His Body Imprisoned, His Mind Set Free

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 10, 2007

By the time he dropped out of the D.C. school system in 11th grade, Leslie Sharp had attended six different high schools. Some kicked him out; some he just left. He didn't go to any of them all that often.

When he did show up, nobody asked him where he'd been. Nobody bothered to try to get to know him. Nobody demanded that he do much work. "Some schools," Sharp tells me, "they thought I was a female because of my name."

By the time Sharp finally did stay put somewhere, he was behind bars. Convicted of selling guns on the street, he spent nearly two years in jail. While there, he did some things he had never done before. He read books. He wrote poems. He earned his high school equivalency diploma. He connected with adults who told him he had talent, asked him about his life and insisted that he do his work.

This is a poem by Leslie Sharp. It is called "Five."

I am five

My father calls me L.J.

I hear yelling and screaming

I'm laying on the bed

Trying to figure out what's going on

In my blue, red and white p.j.'s

My father holding me, telling me don't worry

Everything's going to be o.k.

My mother meant the world to me

I feel lost

I am just five.

L.J. Sharp is 19 now, working as an intern at the National Juvenile Defender Center, putting together brochures for young people facing criminal charges. He's trying to get started in college, aiming to study architecture and design. And he writes.

That all started not in the D.C. schools but in the D.C. jail, where a guard asked Sharp one day whether he was going to the book club. It wasn't as if he had anything better to do, so he found himself in the weekly session run by volunteers from Free Minds, a District-based nonprofit group that introduces teenage inmates to books and creative writing, then follows up with them after they are released, connecting them to training, jobs and more books.

The devastating portrait of the D.C. public schools painted in the investigative series that begins in today's Washington Post is a grim landscape of low scores, sunken expectations and a hollow curriculum. What those systemic woes produce is far too many classrooms in which teachers seek only to get through the day and kids such as Leslie Sharp are passed through without the slightest human touch -- name, passions, even gender unknown.

In jail, Sharp started out by reading the books and writing the book reports he was assigned. And then he took the leap: "I basically put my emotions down on paper. Sometimes I'd write things that weren't intended to get out, but they do. It gave me something to do when I get mad, to relieve my mind."

He wrote about being locked up:

Sometimes I wish I can roll over and this just be a dream

But when the truth set in everything is not what it seem

These are my consequences from the way I acted

Now I do what I'm told and can't help the feeling of being

trapped.

In the D.C. schools, Sharp would show up Mondays to get the week's assignments and Fridays to take the tests, and that was about all. When I asked Sharp if any teacher had ever inspired him, he excitedly told me about a class on entrepreneurship in which the teacher taught the basics of starting a business. But when I asked for the teacher's name, it became clear that Sharp and the teacher had never spoken to each other.

Kelli Taylor, who runs Free Minds with Tara Libert, knows that the District's schools include many caring teachers who work in difficult conditions with students deeply burdened by poverty, violence, dysfunctional parents, substance abuse and gang life. But she also knows that "we as a community are failing our children. Among the 200 youths aged 16 and 17 that Free Minds has served over the last four years, their average reading level is just

fifth grade when they arrive at the jail." Many have never read a book. Many have been labeled special education students, often because they behaved poorly in school.

"They actually say that people just want them out of the way," Taylor says. Over and over, she finds young men who can barely read when they arrive at the jail but are reading voraciously six months later. "I have had two different kids in our program tell me with a straight face that they are 'retarded' and won't ever be able to go to college. Anyone could tell that these boys were not mentally retarded, but they'd already heard it and accepted the label."

The stories she hears about the schools are as disheartening as they are consistent: Boys who attend school only occasionally yet are never confronted about their skipping. Boys who say they were never assigned homework in high school. Boys who cannot name a teacher or a book that ever meant anything to them.

Obviously, some kids aren't ready to learn until they're slammed with the shock of losing their freedom. But just as obviously, many of them had no chance to discover the fruit of knowledge because no adult ever set out to connect with them while demanding that they work hard and study well.

Taylor received a letter from a young man named Drew, an inmate who said: "If I had this type of support when I was in the streets, I would not be in jail right now. Y'all got me over here writing letters, poems and stories. I think I could be a writer! It makes me feel so happy, I never had no one who cared about my education. So y'all really touch my heart."

Sharp doesn't blame the D.C. schools for where he ended up. He figures he's the one who decided to make his way on the streets. "School basically was irrelevant," he says. "I thought I had something to prove. You can tell a child anything, but they're going to do what they want."

And then he says this: "The past is what made me today." He is talking about his mother, about growing up on the street, about how easy it is for a kid to make some cash "doing the wrong thing." Sharp plans to write about this, using the tools he learned in prison but not in the D.C. schools.

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


© 2007 The Washington Post Company