a television in his cell as well as other entertainment equipment. “I usually have my TV turned off til 5 or 6 and watch all the prime show on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN or whatever good show. I sleep around 10-11 p.m.”

Lam wrote that he looks forward to mail, phone calls, canteen options where they purchase food online, and his two days off work. “On those days, I actually enjoy spending time in my cell. I have the option to go to both yard or stay in. To be honest, I like being in my room because I got everything I need in here. I love it especially when my celly is not here so I have time to myself. People here are nice to communicate with, but it’s not the same as your friends.”

Body Art for Cars

Terry Cullinane and the My Beautiful Ride car with colorful design Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

Terry Cullinane and the My Beautiful Ride car with colorful design
Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

By Debora Gordon

Say you have a black Honda. Or a white Chevy van. Drive around all day and see dozens of cars indistinguishable from yours. But it does not have to be that way.

About two and a half years ago, Terry Cullinane and Frank Placas founded My Beautiful Ride as a vehicle (pun intended) for customizing cars with designs that are easy, affordable, and removable.

“They’re not ‘art cars,’” Terry told me. “It’s car art, body art for your car.” The art is in the form of vinyl graphics designed to work with the form and function of the vehicle.

If you are cruising around and see cars, trucks and vans with brightly-colored daisies reminiscent of the flower power days of the ‘60’s, silver hummingbirds, golden flames, and other colorful swirling lines and shapes, you probably are looking at some of the cheerful handiwork of the My Beautiful Ride artists.

Terry Cullinane shows off some of her My Beautiful Ride floral designs Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

Terry Cullinane shows off some of her My Beautiful Ride floral designs
Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

Graphic designers get some pay, credit on their website, and a percentage of sales. The art comes in the form of vinyl stickers that are designed to adhere to the car and withstand rain, wind, sun and are guaranteed for general wear and tear up to 11 years.

Easily applied, it can be a way to cover a scratch or simply create a unique look for your vehicle that can be removed, updated or modified at any time.

Frank Placas with a dragon design from My Beautiful Ride Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

Frank Placas with a dragon design from My Beautiful Ride
Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

Most of the customers for the birds and flowers are women; men often go for flames, swooping lines and skulls.

“We really enjoy the process,” Terry said, adding that it’s fun to see their designs floating through the streets of Oakland and environs, and it can be easy to recognize a friend’s car on the highway or parked on a local street.

You can see more of their designs at

A Former Teachers’ Union President Considers Her Legacy

Former Oakland Education Association President and current Sequoia Elementary School teacher Betty Olson-Jones poses in her 5th grade classroom Photo: Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon January 2013
Former Oakland Education Association President and current Sequoia Elementary School teacher Betty Olson-Jones poses in her 5th grade classroom
Photo: Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon January 2013

By Debora Gordon

Betty Olson-Jones is back in the classroom after two terms as the president of the Oakland Education Association.

As Betty was approaching the end of her second term as OEA president, she had the choice of retiring or going back to teaching. Now she heads a fifth grade class at Sequoia Elementary School, as she had been before. 

“I could have retired,” she said. “But I got involved in Social Emotional Learning. I want to help prepare kids to be thinking members of a democratic society.” 

On the whiteboard behind her, I see the next day’s class agenda, which includes a check-in at the beginning of the day – a chance for students to talk about their feelings and ideas, before they get into math, science, reading and other topics.

As OEA president, Betty set a more positive tone at the monthly site rep council and increasing attendance. She said she worked hard toward eliminating the screaming and fighting and air of incivility that had characterized meetings in the past. Betty also worked towards building relationships throughout the city, including the mayor, council members, and churches.

Betty was instrumental in establishing the Effective Teacher Task Force – a group of teachers, administrators and others who meet regularly to consider the challenges of effective teaching and how to best evaluate teachers. She also helped launch the Teachers’ Convention, an annual showcase of best teaching practices presented by district teachers.  

Among her biggest disappointments during her tenure as OEA president was the failure to settle the contract which expired in June 2008 (and which is still under negotiation). She cited many factors in the ongoing difficulties in settling a new contract, including the state budget and the recession, resulting in massive cuts to early childhood and cutting adult education as well as difficulty around the topic of how teachers should be evaluated.

Unions face challenges from many sides, she said, including from education reformers, “who are really are seeking to privatize education. They would be happy to measure effectiveness by test scores and keep a constant stream of inexperienced teachers.”

Teachers’ unions do not protect bad teachers and perpetuate the failure of public schools, Betty said, “but teachers are being judged on the basis of conditions that are often out of their control. The teachers’ union provides due process. I have watched teachers be terminated. I have counseled teachers out of the profession. I have watched teachers teach. I have asked them, ‘is this really what you want to be doing?’”

