Friday, December 9, 2011

Pit Bulls, Parolees, and Second Chances

a few notes on Christmas miracles

Although it's the holiday season, which is to say, it's the time of year when we are risking pepper spray with every visit to Wal-Mart, it is also that time of year when we have the chance to do right by the world --- to give a little extra to the Salvation Army folks outside the Post Office, or to add a second offering at church.  Yet as we look around, it is easy to be discouraged.  Does it do any good?  Maybe people are poor because they deserve to be, or maybe the people in jail are all hopeless losers.  They are just feral dogs, unfit to be let into the hearts (and classrooms) of mainstream society.

Then again, maybe not.  Enter Animal Planet.  This channel sponsors a show called "Pit Bulls and Parolees" and they filmed an episode last summer at AVC.  The show features an animal rescue group and the folks they hire --- ex-cons, who (like the dogs being rescued) have an unfair reputation as being without value.  One of the fellows involved with the rescue project is also a writer, so for the episode that was filmed at AVC, the producers set him up on a blind date with me and adjunct instructor Nicelle Davis, to do some unrehearsed, unscripted reality tv.  It was then that I met Deshaun Lavender.

He was, as the saying goes, an ex-con, and a pretty hardcore one at that.  Yet he also was a poet, a generous and kind soul, and a survivor.  Let me share his story in his own words.

"The early days of my life were scarred by tragedy.  My father was killed by the LAPD when I was just three months old.  As a single mother, my mom did her best, but she was killed by a drunk driver when I was 12 years old."  This sounds like the opening of a Charles Dickens novel, but I have worked with Deshaun, and it's a true story, and not all that uncommon.  In an autobiography that he wrote for the AVC Blog, he goes on to explain the almost inevitable consequences.

"Young and confused, I lost all direction in my life, and though I did not realize it then, I was headed for a life of self-destruction.  Even the moral principles and family values that had been instilled in me were not enough.  The place where pain exists without any excuses welcomed me as if I were a distant cousin.  At the age of 13 I was initiated into a turbulent lifestyle of gang violence and criminal activity.  My new tribe became the Four Trey Gangster Crips and I began to live my life by the rules of the street.  I lost the vision of my family expectations."

The usual outcomes followed.

"By 23, with two prison terms under my belt, I was arrested for attempted murder and robbery, and would spend the next 15 years of my life incarcerated."

Like Malcom-X and others before him, it was in prison he was able to use reading and writing as a tool for self-reflection.  He wrote poetry, he educated himself, he thought about where he had been and what it would take to get to someplace better.

"Finally the year 2011 arrived and I was released back into society with an understanding of the what it would take to maintain my freedom.  Through the guiding light of Higher Powers, I was led to a pit bull rescue center called Villalobos.  This is a place where not only pit bulls get a second chance at life, but so do parolees.  Here I found not only a job but a passion, and I was allowed to know the love of a cause --- the cause of rescuing and rehabilitating the most misunderstood breed of all dogs.  In the process, my own life has been changed forever.  I can identify with the stigma placed on these pit bulls because to society, I too am a pit bull, except I am a two-legged one.  If I deserve a second chance, so do they.  I have embraced the cause to fight for the most amazing dogs in the world."

During his summer poetry lesson with me and Instructor Davis, we were both impressed by his integrity, his sincerity, and his generosity.  With the help of Dr. Fisher and the AVC Foundation, Deshaun was able to enroll at AVC for fall term, and has been a solid presence in my English 101 night class all fall.  True, he still won't use italics correctly, and true, in his rough drafts he capitalizes nouns as randomly as if he's trying to mimic the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but so what?  The main thing that counts is his spirit, his drive, and his willingness to improve.  He is like so many of my students, kicked around by life but trying to end up a better person in a better place.

He has been blessed with many gifts, and now is finding the courage to use them.  He has confided in me that he is becoming a father finally to a child he barely knows, which itself is a very brave thing to man up to.  Deshaun has been blessed too because he has been accepted by a new family, the ones centered around the rescue center's founder, Tia Torres.  As he says, "Tia has the biggest heart on any person I've ever encountered."  If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to keep a gang-banger out of jail.  "It's because of her," he says, "that I have been able to redirect my energies into something that I have come to believe in as deeply as I believe in myself.  Second chances are real, and of that, I am living proof."

Meeting him has made me ask of myself, What else --- who else --- around me deserves a second chance too?  It is the right time of year to go and find out.

1 comment:

  1. Where more than at our community colleges do we find adults climbing out of dead-end lives into unfettered growth? This Spring (2012) we see LA County abandoning their Adult School program to address draconian budget cuts, and the only front line left is the Community Colleges. The persistent erosion of our state and national infrastructure is selling our futures and those of our descendants for short-term profits in the pockets of the richest 1/1000th of our society, and the canary in this coal mine is Education. For every person on an upward trajectory like Deshawn, there are a dozen we would love to work with, who will not be getting any help because voters have chosen the path of immediate expedience instead of sustainable development...unless maybe John Q. Public finally sees the light.