Robert Barksdale steps in front of the students in an English class at Eastern High School, searching for some semblance of redemption.
“For me, school is a treat because I never got to be in school, for real,” he begins. He always envisioned visiting a school to speak to students but was beginning to realize the pressures of standing in front of the classroom. He scans the room and says: “Y’all are a little intimidating.”
Barksdale was around their age when he chose the streets over school. By 16, he was arrested and convicted on armed robbery charges, the culmination of a series of ill-conceived attempts to be a man.
Now, at 25, he is one. But after spending so many of his formative years behind bars, he wondered: What sort of man would he be? Behind him were two former inmates. They hoped they might find the answers together.
Phil Mosby, 26, hands out copies of a poem for the students to read. Juan Peterson, 24, confesses to the students that this Northeast Washington neighborhood makes him a little uncomfortable: It is close to the D.C. jail, where the three friends first met.
They were all teenagers then, charged as adults for their violent crimes. At the D.C. jail, they found solace in a book club, reading memoirs and reciting poems they had written.
Over the past year, they finally came home. They see themselves as reformed men who did dumb things as kids but who know that others may have trouble forgiving.
So they stick together. The support system that strengthened them then is the one they are counting on to help them now that they’re out. The unlikely community has become an unlikely lifeline, as they try to defy the patterns that send ex-offenders back to jail.
They fall into a high-risk category: Juveniles tried as adults are 34 percent more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison, according to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The alumni of the book club have no interest in becoming part of this statistic. So they work together to create goals. They applaud when someone meets his goal, such as when Barksdale got a job working full time as a city maintenance worker. They share job leads and work out together and meet up for pancakes.
They particularly like to lead writing workshops, which is why they are at this English class on a January day.
Barksdale recites a poem he wrote in his sixth year of prison, at 22:
“The things we took up are guns, knives and bats, yeah, we be armed and strong
But how do you know it’s not right if you’re being taught wrong?”
He stops to collect himself.
“I got to be honest, y’all are making me a little nervous,” Barksdale tells the class.
Mosby, 26, catches his eye. Mosby spent nearly a decade in prison on a murder charge before being released to a halfway house in September. He nods at Barksdale and smiles. The body language is unmistakable; it says, “I got your back.”
The jail club is called “Free Minds.” The nonprofit was founded 13 years ago by two former journalists, Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, after Taylor became pen pals with a young man on death row who loved books. Then the two realized the inmates they learned to love would need even more support after prison, so they extended their mission to provide support programs for the men when they came home.
Nearly 940 juveniles have passed through the book club. About 230 members have been released, 114 of them in the past two years, according to Free Minds.
Tired at the time of sitting in his jail cell, Barksdale joined the book club as an excuse to go to a room with windows. He would slip into the nondescript classroom in the jail and lay his head on a desk, saying nothing.
It took months for the two leaders to persuade Barksdale to write a poem. Then, he scribbled stanzas too profane to print, but the leaders applauded his sense of rhyme. Encouraged, he wrote more.
“The brothers I used to roll on the streets with? All of them are gone. Except one, who is serving 60 years in prison,” Barksdale said, reflecting on his time living near the Mount Vernon Triangle in Northwest. “I am not proud of what I did, but it turned out to be kind of beautiful. I get a chance to be somebody.”
At 16, Mosby was bigger than most of the other students. Intimidating. He rarely shared that he loved to write.
In his first year in the club, the group finished reading “Makes Me Wanna Holler” by Nathan McCall, a memoir of a former convict turned writer. The volunteers provided this prompt: “What makes you want to holler?”
After 10 minutes, Mosby stood up with a piece of paper and read a tribute to a close friend:
“When I feel your family’s presence
Makes me wanna cry
When I know I could have talked to you before your death
Makes me wanna cry”
Trembling, Mosby stopped reading. The room watched as he turned his back to them, walked to a corner and started to weep.
“No one knew what to do,” Taylor recalled.
Another inmate, Calvin Minor, now 26, stood up. He walked to Mosby, placed his hands on his shoulders and told him he needed to trust God. They talked until Mosby calmed down.
Mosby recalled: “You have to keep on a mask in prison to survive, so people don’t mess with you. But then, Free Minds, it started feeling like a brotherhood.”
The brotherhood did not last — it couldn’t. As each inmate turned 18, judges sent them to federal prisons across the country. The volunteers sent them birthday cards.
On Sept. 18, Mosby returned from prison. He reunited with Minor.
Home didn’t fully feel like home, Mosby told his friend. His old housing project, the open-air drug market known as East Capitol Dwellings, had been demolished. He had no idea how to send a text message. No one even wore baggy clothes anymore.
“Everything’s fitted,” Mosby said. “Not too baggy, not too tight, just fitted.”
Minor, two years out of prison, took on a professional air by pulling his dreadlocks into a neat ponytail and always wearing a button-up shirt.
“Be patient, take your time and execute a plan,” Minor recalled telling him. It took years to find stable work.
