By Anna Harwin
As the family scapegoat for a drunken stepfather, I knew it wasn’t safe to go home. Too many meals missed, too many head ringing punches, too little sleep, I knew I wouldn’t survive if I couldn’t find a place to go and so, one night at the age of 12, I fought back, and left. I found a safe port at a friend’s house several miles away and called the police to help me. I told the officers that I would rather go to Juvie (Juvenile Hall) than back to the Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air, with my completely charming mother and stepfather. I understood what hunger felt like, the constant grinding pain and dizziness where appetite is dormant but the need to eat is obsessive. I knew that anywhere the police took me, I would be fed. One never knows what goes on behind closed doors.
Juvie was not horrible, at least not back in the day. The cells are simple. You had a ticking mattress, a toilet, small sink and a desk area all done is metal. There is a certain repetitive serenity to the days, the lining up, the rules on food, “one pat of butter, one glass of milk,” the lack of any pressure to do more than exist through time. One of the oddities of the place was the contrarian norms for rules. (Black women had to straighten their hair, gay girls had to wear lipstick, and rest of us were not allowed to use other types of cosmetics). During one of my times in juvie I had an epiphany: IF you do not want to go beyond your bed or beyond your cell, you are free. I treasure this lesson and the yards of books I consumed while lying in the bed.
For the next five years, I ran away from multiple placements (often to be in San Francisco.) I lived in group homes: open placements (attending regular school open) and closed institutions (with only remedial education available inside.) There wasn’t any reason to not run since, at the point, I left my family. I knew that I giving up my access to an academically ambitious education. School had been where I was alpha, supported by friends and teachers, and thus the fear of losing my standing had kept me at home.
Janis Joplin was right about “freedom” and so, upon entering Juvenile Hall, I was free.
I became a chronic runaway, enjoying the adventures of a life of disorder and filled with mostly good people. (One who is still alive is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an American poet, who provided safe crash space and along with Allen Ginsberg, a type of radical educational experience.) These travels imbued me with a certain veneer of fearlessness.
As an adult in need of a career, I understood that unlike the humanities where often a student can read themselves through their deficiencies, math and science take a sequence of learning. It is with this knowledge that I became a tenured faculty member at Northwest Vista College, and where I continue to fight for developmental math as a way to offset the educational inequities students from chaotic backgrounds suffer.
Anna Harwin was previously married, an engineer, a dancer, a jewelry salesperson, a photographer, a court expert, a stay at home mom, who currently teaches math at Northwest Vista College.