I came across this truancy scare video the other day. The video talks about how truancy leads to dropping out and how dropping out leads to a “lifelong inability to find gainful employment (and) make a meaningful life.” It has kids talking about how they were rebellious (the horror). They talk about abusing drugs, about violent boyfriends, about being homeless.
And then there is this asshat. She’s a clinical psychologist who is trying to scare twenty-somethings into getting serious about their lives. Apparently, if you don’t get your shit together by the time you are 25, you will be playing catch-up forever. And by playing catch-up she means that your career, house, spouse, children, dog, and picket fence will be a few pottery barn items short of perfect.
Did you get the message everyone? Are you clear on what success looks like? Are you fully convinced that education overcomes everything, as the woman in the truancy video claims? Oh, and about that 50% of recent grads who are unemployed or underemployed. No need to worry about that, says the asshat, you just focus on getting yourself into that other 50%. Fuck those other people.
We are inundated with messages every day about how we as individuals can end up on top (or at least not on the bottom) of this big, hot mess we are in. We are told that, if you do the right thing, you will be rewarded. Maybe, as in the case of that video, some people with their hearts in generally the right place will acknowledge that there are social circumstances that lead people to “end up” in the criminal (in)justice system.
People don’t just end up in prison. They are targeted. You will not be rewarded for doing the right thing. In fact, you will generally suffer for it. You might be rewarded for obeying the rules, depending on who you are. Or maybe, if you just stay in your place and don’t raise too much hell, people won’t actively go after you. You might be congratulated if you define success as some formerly truant kid going back to school with a desire to join the Coast Guard. (Hey, now instead of going to jail, that kid can spend his life putting drug runners and immigrants in prison. Success!)
As someone who made truancy into something of an art form, when I first watched the video I just wanted to write a post telling people how much bullshit school is and to fuck up all they want. I did not skip school because I was suffering outside of school. I skipped school because I was suffering in it. It was boring and authoritarian and I was not going to waste any more precious minutes of my life in that place. I don’t regret for one minute any day that I ditched for the beach. If I had to do it all over again, I would have been absent all 45 days that one quarter instead of just 43.
Despite skipping school, getting kicked out, and generally doing my best to fuck up as much as possible, I’m not in prison. I’ve managed to support myself since I was seventeen. I haven’t killed anybody or overdosed on heroin.
Do you know why I am not in prison? I’m not in prison because, when I was caught stealing or drinking or smoking or… (well let me keep some secrets), the police were usually not called. Even when they were called, I never saw the inside of a police station. At worst, they called my parents. Usually, they didn’t even do that.
These kids are not “ending up” in prison because they have a bad home life and are not staying in school. They are ending up in prison because the criminal (in)justice system targets them in ways that it never targeted me. Our schools are filled with cops just itching to get more fodder for the prisons/work camps/torture chambers. They are arresting kids for throwing paper airplanes and six-year-olds for tantrums.
Some of us can fuck up quite a bit and still make a reasonably comfortable life. Some of us can spend a few decades with whiskey and cocaine and still go to an ivy league school and become president. And some of us can get busted one time with a few joints and have the rest of our lives ruined for it.
The grand trick is that we pretend like there are rules that apply to everyone. But they don’t. Uber-privileged people ignore the rules and are fine. Marginalized people get fucked even when they obey them. The rest of us are impregnated with fear of fucking up and misdirected into pursuing some illusory goal of personal achievement instead of focusing on the obedience training system that funnels us into our proper place.
I can’t in good conscience tell people to just go forth and fuck up. Some of us don’t have the luxury. But don’t respond to the unemployability of dropouts with criminal records by making some half-assed attempt to get some of them back into the funnel. Question what the hell is going on with our criminal (in)justice system. Ask why people without alphabet soup at the end of their names can’t make a living. Get pissed that half the people with alphabet soup at the end of their names can’t even get work.
Disobey as much as you possibly can. The rules were not made for your benefit.