In the middle of January, Mosby put on a pair of fitted jeans and walked into Dupont Circle’s Church of the Pilgrims for a get-together with old book club members.
“Phil!” they shouted when he walked through the door.
Mosby hadn’t seen some of them since he was sent to prison. Yet there they were, a group of 20 sitting in a circle of folded chairs with the two co-founders, as in the old days. They were no longer skinny boys in orange jumpsuits but men with facial hair and biceps that bulged through their street clothes. Some had kids. Some had their own businesses. They ate lukewarm pizza and sipped apple cider from plastic champagne glasses.
Libert, one of Free Minds’ co-founders, brought up their biggest enemy: the “f--- it syndrome.” That happens when members get frustrated, say “f--- it,” and go back to their criminal ways.
About 1 in 3 members go back to jail, usually for violating probation or selling drugs.
“We’re going to set some goals for the new year,” Libert said.
One wanted to remove the tattoo on his face. One wanted children; another wanted none at all. Others wanted licenses for truck driving or pest control or to go to college.
Mosby summarized his goal in one word: “freedom.”
“I want to understand freedom,” he later explained. “I want to be able to have a job that can make a decent living, and put all of my past behind me. I can do it if I stay positive.”
After they set goals, Taylor, the other co-founder, gave a writing prompt.
“It’s a new year, a new you,” she said. “Write about what it means to be ‘new.’ ”
Peterson, who had joined the book club a year after Mosby was arrested on armed robbery charges, went to a corner and began to scribble. Now out of prison, his goal was to become a lawyer:
“No more heartaching sins
from the dark place within
thinking of back then it’s too complicated to comprehend
I’m awestruck from the view
It’s like I’m seeing two
My mind is displaying a brighter hue
It feels good to be brand new”
Inside the classroom at Eastern, a nervous Barksdale explains his new self.
“Writing opened up a passion in me,” Barksdale tells them. “That’s what you need to get through. Phil and Juan know; they were on the block with me.
“I began to read books, I wrote poetry, got my vocational certificate because life is not a game. Nobody is playing out there.”
The students are rapt.
“Y’all making me nervous, but y’all motivating me at the same time,” he says. “There’s no one that can get in the way of your future except you.”
Peterson spoke about how most of the men he met in prison had cycled in and out of jails since they were teenagers like him.
“They were old, dying, with heart failure,” he says. “They never got to see their kids. But they had wisdom. . . . So now, I’m doing better.”
Mosby is next.
“I actually went to this high school for one day, and then I was arrested,” he says. “I had hard times, depressing times.”
A male student with close-cropped hair raises his hand in the back of the room.
“Why did it take getting incarcerated for you to learn that your life had any meaning?” he asks.
Mosby takes a deep breath, looks into the student’s eyes.
“My life was chaos,” Mosby tells him. “Sometimes, things were moving so fast that you don’t know what to do.”
The student turns his head away from him but continues:
“You went to school, but you were looking at school an entirely [wrong] way. School was trying to teach you that the streets is not for you, and when they taught you that, you were not listening.”
Mosby replies: “But the thing is, like I said, there’s a whole lot of chaos going on in your life. And you really don’t have the time . . .”
“So you took a part in the chaos, instead of terminating it?”
“My life was hard, and it was hard to get out of that mind-set.
The student remained skeptical.
“So where you are from made you?”
The classroom begins to hum, with students debating among themselves: Are these men role models for turning their lives around? Or are they just bad kids who should have just listened long ago, as the student implied?
Mosby knows he needs to prove his case. The rest of his life will hinge on persuading employers, bankers, neighbors to look beyond his youth. He hopes his presence and optimism will charm others into giving him a chance.
Mosby thinks about telling him more about his neighborhood, besieged by drugs and crime, where boys felt they had little choice but to take on the personas of tough men. But the clock’s hands move closer to 5:30 p.m., the students are jumping out of their seats. Class is over.
Mosby keeps trying.
“You have a good head on your shoulders,” Mosby says as the student packs his backpack.
“Do you play any sports?” he asks as the student walks away.
The teacher rushes to Mosby. She says that the student is one of her hardest workers, which might explain why he was dismissive.
“He’s our honors student,” she says.
Before Mosby went to jail, so was he.
As the three men walk out of the school, Mosby can’t stop thinking about the student.
“He had a good head on his shoulders,’’ he repeats, remaining positive.
“When I was in prison, I always dreamed about talking in front of school,” Barksdale says. “Now I’ve finally done it. I’m going to make a difference.”
Peterson tells the group that he might finally have a job. Another member of the club started a service cleaning restaurants at night. Looking out for his fellow poet, the owner was willing to hire him.
“I’ll clean toilets to start working,” says Peterson, as they walk toward the Stadium-Armory Metro station. “Phil, you should do it, too.”
“That might work,” he says. “But I have another job interview tomorrow.”
They stand outside the Metro as the winter moon begins to glow, chatting about possibilities in the neighborhood. Steps away, young people are still in the D.C. jail. But from here, the place is merely a shadow.