On Thanksgiving morning I received an unexpected email from someone whose name sounded vaguely familiar but that I couldn’t place.
The email read as follows:
You likely do not know me. About seven years ago I was sitting in a cell and opened up a manila envelope with a story enclosed in it. It was a piece written by my high school teacher Dennis Danziger. He told me he wrote a piece on me. I didn’t know why. I just knew that the guy cared about me and wanted to help.
I want to say thank you for allowing the story to be published. Somewhere on a computer screen there was a Jewish guy reading that story. That guy happened to be a movie producer with a lot of clout in the criminal justice system. He wasn’t well known at the time, but his work and help reached many. Scott Budnick decided he wanted to visit me. He did and offered to get me to a prison where a college program, along with an abundance of self-help groups, was available. I transferred there and immersed myself in education. Things began to change–my personality, the way I viewed things, everything. I earned my GED and later received an AA degree.
I’m writing to you late at night because I ran across your name and remembered that you were the one that gave Dennis the opportunity to publish his story. I was given a 22 year prison sentence and was recently released 10 years earlier than expected. The governor commuted my sentence. You probably don’t know, but I likely wouldn’t be writing to you right now if it weren’t for that piece being published. I would have never gone to Ironwood where my life took a turn for the better. I would have never met Scott. I would have likely not obtained a degree and been fully involved with helping the youth that entered the prison system. I would have never gotten recognized by the governor’s chief of staff. I wouldn’t be home.
I say thank you for giving a hand of kindness and not knowing what might come of it. Normally the bad takes the spotlight and is constantly thrown in our faces. The bad decisions we make continuously replay in our heads. But I hope you know that a decision you made drastically affected my life for the good. Thank you, Celeste. I mean that from my heart.
Hope I wasn’t much of an interruption.
As I read, memories quickly returned about a story WitnessLA had run nearly eight years ago, in February 2010, having to do with a high school student named John Rodriguez. It wasn’t one story, actually, but a complex and heartbreaking narrative written as four separate stories, which we ran as a series.
As John said in the email, his high school composition teacher, Dennis Danziger, who is also an author, wrote the series for us. He did so after he’d told me a winding and painful tale about a remarkable kid in his class, and I said I’d like to publish the account.
Yet, when Chapter Four of the story ended, all I knew—and all the readers knew—was that a gifted 17-year-old was headed to prison for 22 years. But the finer details of how this had occurred were still unsettlingly fuzzy.
And now there was this email suggesting that the group of stories somehow triggered a series of events, which, in turn, had the unlikely effect of getting John Rodriquez on the radar of Governor Jerry Brown’s staff, resulting in his release from prison.
But how in the world had all this come about? How had he gone from being the star of his high school English class to serving a 22-year prison sentence? And what exactly had happened while he was locked up that resulted in the governor commuting his sentence?
The day after Thanksgiving I wrote John back and asked for his phone number. When we finally connected, we talked for several hours.
WLA will publish the result of that conversation and some related conversations two final upcoming chapters.
But in the meantime, it will help to read the back story, in the form of Dennis Danziger’s 4-part series about the teenage John Rodriguez.
It’s called The Writer.
In it, Danziger explores what happens when a really great, really decent, really talented kid you know is accused of doing something terrible.
Here is Chapter One.
(In addition to our regular news, we’ll publish Chapters Two, Three, and Four on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week.)
by Dennis Danziger
At first, he was just another guy in my first period, 12th grade English class at Venice High School.
Not one of the guys who hides his face in his hood or sits so far in the back of the classroom, back near the windows, that he seems to be outside looking in. He wasn’t a goofball. Didn’t work the room, going from girl to girl trying to get their numbers so he could hook up with them later on. Wasn’t a stoner or a drinker who sat, then put his forehead on the desk and zoned out because he was on maybe two hours of sleep. Wasn’t a jock yakking about how great Kobe is or showing off the cleat marks from yesterday’s soccer practice. Or one of those perpetually tardy guys who slink in 25 minutes late carrying a Frappuccino as if it’s perfectly normal to come late because the line at Starbucks was long.
He was just another guy in my first period, 12th grade English class, Expository Composition.
