Being the new kid on the cell block was a test this teacher passed

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    Pamela Hooks (Image courtesy of FirstPerson Arts)

    Pamela Hooks (Image courtesy of FirstPerson Arts)

    West Philly native Pamela Hooks had a mortgage to pay, so she picked up a job as a teacher at a prison. She learned how to take care of herself in a classroom of 40 men who needed skills to re-enter society — until one guy came along and she almost let down her guard. 

    Freelance TV producer Pamela Hooks grew up West Philly before it became University City. Hanging out on 52nd Street, she thought she had seen it all. Years later she took a job as an instructor at a prison — she had a mortgage to pay — trying to teach a room full of men some of the skills they would need to re-enter society. She built up her armor and learned how to get through to at least some of them. And then he entered her classroom … the guy with the dreamy eyes. And she almost let down her guard. But those handcuffs sure had a way of reminding her of her priorities.

    Hooks told the following tale at a story slam in front of a live First Person Arts audience earlier this year. The theme was “new kid.” Listen to her story at the top of the page. [Audio production by Kimberly Haas.]

    I grew up in West Philly. I ice skated every Saturday at the skating rink. And I went to Lea, across from West Philly High, which was sold several years ago. I’m a West Philly girl. My parents were hard working, blue collar. And I want for nothing.

    West Philly, when I was growing up, was not University City. It was just West Philly. And people from Penn knew people in my neighborhood, because we had friends who went to Penn. And there were white and black people living at 50th and Locust, where I lived.

    So I grew up right down the street from what we consider Philadelphia’s Harlem, 52nd Street. Y’all know where 52nd Street is? So I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen the big shoes. I’m a child of the ’70s. I think I’ve seen it all. Plus I saw “Shaft” and “The Big Mac.” So that’s the basis of all of anything I know about being ‘hood in the street. Because West Philly was just cool and homogenous, and people were, like, hippies, and people loved each other. And it’s different now. It’s definitely different now.

    I am a TV producer by profession. I worked at Channel 6, Channel 3, New York, ABC, bla bla bla, ding ding ding, and all of a sudden I needed to pay the mortgage, because I was freelancing. And I landed myself as an instructor.

    So my story is this: I was a new kid, but the new kids that came into my classroom were more … new kids to placement. They came in sad, kind of sullen, kind of … all of a sudden the ‘hood was gone and the were here.

    I taught young men from the ages of 19 to 60. And when they walked into my room, I was like: “Hi, I’m you teacher. And I’m going to teach you how to work a computer. And then you’re going to learn how to go back into the world.”

    Because my classroom was in a prison.

    And I was there, and I am there every day. And I meet people who come in and out of those doors as either new kids — like “Oh sh–. I’m in prison” — or “Been here. Done that. Who are you?” And either they’re mandated to be in my classroom because that’s what the judge said, or they just need to get off the block.

    Either way, there I was in this classroom. And the young men that are coming into my classroom are like: “So who’re you?”

    And I was like: “I- I- I- I’m your instructor. I’m going to teach, um, reentry and, and, life skills and, and, um, you’re going to learn how to use a computer, ok? Is that ok? And everything good?”

    I don’t know anything about the judicial system. I don’t know what you need to do to get out of here. All I know is you’re in my classroom, and my supervisor said: Just make it what it is; just do what you can to help them — you know – in their re-entry.

    And a lot of them were not re-entering society. They were going upstate. So I had men who were going upstate. So I was really sort of new at this. And they were sort of like: “All right. So what are we gonna do?”

    Some of them came in and looked like my son. Like they really needed a mama, a sister, a friend. I did all I could. And before you knew it, I went from three men in my class to 40. Forty in the morning; 40 in the afternoon — because I created this great space for them to live.

    But one day, as I was learning how not to be the new kid … I had my armor on; I was tough. I had, you know, I had — the look was “Don’t mess with me. I’ve been here a couple of months. I can see you.” I knew who played games, who was the gamer, who was the player. I knew it all … except, one day a guy came in, and he had the dreamiest eyes I have ever seen in my life.

    I was like: Oh my god, it is true: All the good men are in prison.

    And I was single, and he had game, and all of a sudden he was looking at me like “Ma. I need some pencils.”

    I was like: “Ok … pencils for you…”

    “Yo, ma. I need some paper”

    “OK. Paper for you…”

    A couple of months went by. He was like “Yo, ma. Yo, can you bring me some cigarettes?”

    I was like: “Oops!” All of a sudden I sobered up, and all I could hear was the clinking and banging of handcuffs that steadily walked in and out of the hallways while I opened and closed the door. And I was like: That was not gonna be me. And I woke up, and I said, “Mmm-mmm, honey. This ain’t no new kid on the block no more. I got a mortgage to pay. Back up.”

    And I became the old broad on the block.

    Pamela Hooks was born and raised in West Philly. She is a video producer and media consultant with over 25 years of local and national experience.

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