Juvenile Justice Writers and Writing

Art Saves: Poetry & Opera at Juvie


Starting at 4 p.m. on Friday night one large room at Central Juvenile Hall
was crammed with around 100 teenagers, all dressed in baggy, LA County-issued pants and tops. The kids sat at long tables in groups of ten or twelve. Every group was overseen by a cluster of badge-wearing probation officers.

Each table also featured a writing instructor, sometimes two instructors, all of whom were part of the InsideOUT Writers program that is now a fixture of three LA County juvenile halls.

The kids clutched printouts of the poems that they had composed and revised during the twice weekly writing classes that InsideOUT has offered to young inmates at Central Juvie since 1996. Every adolescent in the room looked some brand of nervous, although many affected an elaborate casualness to cover their jitters.

The nerves had to do with the fact that this was the yearly event at which those who had participated in the InsideOUT program got to read their work aloud in front each other, plus a gaggle of invited guests and some scattered press.

But this particular InsideOUT performance night also had a special creative twist to it. Some of the student-inmates’ poems had been set to music and would be sung as opera.

Reporter Kim Nowacki from Annenberg’s Neon Tommy covered the event and you’ll find her informative story below. (Kim is another of my smart grad students.)

I was there too, and spent time with some of the young writers.

There was, for example, one table of girls with whom I chatted for quite some time. I learned later they were from the ESU module, Enhanced Supervision Unit. These were the girls who were cutters or who displayed suicidal ideation, or some other worrisome form of risky behavior.

Much of their poetry reflected the varieties of trauma of their respective childhoods-–abuse, neglect, the chronic witnessing of violence.

Still many of the poems suggested budding talent. The phrasing was sometimes startlingly graceful, the images strong and clear.

The same was true of the boys I sat with—who were, to a person, eager for me, the stranger, to read what they had written.

One tall, deer-eyed boy dipped his head shyly when I’d commented on a line of his poem that I’d particularly liked. “The nights after writing class,” he said, “they’re the only time I ever really can….you know… sleep.”

His writing teacher, Roberta Villa whispered to me that his admission was typical. She saw kids get their lives changed all the time when they discovered that they could get their feelings out on paper, she said.

Here’s the opening of Kim’s story:

In opera, a good story has plenty of tragedy. Or comedy. Or both. There’s typically a lot of wishing and hoping and longing. Many times the characters make foolish, rash mistakes. Often, someone dies.

Unfortunately, the same is very true of the stories and poems written over the past 12 years by the teenage boys and girls who participate in InsideOUT Writers (IOW), a creative writing program held at Los Angeles County’s three juvenile halls.

Each year, more than 300 incarcerated youths voluntarily take the classes where they write about drugs, rape, suicide, crime, violence, lost freedom, busted families and broken hearts. But they also write about lying in bed at night and dreaming about a better life and about a future free of trouble.

“I love to write, it’s my passion, I write everyday,” said Michelle, an 18-year-old girl with a million-watt smile but also a serious toughness about her.

There’s a similar sense of toughness mixed with vulnerability among the 100 or so other incarcerated youth that guards led Friday afternoon into the boys gymnasium at Central Juvenile Hall, a walled-up, khaki-colored facility off Eastlake Avenue.

But on this afternoon, the teens were here to relax as their IOW instructors served them burritos, soda and cupcakes before watching — in what’s a first for Central Juvenile Hall — a performance by three members of the LA Opera.

This special treat is part of the annual IOW Retreat, which honors the students’ writing. Attendees included IOW board members and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (who this past Tuesday participated in the L.A. County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote that ordered a thorough inspection of the Probation Department).

This year’s retreat also served as the surprise debut of four new LA Opera pieces that put to music four poems written in the IOW program.

One of them, called “Safe,” is Michelle’s….

Read the rest (and look at Kim’s slide show). It’s worth it. I promise.


  • Sometimes I wonder whether you have any real interest in poetry, Celeste, but just decide to put these posts up to watch Woody’s head explode.