What was different about John Rodriguez was that he volunteered to read what he wrote. Every day in class I give writing prompts. Random stuff that has nothing to do with what we’re studying. Most students are shy. They might go four or five weeks at a time without reading a word they’ve written. And I never call on anyone. So if a student reads his work, it’s because he’s eager to share it.
John didn’t emote like a bad actor when he read. He didn’t look around as if expecting applause when he finished. But he responded to all the prompts seriously. And he read pieces of his work every day. He put himself out there, risking the judgment of his classmates. He seemed to care about school, about his education.
All of which makes any student automatically likable from a teacher’s perspective
The first essay I assigned was a 500-word job entitled, “Home.” Whatever one thought of as home, be it a bedroom, a street, a soccer field, or in a lover’s arms, write about it.
John turned in a story that begins like this:
It’s seven o’clock. I’m at home, bored. My brother Damien is sitting
next to me changing the channel on the television. I’m tired of watching
Family Guy. I feel my stomach growl. I look inside the fridge, there’s
nothing in it. Each row is like an apartment on a three-story, abandoned
I thought, Whoa, “…like an apartment on a three-story, abandoned building.” What 17-year-old writes like this?
Not many that I’ve taught in my 17 years in the LAUSD. And I’ve taught some good ones at Crenshaw HS, Palisades HS, Venice HS, and at a summer UCLA high school extension program that attracted some of the most well-to-do students in the country.
After the home essay, I began paying more attention to John and his writing.
After class one day I asked, “Hey John, what do you read?”
“I read the LA Times on Thursdays, the ones you bring in.”
“What do you read outside of school?”
He shook his head.
He didn’t read and he could write. Really write. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
For the past three years, I’ve received a grant from PEN in the Classroom, an organization that promotes literacy in high schools. They pay a professional writer to come into a high school class, once a week for twelve weeks, to work on some aspect of writing. For my students, it’s personal essay.
The PiTC mentor is Amy Friedman, a syndicated columnist who’s written a children’s column called Tell Me a Story for the past 16 years.
Two weeks into the sessions with Amy, John started cranking out essays. I read them and passed them along to Amy, who also happens to be my wife.
“I think John’s a savant,” Amy said. “I’ve never known anyone to write like this. Especially a teenager.”
“I’ve taught, what maybe 4,000 high school students?” I said. “And if John’s not the most talented one, then he’s one of the two or three best.”
The culmination of the PiTC program is that the essays are published in an anthology.
Amy and I were proud of this collection titled, “Thinking Out Loud.” That was John’s title. So was the cover art of a solid looking, but lone teen, whose face is obscured by a baseball cap. He sits, staring straight down, his hands folded together locked in prayer position. And attached to this guy’s shoulder, angel wings.
Inside the collection are 30 essays. Twenty-six of our student writers each penned one essay that made it into the book. John wrote five. And his five are the best five.
The book came out in March. All our students received a copy. Most students acted like it was no big deal, to break into print for the first time, to be published writers.
Then the next day a bunch of them would sheepishly approach me after class and ask if they could buy another copy. For their mom or a relative back home.
About that time I told John that since the PiTC project had ended and Amy would not be teaching the class anymore, that I was going to be his personal writing coach. That in addition to the class work I assigned, I was going to give him extra projects. I wanted to make sure he kept honing his craft.
I asked him if he had ever read anything by Gary Soto. He had not. I sent John to the library to check out a collection of Soto’s short stories. I guaranteed that he’d like the stories. Every California writer should be familiar with Soto’s writing. I said.
He didn’t resist the additional work. Instead, he seemed to thrive on the challenge.
But a few weeks after we began the coaching arrangement, an odd thing happened. Odd and uncharacteristic. John quit coming to class.
Early April and he was a no-show. For days and days.
Finally, after class one day I asked Jorge, who was either John’s friend or cousin or both, if he knew what happened to John.
“Can I close the door?” Jorge asked.
He did so.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“It’s not good,” he said.
“Just say it.”
He looked at the floor. Then at me. His chin quivered.
“Just say it.”
“John’s been arrested.”
“For what?” I asked.
Again Jorge looked at his shoes. Stared at them for several moments, then took a deep breath.
“Just say it.”
To Be Continued on Tuesday
Dennis Danziger teaches English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is a former sit-com writer, author of the novel, A Short History of a Tall Jew, and is the co-founder of POPStheclub, high school clubs that support students whose lives have been impacted by incarceration.