What Our Courts Could Learn from Kindergarteners

Editor's Note:

Ymilul Bates is a Bay Area teacher and the mother of a young man being adjudicated in Contra Costa. She reflects on her work with the young children in her classroom and her commitment to continue to support them and her own son as they learn from mistakes, resolve conflict and repair harm.

I am a teacher. I love my job. Each day I am surrounded by earnest young minds eager to do good in our world. Even during the dull, impersonal days of distance learning, the purity of my students’ young souls shines bright. Over the past 22 years, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a significant and long overdue shift in education. The authoritative, disciplinary approach has given way to a compassionate, inclusionary pedagogy that acknowledges the need to support the “whole” child, while also meeting the needs of the community. We now utilize curriculum and practices that reflect this perspective, to the point that social-emotional learning and restorative justice—a form of conflict resolution that allows an individual to repair harm they have caused, without being socially outcast—are woven throughout our school day. This newer form of education consumes more time and energy, but I am fully committed because I have witnessed the results—students who are empathetic, collaborative, and inclusive community members.

I also commit myself wholeheartedly because my teaching is so much more than a job. It is my devotion to the betterment of my community—my means of paying forward to the village that helped me raise my son, now 20. So, although it takes time and patience to walk two kindergarteners through the steps of identifying their feelings, expressing their needs and responsibilities, and listening to their classmate—invariably more time than the playground tiff that necessitated the process—I am committed to the investment. Until recently, I believed those five-year-olds were building skills for their adult lives. When a problem arose between two students, I’d have them meet in the “oficina” in the corner of my Spanish immersion classroom to hold “una cita” and talk things through. I would watch this “appointment” from a distance. Their tiny fingers fervidly flying through the air, formally initiating their meeting with a ro-sham-bo. I would watch them look eagerly at the poster of options that hung in their little “office,”things that they might request to help them overcome the hurt they felt—a hug, a handshake, an apology, a fist bump. Frequently, I would witness their upset expressions dissolve into delighted giggles. They would walk back to class hand-in-hand. Simply being empowered with the opportunity to voice their hurt, and knowing that they were heard, was often healing enough.

The “cita” was a heartwarming event to witness, and I thought for several years that it was my greatest achievement as a kinder teacher. But I was wrong. I’ve been setting my five-year-olds up for failure. Because the attitudes and skills we’re building together aren’t honored out in the “real world.” My son faces trial. He is accused of an act that carries a potential sentence of 29 years of state prison, although no one was physically hurt. Unlike my classroom, where the sentiment is that everyone makes mistakes and everyone matters, our criminal legal system is founded on an archaic notion of good versus evil, where evil must be locked away for the “public safety” of the good. The behavior of five-year-olds shows that when social mores deem an act bad, rather than the person, the individual who inflicted harm is more willing to take ownership of it and be responsible for its repair. But our criminal legal system prevents my son and those in similar situations from engaging the harmed party, regardless of what the harmed party wants. Our criminal legal system utilizes the misnomer of “People” to achieve the goals of the state. My son’s trial will be deemed the “People” versus Vargas, yet there is currently an outcry from the community, the people, demanding that he have an alternative to prison. These people do not have a voice, but they will be left to pay the expense of incarceration and, in most cases, the expense of supporting the newly-released individual who has been cut off from support systems and stripped of employment opportunities.

I am overjoyed to see the rising numbers of people calling the criminal legal system out for what it is—a dysfunctional entity that perpetuates the socioeconomic and racial inequalities on which it was built. And while I could hide beneath a blanket of shame, I choose to hold my chin high. I believe in my son, his maturation of mind, compassion and ability to contribute to our world. I choose to publicly join the multitudes calling for change. I owe this to my community. And, regardless of what the “real world” has in store for them, I will continue  to support our children as they learn from their mistakes, resolve conflict and repair harm. I will hold each child in positive regard. I will not banish an offender to the corner to don the dunce cap. I’ll leave the dunce cap for our criminal legal system.

Ymilul Bates (@ymilul) is a Bay Area educator, social worker and mother