“Being here finally made me understand that it takes being deprived of something to realize how significant it is to you. And you begin to realize how much of it you actually had. I was searching for freedom and meaning when it was right before my eyes all along. It had always been my art.”
A young man named Erik spoke these words at a high school graduation ceremony nearly a year ago. The backdrop was not a sprawling stadium or cavernous auditorium, but rather a modest meeting room within the confines of Orange County Juvenile Hall.
He and about a dozen classmates collected their certificates in front of 120 family members, friends and guests that day in June 2014. But while Erik had graduated high school, he was not allowed to walk just yet. His sentence extended another 14 months.
Still, Erik had a high school diploma, and he had something even more important — people who believed in him.
He earned both as a student at the Otto A. Fischer School, one of four detention and treatment facilities run by the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS program. That acronym stands for Alternative, Community and Correctional Schools and Services.
Students arrive at Fischer under less than ideal circumstances. Most are performing far below their grade levels and missing credits. Many come from low-income families that lack basic resources.
But the school’s staff works hard to ensure Fischer isn’t a dead-end for troubled youth. They believe it should be a path to academic engagement, redemption and, ultimately, a better life for the 265 young people enrolled. That’s why in addition to offering standards-based lessons that align with traditional schools, educators at Fischer work closely with the probation department to teach character, problem-solving and anger management.
“That is what really makes us unique to any other facility in the nation,” says Kirk Anderson, Fischer’s program administrator. “We really have that strong bond with probation for our character-based programming. When a student leaves us, we want them better off socially, academically and emotionally. That’s really how we look at it as a staff. If they’ve improved in those areas, then we can say we’ve done our job.”
Which brings us back to Erik.
“I turned away from my art, and my life became something that I never wanted it to be. It was fake and misguided and lacked what I desired the most, freedom without the guilt and shame. I lost my art. I lost my shelter.”
Now 18, Erik — we’re only using his first name in this story — grew up in a rough neighborhood in Garden Grove. Though he was able to sidestep drugs and gangs, he says feelings of isolation in high school eventually spiraled into a psychological breakdown that led to an assault. His arrest and subsequent sentence carried him even deeper into darkness.
“It took three months to realize where I was and what I was doing,” he says. “When you’re in your room, there’s only one thing that happens — you just think about your past. You just see all the regrets that you had. It took me to see how much I didn’t like myself to see how much I needed to improve.”
Eventually, he channeled some of those feelings into drawing, a love from his childhood. Deputy Juvenile Correctional Officer Clarence Taylor was impressed enough by Erik’s detailed sketches of anime characters — as well as his work ethic and attitude — that he bought him a box of crayons and colored pencils and encouraged him to join an art therapy program started by a fellow correctional officer, Eric Burnell.
“He loved art but didn’t give himself to it,” Taylor says.
“That little box, it made me feel so happy,” Erik says. “I was in Juvenile Hall with, like, a little playkit. I just drew.”
“One of the concepts that I love about art is that it has no boundaries. The only limits are the ones that an artist places upon himself. Although this is an inspiring concept, it is not quite true when it comes to life.”
Over the next few months, Erik continued to create, wowing anyone who got a glimpse. Marilyn Monroe was the subject of one portrait. Another work, commissioned by his art teacher, features Nelson Mandela and images related to his quote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” That piece is currently displayed outside the office of Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares.
Meanwhile, Erik also poured himself into his schoolwork, landing a spot on Fischer’s honor roll more times than he can recall — or maybe more times than he’ll admit.
“He’s very modest,” Taylor says. “Sometimes it’s hard for him to have other people invest in him, but his achievements have really overwhelmed everyone.”
“I think the school system here is really awesome,” Erik says. “They help you, and since the student-teacher ratio is reduced, a lot of people get more help.”
With each success, his confidence seemed to swell. Taylor, Burnell, colleague Jeff Gallagher and the rest of the Unit Q team under the leadership of Supervising Correctional Officer Brian Cochran encouraged and rewarded Erik with special incentives, including a chaperoned furlough so he could attend his sister’s wedding. And when it came time to graduate, he was selected to speak. Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, OCDE’s chief academic officer, called it one of the best commencement speeches he’s ever heard.
Erik says he wasn’t nervous delivering his remarks, having once taken a drama course in school. Besides, he says, he was really speaking to just one person in the room.
“Mom, you are the reason I want to be someone in life. I owe my life to you, and I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything that you’ve done. You are the ground beneath my feet, and I know you will be there when I succeed.”
When the ceremony was over, Erik still had more than a year to serve. But his school and probation supporters encouraged him to continue his education. Thanks to a unique partnership with Coastline Community College, he was able to enroll in college courses from Juvenile Hall. He got a B in a political science class and is now tackling sociology and humanities.
“Looking back, I never even thought I would be in college,” he says now. “I never thought I would pass a class in college. It’s just, like, amazing.”
Erik will have the option of continuing higher education after he’s released in August, but he still hasn’t settled on a career path. He says he wants to be an animator, or maybe a tattoo artist, or possibly a fashion designer. Perhaps he’ll become a barber, or a chef, or even a makeup artist.
“I wasted all this time,” he says. “Even before I got locked up, I wasted all this time doing nothing. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.”
With the support of Fischer and the probation staff, Erik will have a chance to start a new chapter in a few months, and he’s intent to be the author this time.
Or maybe he prefers another metaphor, one from a graduation speech that still echoes through the corridors of Juvenile Hall.
“Life is like a ship that rocks against an ever-changing tide. And you, who are the commander of your ship, must endure and stay afloat. When you feel that you are stranded and you are sinking, remember that there is land waiting to be reached, and that true happiness can be found.”