  • Bravo to all the people who invested their time and talent to introduce these troubled youngsters to the arts. Writing and poetry are a great means to evolve deep unspoken feelings and sometimes-dangerous actions into a therapeutic and meaningful result. And listening to opera live and in person has so much more impact than hearing it on the radio or TV, especially from someone so talented as Karen Vuong.
    I can attest to how influential and important these programs are to these troubled kids, I was at Eastlake juvie and LP many times in my youth, and any kind of reaching out or just the act of some form of humanity (which is foreign to many of these kids and in fact is often regarded as a weakness), directed in their direction sometimes changes lives and attitudes in ways that are maybe not immediate or apparent for years, but they’re there underneath the surface waiting to blossom.
    Almost fifty years ago at Eastlake Juvie, on a Christmas Eve, I recall clearly the dark mood that was felt by all the inmates. At the risk of sounding like a racist, I will say that racism was rampant and institutional in those days, in the form of the black oriented staff and attitudes of the whole place. The racial makeup then was about half Chicano, half black with a scattering of white boys thrown in.
    The staff was almost totally black, and to make matters worse the vast majority of the black staff were recent migrants from the US South. Favoritism towards the black inmates and punitive actions and puzzlement towards the Chicano kids was the norm.
    Us Chicano kids were almost all gang members, and a very rigid, clannish, cultural animosity towards African Americans was the rule.
    But on that Christmas Eve so many years ago all that hate and mistrust was put aside for a while, and I think many of us had a seed of humanity and understanding planted that changed attitudes forever, even in a small way.
    The legendary, the greatest, the biggest and most beautiful Gospel singing group ever, “The Gospel Pearls” came to Juvie on Christmas Eve to perform for us.
    All us young Chicano’s were suspicious and closed mouth. Some of us complained to each other that the Gospel Pearls were just another slap in our Mexican faces.
    Then I remember that one of the shot callers (oh yeah we had them even back then), a tough tough kid from the East LA “El Hoyo Mara” gang, by the name of Bennie Day spoke out.
    “You guys know what? We need to show respect because we aren’t shit in this place, all locked up on Christmas Eve for fucking up, and these Gospel Pearls didn’t have to be here, they could be with their own families tonight.”
    We all sat segregated in the Juvie auditorium while the Gospel Pearls, who were all big middle-aged women in church robes, put on one of the best shows I have ever witnessed. For two hours they sang and shouted, and danced, and jumped for joy, and they clapped their hands and harmonized and rocked the place until the roof almost came off.
    And afterwards they came off the stage and talked to us all, they hugged us, and wished us a Merry Christmas, and lectured us about staying out of trouble like they were our Grandmothers.
    I could see that these beautiful African American gospel singers had changed our minds a little about racism and cynicism, and showed us all love that Christmas Eve, almost 50 years ago,it still resonates with me today.

    Art heals, and Art provides a voice for everyone, Support the Arts!

    PS, Celeste you looked stunning in the video, as always, and your crutches could have been fashion accessories

  • Great story, DQ.

    (BTW, it’s not me in the video. I was just a happy bystander chatting with kids out of the range of the camera. The woman with the crutches, is I think the head of the InsideOUT board. Or something like that.)

    Reg, I originally wasn’t planning to go to the event, because I didn’t want to in any way interfere with Kim’s reporting by my presence, as she had chosen the performance to report on out of a list of possible “spot news” assignments, each of which had to be reported and turned in by the end of the day. (The class is doing spot news this week.)

    But I went anyway, and told Kim to pretend I wasn’t there.

    The thing started at 4 p.m. and went on until well after 7. I defy anyone to have attended the night and not come away blown away by the kids and what they wrote. At Central Juvenile Hall—colloquially known as “Eastlake”—some kids are at there for comparatively minor offenses. Some are facing very serious cases. All with whom I spoke clearly gained fantastically from the writing process.

    Much of that gain was the result, of course, of just spending time with a caring adult who told them multiple times a week that they mattered, that their lives were worth something—- no matter what they’d done or what had been done to them in the past—and that what they had to say could affect others and could illuminate at least one more small part of what it means to be human.

  • Does father Boyle have programs to take his gang members to live opera shoes? Maybe his new motto should be Nothing Stops a Bullet Like Opera”.

    When I was a kid I signed up for the opera field trips to get out of class, I should have paid attention and maybe opera would have influenced my life.

    The Mexican government should have opera and poetry for classes for the troubled cartel memebrs who seem to enjoy chopping of the heads of others.

  • WTF, I’m willing to conceded that poetry is probably not quite the right approach for the head-chopping folks.

    As for opera, the LA opera people were just great. They made opera seem totally down to earth, easy to understand and relevant—instead of it being some kind of faraway High Art with a capital A. And the kids got it. It was fun to watch them listening to the singing. They were totally into it.