It is what Betty wants to be doing. Back in the classroom, she said, “something happens everyday that cracks me up.”  Her objective is to have students learn to question what they’re learning and to move from passive to active learning. Betty cited William Butler Yeats, who said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Looking at Lam & What Needs to Be Done

By Debora Gordon

Lam was, and perhaps still is, a young man with a lot of potential. He could have gone on to lead a life of commonplace trials and triumphs;  having a family, a job or a career, exploring his personal interests in art and body-building. Maybe he would have been one of the exceptional people. Or maybe he would have led an ordinary, but reasonable life.

Somehow, he got drawn into a life of crime, attracted by its misleadingly easy money and a superficial popularity among an underclass of gangbangers.  Although three or four shots were fired, only a single bullet changed the course of his lfe, and Alicia’s as well. We do not know if Alicia – who once aspired to work with troubled youth - might have had an opportunity to touch the lives of many.

I have never quite understood the attraction to crime. Some might say that those who get drawn into criminal activity have few other choices, but I would disagree to a large extent. Many in similar circumstances do not commit crimes, even when facing identical pressures and needs.  Perhaps sometimes it seems like there is no other choice, or circumstances conspire to make it appear so, but so many still do not commit crimes, there is at least a certain degree of choice.

Violence has created an ongoing, free-floating anxiety, since it seems a bullet can come flying out of nowhere. No place is entirely safe. While I believe that a significant percentage of my students have shared that same sense of the omnipresent potential for violence, I think too often, their response to it is a much greater sense of cynicism coupled with a shell of hardness, carefully cultivated to keep out as much pain as possible by not allowing themselves to care. Ultimately, this leads to a lack of empathy and a sense of obligation to anyone else.

My plan for addressing the violence is not about more cops or longer sentences or shot spotters or criminalizing behaviors that are thought to lead to crime.  I just do not believe you can arrest your way out of crime. I believe that the only way to stop violence, particularly gang-oriented, is to instill an internal locus of control. After all, the reason most of us refrain from committing violence is not because it is illegal, but because it is immoral.  Our response is internally generated by a complex web of parenting, values, education, role models, belief systems and opportunities to make other choices, which act as a counterweight against challenges posed by life circumstances such as poverty, failing schools, and a social and political climate that glamorizes violence and the kind of power that comes out of the barrel of a gun.

Education, of course, plays a critical role in that complex web.  The school district can and should play a critical role in violence prevention.  I advocate a program that would involve every teacher and counselor from kindergarten through twelfth grade, every parent, every student, and the business community, arts community, and all spiritual and religious leaders. The district needs to provide professional development and curriculum for all teachers, and it needs to be on-going, frequently assessed and evaluated.

Starting with the first week of school, every teacher would focus at least part of their lesson every day, every period, on the subjects of violence, non-violence, and conflict resolution. Science teachers, for example, can teach about communities as ecosystems and what happens when part of the ecosystem is damaged. Math teachers can teach about statistics, such as what happens when a percentage of a population is killed off. The possibilities for English and History teachers are limitless, but I can see a connection in every subject from physical education to foreign language.

The teachers would then revisit the subject at least once a month, for at least part of one period or one day.  Consistency is very important. Non-violence as an option is a message that must be constantly restated and re-taught.

Students at every grade level need age-appropriate instruction to understand what happens when a life is lost, or when a person is injured or wounded in act of violence. They need opportunities to discuss the violence that they have witnessed.  Those who have committed violence also need a place to talk, without fear of judgment or punishment.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the great Burmese peace leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, teaches the importance of listening to even those whose actions and ideas may seem abhorrent. It is essential to listen, to ask questions and to learn, if we are to really teach.

The district could then partner with the following groups in these ways:

