Essay: 'Here’s how I use my story to teach incarcerated kids that writing matters'
This essay was originally published in The Marshall Project.
Recently, at one of the writing workshops that I teach at three juvenile lockups in and around my hometown of St. Louis, one of my students posed a provocative question: “Why should I write about changing the world when the world doesn’t care about me?”
The tall, lanky 16-year-old asked his question in a slow, rebellious twang that reminded me of how I spoke as a child.
“You should write about changing the world so that the world can start caring about you,” I quickly responded.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said.
While my instant answer could have been met with skepticism, my students, who range in age from 13 to 17, know that I am not just talking in a vacuum.
They know that in the late ’90s, when I was 16, I sat in the city’s juvenile detention center before being certified as an adult and standing trial for participating in two armed robberies. They know that I was convicted of 17 felonies, and sentenced to a total of 241 years in prison. And they know I served nearly three decades before getting out on parole at age 43.
While these kids are facing the school-to-prison pipeline rather than the youth superpredator panic that ensnared me when I was tried, convicted and sentenced, the point is the same: If they don’t change their lives, what likely awaits them is prison or death. That’s why I urge my students to use the art form of writing. Succeeding in the arts can help these youth rise above poverty. Writing can help heal their trauma.
"If they don’t change their lives, what likely awaits them is prison or death."Bobby Bostic
The rooms where I teach are made up of stark concrete walls, white linoleum floors and black chalkboards. As a security precaution, my students are only allowed to use pencils. During each class session, I stand in front of about 15 kids who are overwhelmingly Black. They sit in the chairs and small tables sprawled about and diligently take notes or record their own ideas.
But mostly, we all just talk.
This format opens the door for students to challenge me. For instance, on the day in question, another kid wanted clarity about this concept of writing for change.
“But how can a written document change the world?” he wanted to know.
Before I could respond, a peer raised his hand and said, “Man, the Bible is a written document, and it changes people’s lives every day. It constantly changes the world.”
The class fell silent for a moment. Then a third child raised his hand and declared, “The United States Constitution is a written document, and it changed this country forever.”
As others interjected — the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Socrates had global impact, they informed me — we found ourselves in the middle of a lively discussion.
When it was time for me to speak again, I explained how reading “Long Walk To Freedom,” the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, showed me the power of forgiveness and restorative justice. I also revealed how I became serious about writing: As a lost 18-year-old in an adult prison, penning a book of poems helped me find myself. That led to another student telling the class how much poetry books had inspired him as he was battling depression. I was happy that he felt safe enough to share that.
Perhaps I should mention here that I am not a trained teacher or counselor.
During the 27 years that I spent in Missouri state prisons, my jobs included working in the kitchen washing pots and pans, and I had a very brief stint as a G.E.D. tutor. But I did write 13 books, including eight that I self-published.
This lived experience gave me the confidence to walk into three juvenile detention centers — Hogan Street Regional Youth Center, St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center and the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center — and propose a curriculum. I had only been out on parole for two weeks. Shortly after I made my proposal, I became a volunteer writing instructor.
Now, my classes are among the weekly programs that are mandatory for the kids. They run from 90 minutes to two hours, but often feel much shorter. My students have access to a library full of books. I give them homework assignments every week, but they don’t get traditional grades. Instead, they critique each other’s work, sharing constructive feedback.
The truth is, these classes help me as much as they seem to help my students. These kids are full of potential. Giving them guidance is my way of giving back.
"These kids are full of potential. Giving them guidance is my way of giving back."Bobby Bostic
Toward the end of the class, when we discussed writing for change, I noticed that one kid had been sitting silently the entire time. I asked him what his opinion was, and he said that he was certain that writing could at least change the world one person at a time.
“How is that, man?” a classmate asked, genuinely interested.
The quiet young man held up a copy of “Humbled To The Dust: Still I Rise” — my most recent memoir — and read a passage that he had chosen:
“The world has its problems, and it always will,” he recited. “But there [have] always been good people who work to change the world while trying to make it a better place. … Despite our flaws, we can change the world, make it better, and enjoy it with happiness.”
I felt grateful that he used a piece of my memoir to bring the class full circle. And I got no argument about their assignment for next week: Write your own essay titled “What I Would Do To Change The World.”
Bobby Bostic, a St. Louis native, was released on parole on November 9, 2022. He became eligible due to a 2021 Missouri law inspired by his case.
His most recent memoir, “Humbled To The Dust: Still I Rise,” was published in August 2023 and is available on Amazon. Follow him on X and Instagram using @FreeBobbyBostic and visit his websites Mind Diamonds LLC and Juvenile Lifers Without Parole Speaks.
The Missouri Department of Social Services’ Division of Youth Services did not respond to questions about their educational programming by publication time.