    First the LA Opera folks sang pieces from Marriage of Figuero, Carmen and Romeo and Juliet. Then they sang the kids’ stuff.

    I mean imagine having written something as as an insecure teenager and then having it set to music and sung by these talented people with amazing voices. It was pretty cool.

  • WTF, the other day you said that Belmont High parents were tripping over each other to get their kids into a charter. I couldn’t find anything on the web to back that up. Are you know backpedaling from that and saying that LAUSD parents in general want their kids in charters, and are you backpedaling from “all” to “many”? Ha ha. Somebody got checked.

  • And, you link us to the comments section and not the story? Jesus Christ dude, how stupid do you think we are? And, I know why you linked us to the comment section. Because the article doesn’t back up your point for shit. Only one person in the article gives a specific reason as to why they want to stay in the nicer school they’ve been bussed to. A 14 year old, from West Adams, who’s attending Culver City High. And he says it’s for the arts program. You have to go to the comments section, where anyone can come up with any old screen name, to back up your point. Comments section are not a credible source, you character. Your agenda is tired. And the sources you use are a joke. Just a notch above your imagination, considering that probably at least 5 of the screen names used there are actually you.

  • Rob Thomas says:
    “Jesus Christ dude, how stupid do you think we are?”

    Who’s the “we”??? I don’t know about anybody else, but I know YOU are stupid enough to say things like:

    “This country would be better off if drug cartels ran it than Republicans”
    “drug cartels are more compassionate than Republicans”

    I know YOU are stupid enough enough to say wack shit like that and then expect to be taken serious at a later time.

  • I know YOU are stupid enough to post waaaaay over the top hateful bullshit when you’re pissed off, and then turn around and ask a question that invites you to be laid wide open like a Safeway chicken.
    I’ll say this for you, you never cease to amaze.

  • Hey Rob,
    Just call them a racist. Pull out the race card and throw it in their face. That will make them shut up. Debate over. Guilt them into being quiet and not criticizing you for the things you say. Why would you not think it would work this time when you’ve thought it would work every time before?

  • Oh, look at the shape shifter now. Gets flat out exposed for trying to lie, now he’s moving on to “rob’s alter ego” and “answering the question”. Pay close attention. This is what happens when you a) have a hate driven agenda (his comments about Mexicans), and b) lie to promote that agenda. You wind up with you face where your ass is, and VICE VERSA. Talk to you soon, WTF aka Answering the Question aka Rob’s alter ego.

  • Rob,
    You’re making yourself look silly again. Me and WTF aren’t the same person. Yes, I did post as Answering The Question and then your alter ego. LOL. I just couldn’t resist walking thru the door you left WIDE open when you asked that question. But go ahead and make yourself look foolish to both WTF and myself by claiming we are the same person.

    “Oh, look at the shape shifter now.”

    Shape shifter? From whom did you first hear that term to describe your hero Don Quixote?

    Quit stealing Gava Joe’s material.

  • Okay Rob, I’m back fro your alter ego to myself, Answering The Question. I promise not to purposely try and confuse you. So let me answer a question you posed in an earlier comment.

    “Hmmm. Maybe their real problem with RobThomas is a difference in political ideology?”


    Maybe it’s your sarcasm when there’s no need for it.
    Maybe it’s your insatiable need to be argumentative when there’s no need for it.
    Maybe it’s your condescension when there’s no need for it.
    Maybe it’s your anger that emits from your posts.
    Maybe it’s your hypocrisy.
    Maybe it’s your instantaneous judgements of people when they disagree with you on any particular topic.

    Have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, (is it even possible?) that some people don’t like you because of how you interact with others? Have you ever even considered the possibility that your political leanings have nothing to do with it? Have you ever noticed that even though Celeste and some of her commenters disagree the tone is kept civil and there’s usually a modicum of respect shown by them towards each other? Have you ever wondered why that same person that Celeste may have a disagreement with and you can’t have a civil tone when disagreeing? Have you EVER considered the possibility that, to put it plain and simple, you start acting like a mean spirited judgmental asshole when somebody disagrees with you? Maybe, just maybe it’s because you refuse to remain respectful if you disagree with someone.
    Maybe that’s it. I’m just saying.

    Maybe I answered. Maybe the rest of the commenters on Witness la can decide.