  • Bookstores:  some years ago, in Chicago, there was a city-wide effort to have as many people as possible read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I could see various readings on the subjects of peace, violence, non-violence and historical events related to these things, being promoted here in Oakland, and bookstores could offer the books free or at substantial discounts to anyone willing to come to a reading group, led by interested teachers, parents, and other community members.  There could be a range of readings, so younger readers could also participate. Obviously, some of these reading/discussion groups could be virtual; texts could be made available online, and for iPads, Nooks, Kindles and other tablets, and, of course, online book clubs.
  • Film:  movie theaters, especially the Grand Lake and the New Parkway, would doubtless be willing to show films that relate to the promotion of discussion of non-violence, and again, there could be discussion groups, perhaps online.
  • Community Boards: could give free or low-cost sessions in how to resolve neighborhood conflicts, how to train parents and other community members to help children and adults who need more support.
  • Music: Students with an interest in music can take a lead role in organizing rap, hip hop and other spoken word artists to perform at block parties and elsewhere to promote non-violence.
  • Museums: the Oakland museum and other smaller art venues could have on-going educational exhibits on related artwork.
  • Parents:  workshops need to be provided to help parents:
    • Be good role models
    • Learn how to unintentionally avoid teaching violent behavior
    • Learn how to recognize the early signs of gang memberships
    • With strategies to help them with children who are already involved in violence
    • Cope with the stresses of parenthood
  • Block Parties for Peace:  quarterly (or more frequent) gatherings in the roughest neighborhood, working with leaders culled from those areas, where the neighborhoods come together (as a “village”) to provide more supervision and mutual protection for the children and each other.
  • Community Policing:  working with police to create Neighborhood Watch groups.
  • Marches and Rallies for Peace; Radio, TV, etc.:  There have recently been several community movements, such as Silence the Violence. I believe that message of peace and non-violence must be everywhere a person turns: radio, television, movies, performances, the Internet, in every class, discussed at home, discussed at work.
  • Other community events can be Peace and Non-Violence Festivals; student poetry and hip/hop rap slams with peace and non-violence as the theme, testimonials from those who have lost loved ones to violence, those who have survived acts of violence, those who have committed acts of violence but now renounce those acts.
  • Build a memorial, maybe in Frank Ogawa Plaza, to those who have died as a result of violence in Oakland.
  • Newspapers feature stories on student leadership for peace
  • School District can have a “Peace Blog” or other community forum on its website

This is only meant to be a preliminary brainstorm of ideas.  But I do feel that a very comprehensive approach, involving everyone in the community, is the only way to end the violence.  All of our children are at-risk, and if our children are at risk, then we are all at risk.  After all, they are the inheritors of the world.

Oakland Teacher Alison Ball Breathes Life into Math & Science


Alison Ball and her friendly classroom skeleton Photo: Oakland Voices/January 2013

Alison Ball and her friendly classroom skeleton
Photo: Oakland Voices/January 2013

By Debora Gordon

After early teaching stints in far flung locales from Ecuador and China to New York and Sunnyvale, 4th year middle school teacher Alison Ball, 29, came to Urban Promise Academy (UPA), where she is having a blast teaching seventh grade.

Aside from computation and life science, Alison is excited about Crew, a UPA program focusing on the social and emotional learning skills that are part of OUSD’s strategic plan.

“What drives my work,” Alison said, “is that it’s such a time of self discovery, with students getting to discover themselves as people, figuring out, ‘what do I stand for as a person? How can I navigate the social world that I’m in?’”

Alison helps provide opportunities for students to talk with one another about what they are studying. “What I find is that in general students will have the conversation when they have the skills to have the conversation. If sometimes there’s some goofing off, it’s because they don’t know how to have that conversation or they don’t know how to explain their thinking.” 

She uses a variety of strategies to help prepare students to talk about their thinking and how they arrive at conclusions.

“The math,” she explained, “is about the element of logic – students being able to see the logic and predictability, being able to solve problems, to ask what are my tools, beyond math, figure out possible outcomes. That element of mathematical thinking provides reasoning beyond math. Those kinds of things can be really empowering for students.”

Alison finds that the greatest reward of teaching is getting to spend time with young people. “My job never gets old, it’s never boring. There is always something that I‘m working on professionally, always new goals I’m setting.”

Although Alison did not originally set out to be a teacher, she says she tries to emulate her 3rd grade teacher Mr. Kraemer. “He had a sense of wonder in the classroom. There were always weird, gooey, crawly things around the classroom – worms and brine shrimp, and I loved the ‘ew, gross!’ factor.” She also values the high standard he had for his students.

Alison advises new teachers not to take on too much that first year, which can often backfire, she says.  She also reminds them to “breathe. At that moment, when you have a decision to make in the classroom, about how to respond to a student, that can feel really overwhelming, watching yourself making a decision, I definitely can and do breathe, on many occasions.”

A Call to Lam’s Mother

By Debora Gordon

Many, perhaps most, parts of this story have been hard to tell. I often imagine someone who might be personally affected by a particular part of the story looking over my shoulder.

As I write this section, I feel the phantom presence of Qui Lam, Lam Vo’s mother, although I had only met her a couple of times when Lam was my student, nearly seven years ago. I know her pain and sadness are deep, and while I feel this is an important story that should be told, I also can imagine a mother’s wish not to publicize the tragedy of her own child’s actions.

I was interested in talking to Qui Lam to understand more about the circumstances of Lam’s early life, and how his gang membership, arrest and incarceration have affected her and Lam’s brothers. I thought she might be willing to speak with me. But I also suspected that she might not be – because of the language barrier which would require a translator, and because I felt she might simply be in a state somewhere between grief, sorrow and shame.

Speaking no Vietnamese myself, I asked Kieu N., who had been my Vietnamese bilingual instructional assistant when I was teaching writing to adult ESL students in Oakland, to translate. A couple of weeks after Lam gave me his mother’s phone number during my December prison visit, Kieu and I called Qui together. No one picked up, so Kieu left this message on the answering machine:

I am calling on behalf of Debora Gordon, who was your son Lam’s teacher in Independent Study.

