Teenage girls do stupid things for boys.
That’s how I answered my friend when she asked me why I care so much about teaching creative writing to girls in prison.
Teenage girls, I shared, will rob, steal, cheat, sell drugs and even themselves just to win or keep the affections of a boy they’re “in love” with.
Head nodding, my friend asked if I had gleaned all of this wisdom from my volunteer experience teaching in detention camps. I said, “yes.” But that wasn’t true.
Truth is, I was once a teenage girl, too. He was a cute, older B-boy. Street smart with prep school charm. And I had a crush on him.
So when he smiled at me with those dimples and asked me to mail a package at the post office for him, I happily obliged — geeked he even noticed me to ask.
Problem is, my father also noticed when I – breaking from my normal routine – came home an hour late after school. Not thinking I had done anything wrong, I told him where I had been. And he lost it.
“How could you be so damn dumb?!” my dad yelled at me. “I didn’t raise you to be a drug mule!”
Drug mule? Granted, this was 1986 Detroit and I should have been up on the crack game. But, at 15-years-old, I was a sheltered honor student with a tendency to trust people way too much – especially one I had met in a loved one’s living room.
With the quickness, my crush was sent packing and I – steadied by the love of a protective father – went back to my boring life as a high school student.
I honestly, though, didn’t think how destroyed my life could have become until years later when I learned about Kemba Smith’s story. Ironically, we were both featured in the same magazine – I, as an up and coming filmmaker. Kemba, as a convict serving 24.5 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
At first glance, it looked like Kemba and I had nothing in common. But the more I read her story, the more I saw that we were the same. Only one year older than me, Kemba had been a college honor student with no prior criminal history. She had never used, sold or handled drugs. Her only crime? Falling in love with a drug dealer. And the judge and jury – looking for a poster child for President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs – made an example of her.
Immediately, I was drawn back to that crisp fall day when I innocently mailed a “package” for a boy I liked. What if I had been arrested? And what if – even though I had no prior criminal history and was an honor student just like Kemba – I had been convicted? How different would my life have become?
I didn’t know it at the time, but my experience planted the seed for my work with girls in prison and motivated me to conduct a writing workshop in a women’s prison as a newspaper intern to research what became my thesis and Showtime film, “Carmin’s Choice.”
Walk into any prison today and ask any locked up woman (as I did) or girl how she got there and she’ll tell you — BECAUSE OF HER BOYFRIEND. That’s when it hit home for me. My crush, Thank God, wasn’t my boyfriend, but because I liked him, I could have easily ended up in the same position as these girls.
Pointblank: IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME.
Now, I’m not naïve. Using my novel, “Address: House of Corrections” inspired by my deceased grandmother’s life as an ex-convict to teach incarcerated girls creative writing won’t fix their past choices. But I do know that writing heals. It has strengthened my sanity more times than I can count. So, by teaching them to write, I can help cultivate their critical thinking, build their self worth and unleash their voices, so they’ll be empowered to make better choices once they’re released.
Is my goal ambitious? Absolutely. Has my journey to teach these girls become long and arduous? No doubt. But will I ever give up? Hell no.
Because writing, Fam, is a gift to me and I must pay that gift forward. More than a mission, it’s become my life’s work.
*Note: Justice served, Kemba Smith was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and now works as a national public speaker, author and criminal justice advocate.
Monice Mitchell Simms is a LA based sociolinguist scholar, a published author and an award-winning screenwriter-filmmaker. You can contribute to her life’s work of teaching writing to girls in prison at www.patreon.com/monicemitchellsimms and follow her on Facebook, Twitter & www.monicemitchellsimms.com.