  • Got to respect the lengths he’ll go to to cover up his b.s. ^^^. He posts a link, to a comments section, passing it off as a legitimate newspaper article. Amateur night. If he’d just given the link to the actual article, I wouldn’t have even called him out on the fact that the article doesn’t come close to backing up his point. But hell, to post a link to a comments section? That is as weak as it gets. He must think people here are too stupid to actually click on a link.

    As far as your personal opinion of me goes, I’m insulted that you’d even think I care.

  • LOL. You just can’t fathom that WTF and myself aren’t the same person can you? You’re still displaying the same inept ability to observe and comprehend that you have in the past.

    “As far as your personal opinion of me goes”

    Post 17 isn’t my opinion. It’s my observations, which in turn provided the stimulus for me to pose the questions to you that I did. As far as being insulted that wasn’t my intention. I was simply trying to motivate you to reflect on your interactions with those you disagree with. You see, you won’t agree with ANYBODY about EVERYTHING. Do you want to eventually end up illcontented with all those whom you interact with? I think not. I am trying to help you but you feel insulted. Are your feelings truly that fragile? I apologize if I hurt your feelings. Again, that wasn’t my intention. I hope we can have civil discourse in the future. If I was rude or inconsiderate in any way I apologize.

  • Wow. When will he give up? There was once a time where when you got owned, you licked your wounds and came back to fight another day. Not this shape shifter. He’s like a guy in small claims court trying to get back 5 dollars. And the whole “I’m not him, I’m a different person, I swear, really” thing is making you look even more pathetic.

  • Rob,
    This comes under the heading of trying to help you out; even though you continue to insult me by calling me names like “pathetic”.
    Okay, here goes. If I was you………
    Before I kept making an accusation and insulting somebody for attempting to portray somebody else, I would be DEAD CERTAIN that I was correct. I already admitted to you that I posted twice as “Rob’s alter ego”, but I AM NOT WTF.
    You keep accusing me of being WTF in what appears to be an attempt to impress upon the other observers of our interaction how intelligent you are. I (and hey, this is just me)would keep in mind that Celeste has the ability to check URL’s and determine the truth. I would not risk such embarrassment were I not DEAD CERTAIN. I would consider the possibility (if it existed) that I was wrong. I would realize that if I was wrong it could cause my credibility in future situations to be called into question. I would ask myself these questions: “Am I going to look like an idiot for making false accusations? Is it going to look like I was trying to avoid self reflection in regards to the questions posed to me by making those accusations?
    Is it POSSIBLE that Answering The Question and WTF are not the same person? Am I such an egomaniac that I refuse to consider the possibility that I AM WRONG? What if Celeste checks it out and sees that I am wrong but doesn’t say anything? Will I look like an idiot in her eyes and will she be laughing at me in the future when I purport to be certain about other things? If I am wrong, have I already made myself look like an idiot in WTF’s eyes”?

    Those are a few questions I woulkd ask myself. But hey, that’s just me. In the spirit of human decency and patience, I will keep trying to help you out. It makes me feel good when I try to help others. Helping (or in some cases attempting to help) our fellow man is what life is all about.

  • Ha ha. Now he’s pulling the old, ‘go ahead, check the IP address’ thing. Like a kid saying, ‘go ahead, mom, ask my teacher, she’ll tell you’.

  • No. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the “teacher” could be listening to you. Because I’m trying to be kind and considerate with all my heart, I’m trying to minimize the damage on your behalf. If she does monitor this interaction and checks it out, there will then be three people that know you’re wrong. Even after being absolutely adamnt that you’re right. Now how would that make you look in her eyes? You see. I’m trying to help you once again. Please Rob, accept it.

  • For the record, I did look at the IP addresses. To my knowledge, ATQ has only posted as those two identities—at least of late.

    ATQ, you have a variable IP, not a fixed one, so it makes it hard to tell for sure. But I cross checked a little on one of my trackers and, yes, Rob, ATQ really appears to be quite a different person from WTF. Different carrier locations, for one thing.

    I’m pretty busy right now, so I haven’t followed this thread but happened to see the IP reference.