Debora said Lam has told you that she is writing a story about Lam for the Oakland Tribune, and that Lam spoke with you about arranging an interview with you. I worked with Debora as in instructional assistant, and she asked if I could serve as translator, since she does not speak Vietnamese. I would also come to the interview and be able to translate between Vietnamese and English for both of you.

 Debora would like you to know that her story, which is being published in a series of short reports, is meant to bring a greater understanding of how young people who have other choices wind up in gangs and being involved in acts of extreme violence. She intends to write this story sympathetically in that she will not be trying to paint a negative portrait of Lam, but rather understand what happened.

What she would like to ask you is to talk about your family’s journey here from Vietnam and what Lam’s early childhood was like, as well as how you felt about Lam’s increasing gang involvement, how you tried to help him, and how his crime and incarceration have  affected your family.

A few days later, Kieu and I tried again, this time as a conference call. Qui answered, but I was accidentally dropped.

I was surprised when Kieu called me back much later. She had spoken to Qui Lam for nearly an hour. I was sorry not to have at least been able to hear Qui Lam’s voice, but Kieu sent me her notes from the story.

During their conversation, Qui Lam repeated some parts of her story several times, such as the death of Lam’s father, leaving her with three children. Because she never learned to speak English at all, it was hard for her to know what her children were doing in and out of school.

Kieu reported that Qui became very emotional when she talked about what had happened with Lam, saying she had tried to teach her son to do well, and had pleaded with him not to associate with his friends who were obviously gangsters. She would tell Lam that his friends would not help him if they got into trouble, but Lam didn’t listen. She said that sometimes Lam and his friends would do drugs in their home. Now that Lam is in prison, she feels it is too late for her to help him anymore.

Qui Lam did not want to speak to me directly because she does not want her friends to know that Lam is in prison, feeling that people would laugh at her or treat her with derision. Whenever her friends ask about Lam, she tells them that Lam is studying in Los Angeles. I do not think she understands that this story has already been published.

Because of Lam’s arrest, conviction and incarceration, life has been very stressful. Her entire focus now is taking care of her three younger sons, who, Qui Lam said, were doing well at school, and behave well at home. She said it is very hard to share Lam’s story with anyone. It makes her feel extremely sad.

Although I did not get to speak to Qui Lam directly, if I had the chance, I would want to say that there were many social and political circumstances that have led Lam and countless others down this disastrous path. While parents do make a difference, sometimes these forces outweigh even committed and thoughtful parenting. The siren call of the streets is relentless. In a way, Qui Lam is yet another victim of this crime, someone whose life has inexorably altered, leaving deep psychic scars.

Next: District Statistics

Oakland Art Teacher Thi Bui Urges Students to Draw, Think Outside the Box

Thi poses questions for her students to explore.
Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices

By Debora Gordon

Thi Bui, an art and digital media teacher at Oakland International High School, described herself as “a little reckless. I break a lot of rules. I’m very comfortable letting go of the reins if there is enthusiasm. To some people, it might be a little freaky when students aren’t all sitting down at the same time, but I’m really good at getting out of the way so students can create projects.”

Her larger goal in teaching is self-sufficiency. “I want to spread the joy of figuring things out for yourself,” she said, “of problem-solving, of having your own ideas.” Her big project for this school year – at a school where everyone is an immigrant – is called “Nation of Immigrants,” for which students conduct oral histories.

Art is essential to the curriculum. “One of the biggest things we get out of art is problem-solving,” Thi said, “thinking outside of the box and the ability to fail successfully, revise your work and keep at it until you get the product and results you want.”

One of the greatest rewards of teaching, she said, “is the privilege of getting to guide someone, where they listen to you, and you’re a big influence on them.” Now in her 11th year of teaching, she’s more able to manage the demands of the classroom. “I used to have do put in 20 to 50 hours outside of class. Now I’m more able to plan while I’m in the shower, and I’ll actually only work when I feel like I’m doing good planning and I’m enjoying myself more with my family and can build on other prior experience.”

Last year, Thi taught a more traditional art class, with a focus on graphic novels. “People thought I would be sad about not teaching art, but I’m happy about the separation of teaching art from my art life.” As a practicing artist, Thi explained, “It’s a place where I get to work out my issues and I don’t have to tell anyone. It’s a completely internal road where I can work out my issues and anxieties.”

