Ghost Whisperers

Emily Kask
Jesmyn Ward near DeLisle Bayou, DeLisle, Mississippi, August 2017

Mr. Eady is a student concern specialist at North Charleston High, in Charleston, South Carolina. South Carolina was one of four states I visited to research—for my play Notes from the Field—what has come to be known, among social scientists, educators, jurists, politicians, and grassroots activists, as “the school-to-prison pipeline.” I met Eady when I took a side trip to Charleston while traveling up and down the “Corridor of Shame,” a stretch of towns along I-95 with about thirty-six substandard schools. Many children in these schools are travelers on the school-to-prison pipeline.

During the Obama administration the Justice Department released data revealing the overuse of expulsions and suspensions to discipline kids who live in poverty. Black, brown, Native American, and poor white children are disciplined more harshly than those in the middle and upper classes. If you are not in school, you are in trouble. Hence the schools themselves have been widely cited as the reasons why kids end up in juvenile facilities and from there begin cycles of incarceration. But schools are just one element in a series of problems that includes poverty, the drug economy, violence, mental illness, and our unrealistic expectation that the family as a social structure suffices as a protective antidote to all of the above.

If schools are to meet the demands of the modern world, they need to be more than sorting mechanisms designed to identify who goes to college, who joins the workforce after the twelfth grade, and those for whom there is no place. They need to be reimagined as centers for a culture of learning and growing in which students, teachers, staff, administrators, and parents are respected and cared for intellectually, physically, and creatively.

Tony Eady was about the 250th person I interviewed. He had worked in a maximum-security penitentiary before becoming a student concern specialist at North Charleston High. For Eady, students, teachers, and administrators in undersourced schools in poor neighborhoods are in as much of a pressure cooker as inmates and prison guards:

This job can be overbearing. This job can cause you to step outta your character…. Because I used to work in a penitentiary—I used to work at a maximum-security prison—I tell the kids; “This is just a rehearsal!” I tell the kids this: “When you get on that bus [to prison]—you get sentenced…you heading to one of those institutions, you have to change. You can’t be the same person you were when you walked into the courtroom…. You can’t be the same person because they are not normal people back there. Everybody is trying to get after you, or get over on you. It’s different…. It’s [words fail him here—he uses a gesture]. You have to step out of your character. There’s animals back there. People get raped, people get beat…

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