Produced as part of the class at LJDC, the poem is only one of a myriad of projects Johnson helped the detainees, ages 11-17, create in order to channel their emotions into something productive and creative.
“I find that the incarcerated students — the students who are from low-level income places or grew up in southern Louisiana — like opportunities to educate themselves, be educated and progress, especially when it comes to the creative side of things, the artistic side of things,” Johnson says as she shuffles through her folder, which brims with students’ works and stage directions. “They don’t have that channel to let that aggression and emotion out.”
She presented the final product, a piece called “Eyes of the Sun” at the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival on April 15 in Washington, D.C. Johnson says the students scraped and sculpted the script to ensure a nuanced performance. The class later received a video message from Split This Rock Board Secretary Susan Scheid: “We loved your video, and we’re sending you back big love and acceptance,” she writes. “Keep up the good work.”
“We took it line by line,” Johnson says.
“You know, ‘When I hear click clack,’ what do you want me to do? How do you want me to say that? You want an aggressive tone?’” The class convenes every Friday for an hour, save for center lockdowns. She teaches one to 10 kids at a time, often beginning the day with a video before delving into lessons and what she calls “lab” and “studio” times.
The 29-year-old Johnson says the key to her class is co-creation: She allows the class to change certain aspects of lessons to better fit their interest. The sense of ownership they receive from the collaboration process, she says, unifies her students no matter race or socioeconomic background. The students also become invested, and they expect no less of their instructor.
“In working on this poem and the video, there have been times where I have come to class and I have not rehearsed; I have not rehearsed and I’m forgetting words I don’t know, and the class collectively has said, ‘You know what? Don’t come here like that again. Practice,’” she says.
Like her students, Johnson says she comes from the chaos of a non-conventional family and socioeconomic strife, and she tries to convey to her students that their hardships do not warrant self-destruction.
“I wanted to show them that you can take this life and turn it into something beautiful,” she declares.
Some of her students attend only two classes before being released from the center. Some of them, she says, are students who leave LJDC only to return weeks later. According to a press release, 80 percent of LJDC detainees are people of color, almost double the non-white population of Louisiana on the whole. Nationally, 24.5 percent of incarcerated children will be incarcerated again within three years.
“I’m really impressed with what Alex has been doing with the students. She’s been able to show them how to express their views and opinions about various things in a more positive manner,” says Delores Roberts, an employee within the LJDC.
Johnson says of all her students, her favorites are incarcerated kids because she enjoys turning problems into art and enabling cooperation among inmates from different gangs, backgrounds and family settings. For her, the payoff is watching the students experience the beauty of their words.
“I still remember when I put it in class for the first time, they sat there and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s dope,’ clapping and stuff. They were proud of themselves, and they should be.”
See a video of Johnson performing “Eyes of the Sun” on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KF-x-qGSeUg&feature=emshare_video_user.