Images from Thi’s sketch book
Photo: Thi Bui

Born right before the Vietnam War ended, and immigrating here from Vietnam at the age of 3, Thi’s immigration experience is quite different from those of students coming here in their teens. But she addresses many of the same themes students explore in her classes, such as relationships, history and empathy. “The book I’m working on is an immigrant story. It gives a lot of weight to what happens before immigration, to the assimilation process, the American dream. We rely on our historians’ perspective of what happened in those countries, so I have grown up really frustrated with Vietnam War movies. And they’re all wrong!” Thi felt as a Vietnamese immigrant herself, she needed to bring to light some of what happened from a Vietnamese perspective.

A retrospective collection of Oakland International High School student immigration stories were collected in an anthology, available at Amazon.  You can see more of Thi Bui’s art at

School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Debora Gordon

Every time a student does poorly in school, or drops out, there is likely a great increase in the chances he will wind up in prison. I recall in my discussion with Lt. Jeff Smith at Kern Valley State Prison that 70% of inmates are high school dropouts. While correlation is not causation, there is no question that remaining in school through at least high school graduation substantially decreases the likelihood of criminal activity and subsequent imprisonment.

I can identify students who are struggling academically in school, and those who have limited impulse control and run into consistent behavioral problems. I realize it is not necessarily only these factors that lead to prison (or violent death), and these factors are not necessarily a prediction of prison, either.

Had I been asked to speculate which of the hundreds of students I have worked with might wind up in prison, I do not think I would have thought of Lam. Certainly not prior to his first brush with the law that landed him in Juvenile Hall. And I now think of some students from 10 or 15 years ago that I have run into lately, kids who were belligerent or years behind in school, several of whom seemed to be headed for big trouble.

Such as Marquis, now 23, who was, in the tenth grade, immature and rarely completed assignments. But when I ran into him a few weeks ago, he was finishing his A.A. degree at Laney, and getting ready to enroll in a pilot training program.

Or Matthew, a student who vandalized my car one day after I called his mother to discuss his behavior. He is now about 27, attending culinary school in Napa and married to Paloma, with whom he has a small child.

And there’s Jonathan, now 25, who spent most of his high school career hanging out in the hall, smoking cigarettes in the parking lot, writing graffiti, and having a generally contemptuous attitude towards school, now working in a local restaurant and studying at Chabot.

Lam, who turns 22 tomorrow, on the other hand, was a good student, did his assignments at a high level of skill compared to his peers, and was polite and was on time to class. Somehow, Marquis, Matthew, Jonathan and many others outgrew some adolescent behaviors, avoided serious trouble and now are building productive lives. But Lam got sucked into a gang, despite the best efforts of his adult Boy Scout leaders, his mother and his stepfather, and his teachers.

As I wrote at the very beginning of this series, my impressions of Lam were that he was a “nice kid.” In getting to know him through this Oakland Voices project, I wonder how this could have happened to him, (and, of course, to Alicia – the woman he was convicted of shooting in the eye). I have found him to be intelligent, reflective and compassionate.

Yet, I have to balance these qualities with the fact that he was involved (whether directly responsible or not) in a violent crime that has left one person with lifelong serious injuries, and that has impacted many beyond her, including Lam and his family.

Below is information I received from the OUSD Research and Development Department regarding the rate of dropouts for 2011 – the most recent year for which they have complete statistics. It is important to look at the number of students in the context of the percentage. While more than 10 times as many African American students dropped out as white students, the percentage of the total number of students is less than 7% greater, due to the low enrollment of white students.

African American and Latinos are disproportionately represented in prisons, and also have a substantially higher dropout rate in the Oakland Unified School District. Educators do need to ask themselves to what degree we are not serving these populations of students, resulting in their leaving the school system. If we are not preparing them for post-secondary education, or the workplace, then, intentionally or not, we may be preparing for the alternatives offered by the street, often resulting in gang affiliation, criminal behaviors and ultimate incarceration. While some high school dropouts do go on to lead productive and thoughtful lives,too many wind up dead or imprisoned.

Class of 2011 Cohort Dropouts: 766 students

African American:        350 students                30.8% dropout rate

Latino:                                255 students                30.0% dropout rate

Asian:                                 74 students                  15.4% dropout rate

White:                                 33 students                  23.1% dropout rate

Pacific Islander:            14 students                  35.0% dropout rate

Native American:           4 students                  33.3% dropout rate

Filipino:                               5 students                    33.3% dropout rate

English Learners:        219 students                36.6% dropout rate

Special Education:       118 students                33.7% dropout rate

Migrant Education:         10 students                32.3% dropout rate

(Note:  This is for district schools, plus two locally funded charters – Oakland Charter High and American Indian Public High – and a small number of special education students at Hillside Academy or non-public school special education programs.)

Since the Newtown shootings and other attacks that have happened since then, there has been more focus on gun violence.  I have heard many different solutions proposed, from arming teachers to background checks for gun sales. But I have not heard a significant proposal for explicitly educating children, starting in preschool and continuing through 12th grade, in non-violence, conflict and anger management, impulse control, the impact of violence on the offender and his/her family, as well as the victim and victim’s family, as well as in empathy.

