Like most people in the City of Lock Haven, I got the news of the drug bust involving current and former Lock Haven University students from The Lock Haven Express last week.
I guess, like most people who read the news, and I would think, like most parents, I was stunned by both the crime and the punishment. I don't drink, smoke or do drugs-I have no vices-and I am well aware that our city, county and, indeed, our state itself are rife with the problem of drugs. But at the same time, I cannot help wondering what it must be like to lose your 23-year-old son to 17 or 50 or 70 years in prison? I don't think I will be able to ever sleep a wink at night anymore.
I often teach Gwendolyn Brooks' great poem, "We Real Cool," in my introductory literature classes. It is short poem, a sad poem:
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
In their responses, my students, boy and girl alike, our children from Central Pennsylvania, write of themselves or their friends who fell through the cracks, many of whom started with the novice and dangerous thrill of underage drinking, of smoking pot with friends in the backwoods somewhere, with many of them moving on to hard drugs while still in their teenage years.
They admit to having nowhere to go, nothing to do, a defeated feeling of a rural malaise that pulls these young men and women into the temporary holdings of drugs and alcohol the way the Pied Piper charmed away the children in the tragic town of Hamelin in Robert Browning's great poem. Sometimes the deadliest of these instruments appear golden to inexperienced eyes. They write about how some of them (sometimes they themselves are the protagonists of these stories) turned back at the crucial moment because of parental, law enforcement or other authority figures they respected snatching them back from being swallowed by the underbelly of our towns and cities.
Once, a young man wrote this unforgettable observation about a school counselor who helped him: "I grew up angry, watching my family claw its way out of poverty. I watched my father struggle to support a family with nothing. I did not believe that human life had any value because nobody valued us. Then I came back when (name omitted) showed me that he valued my life, that he wanted me alive, that he wanted me to go to school and make a decent life for myself. That is why I am here today."
A painful but true lesson to learn, isn't it? A human life only has the value "we" give to it. Some of these students share their stories of sobriety of a week, month or a year from alcohol or drugs like you or I would celebrate a birthday. It is a birthday for them.
The arrest of these young men affects me profoundly both as a parent and as a teacher. As a teacher, it disturbs me that while state funding for public education is steadily eroding, the Department of Corrections maintains its budget from year to year. It concerns me that while the proposed 2012-13 state budget for the 14 state universities is further reduced this year by 20 percent, thus bringing the two-year cuts to higher education to 34 percent. And, while our governor has even proposed cuts to early educational programs such as Head Start, Pre-K Counts and Accountability Block Grants, our state funding for the department of corrections remains untouched at approximately $1.87 billion from its 11 percent spending increase from last year.
I look at these four young men who are facing these mind-boggling sentences and I am stunned at the way their futures have been foreclosed to them. I look at them and I see the terror in their eyes. Is there a way to show them that we value their lives? Perhaps, we, as a community, should ask ourselves what we could have done to prevent this untimely closing off of four youthful futures?
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Gayatri Devi teaches English at Lock Haven University. She lives in Lock Haven.