From Jail Guard to Middle School Teacher

Mark Dostert worked as a juvenile detention officer at one of Chicago's most notorious prisons. Now he teaches English in HISD.

By Michael Hardy September 5, 2014

Image: Chris W.

Mark Dostert: Up in Here
Sept 5 at 7
Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet St.

Dallas native Mark Dostert first visited the Audy Home—a notorious juvenile detention center on Chicago’s South Side—as a theology student at the Moody Bible Institute, which sponsored a ministry at the center. A few years later, after earning a master’s degree in history from the University of North Texas, he took a full-time job at the Audy Home as a “Children’s Attendant,” thinking that he would be mentoring wayward children. Instead, he found himself serving as a de facto prison guard, breaking up fights and enduring insults from the inmates, many of whom had committed serious crimes.

After working there for a year, Dostert moved to Houston, where he currently teaches 7th grade English at Johnston Middle School. Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, his memoir of his experience, was recently published by the University of Iowa Press, and Dostert will read from the book tonight at Brazos Bookstore. We spoke with the author by phone on the first day of the new school year. 

How was the first day of school? 

Not bad! We finally have central A/C at Johnston. Before, we had these big steel 1960s-era window units inside the rooms. So it was very inconsistent—a blast of icy air and everyone’s freezing, or it’s a sauna. There was a whole gut job this summer, and now there’s a thermostat by the door. We’re all just amazed.

It sounds like this book was a long time in the making. 

It was. When I moved back to Texas after doing a year [at Audy Home], I started taking notes on little episodes, little bits of dialogues, scenes on various cellblocks. I ended up with a pile of notes, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. Originally I envisioned a book of essays. But I quickly realized that it needed to be a single narrative, written like a novel, in mostly linear chronology. That was in 2004. I finally got a contract with the University of Iowa Press in October 2012.

Meanwhile, you were teaching school in Houston. What brought you here in the first place?

I met a guy at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago who was from Houston. When I came to the end of my year of working at the jail, I decided that was it and I was going to move back to Texas and regroup. My friend told me that HISD had a great teacher certification program, so we moved into an apartment together. I still wanted to work with young people, and I was definitely interested in teaching, so I went through the alternative certification program. And I just kept working on the manuscript all that while. 

When you first went to work at the Audy Home, there was this disconnect between what you were expecting and what the job actually was. You were expecting to be able to mentor these kids, but in fact you were going to be their jailor.

Exactly. Part of it was the job title—“Children’s Attendant.” I was 26, and maybe I was just naïve, but I read the job description over and over and it just never struck me as “jail guard.” I thought the position would have been titled “jail guard” or “juvenile detention officer” or something. So I kind of had this idea that we were the go-betweens between the kids and the real guards. But it turned out that we were the guards.

After you had that rude awakening to the nature of the job, why did you stay?

Much of it was just pride, utter pride. If I had crawled back to Texas after a week or two, saying I had quit, after going through all those interviews, I would have just felt so humiliated and embarrassed. I decided to stick it out at least a year.

Talk about the culture shock. You said you’d grown up in a Dallas suburb, never done drugs, didn’t have a criminal record. Was that a challenge in relating to the kids? 

It was quite an affront when you’re listening to kids on the cellblock, and virtually everything out of their mouths was gangs, girls, drugs. You don’t hear anything else. So you’re sort of wondering, how is there any entry point for me into this kid’s world? What is there for me to say to him other than “sit, stand, march”? It was like we were speaking two different languages. 

Can you talk a little about your teaching experience at Johnston Middle School

I teach 7th grade English, and one of the objectives in that year is the personal narrative essay. Really, teaching the personal narrative kind of helped me write this book. The students were only trying to write a one- or two-page essay, and here I was trying to write a book. But I started to see things in their writing that I didn’t like, and then I realized that I was doing that in my book. 

Did your experience at the Audy Home help you at your current job?

Oh, big time. Just the idea that young people need order, structure, and routine. We may think that they want chaos and free time, but what they really do crave is structure, and something that is predictable. When they know what to expect from us, they conform a lot more quickly. It’s also helped me with physical confrontations—I’ve had no trouble stepping into any kind of fight, because of where I’ve been. Any two boys who are starting to become hostile, I can squelch that pretty quick, based on what I did before.


Filed under
Show Comments