Oakland Tribune reporter Scott Johnson recently wrote an article on the lack of empathy as a specific component in the perpetuation of violence. This is something I have believed for a long time, and although I would not describe Lam as entirely lacking in empathy, I feel perhaps empathy is not sufficiently developed in those who would pick up a weapon with the intent to cause great harm or death.

In my own classroom, since beginning this series of articles, I try to remember that much more than the subject matter, the students are learning me. They are learning how I handle conflict, stress, frustration, fatigue and other challenges as an adult, as well as how I express encouragement, compassion, hope and even joy and happiness. As teachers, parents and other adults, probably the greatest contribution we can make to reducing violence and helping our young people not go from school to prison, is to model the best behavior we can. Each time we interact with young people, we are giving them an example.  I hope to be a good one.

Going to Prison, Part III: Lam Tells His Story

There are layers of instructions for prison visitors, starting well outside of the gates. Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices

By Debora Gordon

On Sunday, December 9th, I headed back to prison. When I arrived, I learned the previous day’s lock down had been lifted. Many of the same visitors were there again. The woman who had worn  the six-inch heels on Saturday was now wearing sneakers.

One young woman in her 20’s was visiting her husband, who was serving a 20-year sentence. I mentioned that it must be hard to be separated for so many years, and not being able to really build a life together.

“No,” she said,” to my surprise. “I like it this way. I always know where he is, he doesn’t chase other women, and I just see him when I want to.”

Another woman, also in her 20’s, told me she had married her husband after his incarceration, and this arrangement worked well for her.

When I was called first into the screening area for my 8am appointment, I asked if it would take more than 2 hours for Lam to come again. To my surprise, one Correctional Officer (CO) turned to another and told them to summon Lam before I was even processed through the screening room.

By the time I got into the Visitation Room, Lam was actually coming in the door. I already felt like I knew him better, and I was anxious to learn about his life and his version of events that lead to his incarceration.

Lam’s family left South Vietnam in the late 1980’s, a few years before Lam was born in Oakland in February, 1991. He did not know much about his family’s life in Vietnam, nor why they had settled in Oakland. Lam’s parents had three sons together, but only Lam was given a Vietnamese first name. (I recalled him telling me even when he was my student, that he had not liked his name when he was a kid. Other kids teased him and called him “Lambchop,” which also later became a gang name, along with “Lamborghini.”)  His brother Jim, now 19, is studying engineering, and his brother John, 15, is a high school student.

More warnings on the way into the prison. Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices

When Lam was seven years old, his parents separated. A few years later, as far as Lam knows, his father was either strangled or stabbed to death in Oakland, due to some conflict related to gambling or drugs. His mother eventually went on to another relationship, and had a fourth son – Lam’s half-brother, Kevin, now 12 years old.

Lam told me his mother has never learned English, so he speaks fluent Vietnamese, but has never really become literate. He did well in elementary and middle schools. He participated in spelling bees and was a break-dancer, while maintaining a 4.0 average at Urban Promise Academy, where he also met one of the girls, Janette. She was in the car the night of the shooting.

Lam eventually went on to Fremont High, and then transferred to the Sojourner Truth Independent Study Program (ISP) in Oakland, where I became his teacher for about a year and a half.  He wanted to attend the ISP so he could work and go to school at the same time, and so that he would not have to attend classes all day for five days a week, as he had slipped into habitual truancy while at Fremont.

He worked at Office Max for a few months, and bagged groceries at Lucky. But his mother eventually asked him to stop because his income was interfering with their general assistance income. So, he began hanging out in the streets. His mother, and his putative stepfather (they had never married) threatened to throw him out if he did not start attending school regularly and stop gangbanging, but they never actually did.

Lam posed with an undecorated Christmas tree when I visited in early December 2012
Photo: KVSP Inmate Harrison

Growing up in the Fruitvale district, many of Lam’s childhood friends were Latino. They were becoming increasingly involved in gang activity, and so was Lam.  When he was about 15 years old, he and some other boys began stealing cars with scraped down keys called “jingos,” and going on joyrides, which eventually landed him in Juvenile Hall at the end of his sophomore year in high school. This was when his mother came to see me on the last day of school without being able to say much more than “Lam jail,” over and over again.

Lam said that he and 2 other boys had stolen a car that had been parked around 35th Avenue and Suter Street. They also had with them a gun stolen from Duane Mowrer, a Boy Scout Adult Troop Committee Member and a friend of Lam’s, which he told me was a .22 revolver, fully loaded with six bullets.

Lam had already become involved with the Boy Scouts, but despite being quickly promoted and given increasingly more responsibility, he continued gangbanging, getting involved with the 38th Avenue Locos.

