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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Scared Twisted

As with most any junior high, the announcement of a school assembly was always cause for some great jubilation. We were never told what it was going to be, and we didn't care. It was the not knowing that allowed our imaginations to run wild, at least for the ten minutes or so it took to realize that it was going to be another dreadful excuse to get out of class. The "pep" rallies before big games were the worst, especially for those of us, like myself, who remained pepless.

Apart from those, we had a yo-yoing demonstration once (a real traveling show that was later parodied on The Simpsons). We were subjected to hour-long presentations about fire and tornado safety (I had a soft spot for those, if only for the implied threat of carnage). Once, we were forced to sit still while a man showed a short film and then explained in painful detail how we all might have a fun and exciting career waiting for us in the logging industry.

The one that made any sort of lasting impression on me, though, was in sixth grade. It was right around the time, maybe a year or so after, Scared Straight first aired on the local public television station. We were all excited about it back then, not for the point it was trying to make, but rather because it was the first time any of us had heard the word "motherfucker" used on the TV. And for some of the kids in my class, it was the first time they'd heard a lot of those words, period.

Local school administrators apparently liked the whole Scared Straight idea. But instead of just selecting a handful of the really bad kids and sending them off to a local prison to be harangued by cons doing hard time, our administrators decided to bring the cons to us and scare the whole school straight in one fell swoop.

There was only one prison in Green Bay, and it lay about a half-mile from where I grew up. The Green Bay Reformatory, it was called back them (now it's the Green Bay Correctional Institute). It was an enormous, low, gray stone structure with guard towers at each of the four corners and a couple of smokestacks sticking up in the middle. In later years, at a point during which city planners weren't thinking too clearly, they decided to run a freeway along one side of the prison--apparently in an attempt to insure that escape attempts went that much easier.

It also seems that school administrators weren't thinking too clearly when they chose an inmate to come to Washington Junior High to explain the horrors of prison life to us.

We all gathered together in the big auditorium with the beige plastic seats, which meant getting out of gym class for me, which made me happy. And when the principal (whose name I forget right now--he was a moody little bald man with horn rims) told us what we were there for, I got maybe a little too excited. A real criminal! Better yet, a real criminal who was going to swear at us!

After they introduced him, out he came, and though my enthusiasm immediately started to melt, it didn't melt away completely. But I still had to keep reminding myself that he was a "hardened criminal."

Instead of a monster, what strolled out on stage was a small, skinny white guy wearing jeans and a faded orange t-shirt. He had tousled brown hair with bangs down into his eyes and a skinny, dirty mustache. He looked like most any local creep you'd see around town. Worse yet, he wasn't even wearing handcuffs or leg shackles.

I remember thinking that, if he chose to, he could just run away. There were no cops around--at least no obvious ones. He was out on stage all alone. Just him, a wooden chair and a microphone. He could just jump off that stage and run. I was kind of hoping he would.

Instead of running, though, he sat down in the chair and started talking.

He explained that he was serving an eight-year sentence for grand theft auto. He hadn't hurt anybody, didn't use drugs, didn't break anything. Just got a little drunk one night and took some guy's car. And now he was paying the price.

When it got to prison life, when I was expecting all the cuss words and the bloody stories to start flowing like water, he remained as calm as ever, speaking in quiet, even tones.

"Yeah," he said, much to my surprise, "it's really not so bad. I got a TV and a stereo in my cell. I got a lot of friends there. The food's pretty good..."

Much, I imagine, to my principal's horror, this hardened con they'd chosen went on to tell 200 fourth, fifth and sixth graders how great and easy prison life was. Exercise, fresh air, TV, magazines, life-long friendships, anything you'd like.

Before he finished, though, he said, "So stay away from crime, kids. It's no fun at all."

The kid sitting next to me whispered, "No fun at all? His cell sounds a lot better than my motherfucking bedroom."

(After seeing Scared Straight, we tried to sneak the word "motherfucker"--or some variation thereof--into every sentence.)

In the days that followed, our distinguished guest was the sole topic of conversation on the playground, at lunch, and after school. Anyplace that the teachers couldn't hear us. The teachers probably knew already, but this con had the exact opposite effect on us that he was supposed to. If it was supposed to be part of his community service, I wonder if it counted.

"Man, when I get my driver's license, I'm gonna steal some cars!"

"Yeah, and rob some places. The prison sounds cool!"

"Better than living with my motherfucking parents!"

And sure enough, a number of local kids who were there with me that day, I discovered much, much later, ended up in prison. Though I may not have ended up in prison, I did spend a good ten years as a reasonably successful petty thief. And I'm proud to say that it's quite likely a direct result of having attended Washington Junior High School, my alma mater.