The gang dealt coke, and Lam enjoyed spending his money on clothes. His mother was upset, and tried to talk to him, but he did not respect the rules and limitations his mother and step-father tried to impose. Although he came back to the ISP in the fall after his first arrest for stealing a car, he eventually dropped out.

There are watchtowers all around the perimeter of the prison. Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices

I finally felt ready to ask Lam about the events the night of the shooting. He began by saying he and another boy, S., had been hanging out that Friday evening, looking for parties. They were standing outside a friend’s house, watching cars drive by. The car carrying Alicia, Janette and another girl and boy, drove by and stopped at a red light.

When the light turned green, they expected the car to continue driving, but instead he said it backed up. Lam claims that he and S. saw this as a possible threat. “I was present,” he told me, but when I asked him if he pulled the trigger, he said he could not answer.

It was at this point that I realized that although already in prison, serving a long sentence, with seemingly little more to lose, I was not going to get a forthright answer from Lam.  He gave me the impression that maybe he had taken the rap for another guy who – because he had a small child – did not want to go to prison.

I do not expect to ever really know if Lam was the triggerman. It does seem clear from all accounts, that he was, at the very least, present. His lawyer, David Kelvin, and his Scout leader, Duane Mowrer, both seem to have at least some doubt, that he pulled the trigger. While I wish to believe he was not the triggerman, whatever the real truth, he certainly did not stop the shooting from happening, and it does not change Alicia’s injury.

View of prison from the road. Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices

Lam was not arrested until Thursday, October 22nd, 2009, nearly three months after the night of the shooting. Police came to his house that afternoon, when he was taking a nap, and took him to the police station, where he was questioned, he said, “for eight or nine hours.”

He was then taken to the North County Jail, where he was arraigned about a week later, and held until the preliminary hearing the following July, when the judge encouraged him to take a plea deal of a 25-year sentence, rather than risk an even longer sentence at the hands of a jury.

I asked what he thought led to his winding up in prison. “Too much freedom,” he told me. “The choice was there, but I felt untouchable. I thought I wouldn’t get caught.”  This is not too different from what my Juvenile Hall students told me when I taught there one summer about 20 years ago. Those boys said their parents and guardians allowed them to do whatever they wanted, with few responsibilities or consequences.

When he arrived at Kern Valley State Prison, he was beaten up by some other inmates, as many new arrivals are. He felt somewhat fortunate at not being subjected to a “buck fifty,” a slice up the cheek that leaves a permanent scar.  He requested to be moved to the SNY (Sensitive Needs Yard) where random prison violence is much less likely.

Since being in prison, Lam has begun work on his GED, studying math, English, Greek mythology and history. He expects to receive his diploma in about a year. He also works as a porter, passing out trays during mealtime and cleaning up afterwards. Working is considered a privilege in prison.

Since Lam had written to me his wish to be forgiven, I asked him who forgiveness is for, the forgiver or the forgiven. “It helps more the forgiver,” he said after some thought. I asked what he would say to Alicia if he were ever able to speak to her. “I wouldn’t know what to say,” he said. “Anything I could say would not make a difference.” He told me thinks of her often. “I hope she is well,” he said.

Next: Notes from a Phone Call to Lam’s Mother

Going to Prison, Part II: Getting In, the Visiting Room, and Lockdown

Visitors will see this sign as they enter the prison
Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012

By Debora Gordon

After my visit with Lt. Smith, I had some time to kill that Friday evening in Delano, California. While there may be more than meets the tourist eye, what the casual passer-through will see is mile after mile of strip malls and giant shopping complexes. The prison appears to the main industry there, except for retail and fast food.

I had an appointment to visit Lam the next morning at 8:00 a.m. Being obsessively punctual in all things, I arrived at 6:45 a.m. at the visitors’ parking lot. I was the second person there, after a young woman in her twenties, there to visit her child’s father, although the little boy was not with her.

It was briskly cold that December weekend. Before long, lots of other visitors started showing up, almost all of them women, many of them scantily clad within the confines of the prison’s visitor protocols – nothing too tight, short and revealing. Still, most were wearing not much for a wintry day. Most were wives and girlfriends, their men having been in for years already in some cases, for second or third times, and many with long sentences yet to serve.

There were a few men, including one man visiting his husband, and some young children, most of whom seemed to be under 10. I am pretty sure I was the only teacher there to visit a former student. Some of the visitors had driven all night from Sacramento, LA, San Diego and other distant points, because they could not afford the price of a hotel – at least $60 even for the cheapest digs in town.

We stood shivering in the parking lot for some time at an outdoor processing area until a woman dressed in a just barely-within-the-regulations, paper-thin dress and six-inch heels walked right past us at 7:30 a.m., saying the rules had changed and visitors were now allowed to wait indoors.

We walked briskly to the Visitors’ Center –  the first of several legs of a fairly long walk, probably close to half a mile from the parking lot to the actual visiting room. Everyone had their plastic bags full of quarters to purchase food (or what passes for food) from the vending machines, their IDs and nothing else.  Several people told me that I would not be allowed to bring in the pad of paper and pens I was carrying. “I have a note,” I said sheepishly, feeling like some 10-year old getting special permission to break the rules.

There was also a machine to purchase tokens at $2 each if you wanted to take a photo of the inmate, since as visitors we could not bring in cameras or cell phones, although apparently these things get smuggled in all the time. People are creative!

One of the other women told me that an 8:00 a.m. appointment would likely start at 9.  A bit after 8, they called me to step into the screening area.  I showed the Correctional Officer (CO) my note. “This says only one pen,” he said. “You have two.” I explained I wanted an extra in case one pen ran out of ink.

He disassembled both pens and looked at them. Satisfied, I guess, that I was not smuggling anything, he put the pens along with my ID in a tray and handed them over to be passed through a baggage screener, as I stepped through the metal detector.

I got a Visitor’s Pass and, along with a few other visitors, stepped into a gated area surrounded by an electrified fence topped off with barbed wire. A guard in a watchtower buzzed into another very tiny area, where he waited for the first gate to shut behind us, and then opened the second gate.

Then began the quarter-mile walk towards the visitation room. I was impressed at the speed with which the woman with the six-inch heels was walking. She beat most of us of the dozen or so visitors to the waiting area.

We laid our passes and ID on the counter and waiting for another CO to look at them. By this point, it was about 8:40. As we waited, I struck up a conversation with the mother of a young man sentenced to life for a botched burglary/homicide related to drug trafficking. We chatted about about the dress code for visitors, such as the “no underwire bra” rule for women. “I had to buy a new bra to visit my son,” she said. “I call it my ‘prison bra.’”

At what appeared to me to be a completely random moment, the CO starting calling people into the huge visitation room. We handed over our passes, and were assigned to sit and wait at particular tables.

It was a long wait. Many visitors spread out a huge junk food banquet of candy, cookies, cakes, packaged burritos, and soda on the table – perhaps $20 worth of food. I had some quarters in case Lam wanted a candy bar or one of the other junk food treats from the long row of vending machines against one wall.

At about 9:15, inmates starting coming into the room. I thought they would come out in the order we arrived, or maybe the order of the appointment times. Still, 9:30 a.m., 9:40 a.m. and 9:50 a.m. came and went, and still no Lam.

I asked the CO why he had not come out, and he said he didn’t know, but maybe he was taking a shower or just not ready.  I had plenty of time to observe the other inmates and their visitors. Sometimes there was just talk, but often there were hands held, heads laid on shoulders, sitting thigh to thigh, hands in the other’s hair, a bit of surreptitious kissing. Sometimes they would get up and slowly circle the room, hand in hand, many laps going nowhere.

Lam at Kern Valley State Prison in December 2012. On his left cheek is a small tattoo, 4 dots above 2 horizontal lines; “XIV.” Photo: Prison Photographer Inmate Harrison

Finally, at 10:10 – more than 2 hours after my appointment – he came out.  He told me they had only told him he had a visitor five minutes earlier.

I wondered if I would recognize him. Although I knew he would be one of the few Asians there, it had been more than five years since our last encounter. I also had been wondering about how to greet him. If I were a guy, I probably would have just gone with a handshake. Somehow as a woman, I felt like maybe something warmer would be expected. Still, I wasn’t sure if a hug was appropriate, or if it would be uncomfortable. But he recognized me (students from years ago always recognize me, all over Oakland; after 20 years, this is pretty much a few times a month), and it was easy to engage in a brief hug.

It was easier to slip into conversation than I thought it would be. I started off talking about his family’s immigration from Vietnam. I had been planning at first, to stay until Noon, but since we got started so late, I was deciding to stay until visiting hours ended at 2:15.

Suddenly – less than half an hour into my visit  with Lam – the CO got on the loudspeaker and announced the prison was on lockdown, that the inmates were to return to their cells, and the visitors were to leave. We all sat there for a moment in stunned silence.

The prison changed course and said the visitors could not leave, but the inmates had to go to their cells. At first, we were told that they might come back. We waited for an hour and half, until they told us all to leave. While it was an inconvenience and an annoyance for me, I felt more for those who had driven all night and would drive home without much of a visit  - or any visit, in some cases, as we saw plenty of visitors on our way out who were still in the waiting room.

We would later learn that an inmate had attempted to escape in a delivery truck. He was not successful, but did effectively end visiting hours for Saturday. I hoped to come back on Sunday, but was told that it was possible the lockdown would continue. Nothing to do at that moment, except find the least fast-foodish restaurant for lunch and hope for the best the next day.

Next: Prison Visit Part III: Getting the Backstory