  • Even the casual observer has to notice that during this interaction you are speaking to them. Trying to sway their opinion or prove that your position is correct. While I am speaking directly to you in an effort to help you, you on the other hand are pleading your case to them. This leads me to believe that it IS VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU TO be intelligent in their eyes. I implore you to accept my help for your own good. Since I know that you are incorrect and that if Celeste checks it out you will not look so smart in her eyes, I ask you to reconsider your position. I only ask this because it’s obvious that you do care what others think of you. Otherwise you would not be adressing them concerning an interaction between me and you. Rob, help me help you. If Celeste checks it out, you won’t be looking too good in her eyes. Please quit being so adamant that you’re right. Do yourself a favor.

  • Oops. Damnitt. Too late. Don’t say I didn’t try Rob. I will sleep well tonight. How about you?

  • Rob,
    What have we learned during this Teachable Moment?
    I anxiously await your reply to see if in fact you have learned your lesson.

  • LOL. Celeste, I think it’s time to upgrade your IP detection system, along with your mind numbingly slow server. I know for a fact it’s the same person. I’ve been dealing with this clown for a few years now. I know this creature’s behavior. I know its patterns. I know its smell. You can enable him all you want to by validating his abuse of YOUR blog. I watch you do it with all of your other abusers, like Sure Fire and Woody, so why not stick your chin out and close your eyes for him, too? That’s your deal. But since he’s calling me out, I’m going to respond to him. That being said, his transition from angry Los Angeles citizen who wants public schools shut down to Stuart Smiley is good entertainment. Not only does he think I’m too dumb to click on a link and find out that it’s nothing more than a comments section, he thinks his guilt trips are an effective way to disarm someone who calls him on his bullshit, too.

  • Celeste, you’ve won journalism awards and have written a popular book, and you’ve got like, what, 5 or so followers here, tops? Pathetic. And, it’s not because of you’re writing or ideas. It’s because nobody wants to deal with these assholes that you allow to run roughshod over this place.

  • Rob, as I said, I don’t know conclusively. I haven’t spent the time to look very closely.

    And, yes, if people want to make the effort, they can fool the tracker. But it takes a lot of effort.

    My tracker sees who one’s internet provider is, the location, the speed of the connection, the OS, the browser used, and more—as well as obvious info like the IP.

    But all that aside, if it were me, I’d just ignore him.

  • Rob,
    No need to make negative comments about Celeste’s blog. If it’s pathetic why do you participate? I know it hurts that you were made to look monumentally stupid in the eyes of others. But YOU did that. Not me, not Celeste and not WTF.
    YOU made YOU look like a complete fool. To top it off, you did it after asking:
    “Jesus Christ dude, how stupid do you think we are?”

    So we can all see how it would be embarrassing. But YOU did it Rob. You just wouldn’t quit, and you wouldn’t even consider that you were wrong.
    Instead of just taking your lumps and learning from it, you start making disparaging comments about Celeste’s blog and criticizing her.
    Nice dude, real nice.
    Ya think?

  • WARNING: From here on out I’m deleting any personal attacks.

    ATQ, I glanced through the thread just now. All you’ve done is attack a single person. You’re contributing nothing else. I’m sure you have something more than that to say. But if not, you’ll find yourself deleted.

    This isn’t personal. It’s simply that it’s gotten out of hand again. And you are the proverbial last straw.

    Thank you in advance for cooperating.

  • Celeste,
    You were nothing but an unbiased observer in this interaction. You provided information that he didn’t like, so he becomes disrespectful to you. Then he accuses you of allowing others to “run roughshod over you” after insulting you himself.
    All the while never considering that maybe it’s behaviour like this that causes others to have a problem with him.

  • I apologize for any inconvenience or grief that I have caused you Celeste. I will refrain from personal attacks in the future. Now if you can get Rob, reg, Sure Fire, WTF and Woody to do the same, it will all be good. This crap didn’t start tonight. We all know it. There are some people that can’t disagree with others without attacking them personally. I would LOVE to debate without it deteriorating to personal attacks. It isn’t going to happen. Sticking to the facts without introducing the vitriol is definitely NOT the forte of those whom participate on this blog. It just isn’t. That’s why you’re tired of it.
    Hell, Rob personally insulted you and your blog as soon as you provided information he didn’t like. LOL. And yes, I did start it with Rob tonight. After watching his interaction with WTF, I couldn’t resist “Answering The Question” that he asked. This is of course after his personal insults of others ad infinitem whenever he disagrees with them.
    I thought I’d give him a taste of his own medicine. I shouldn’t have sunk to his level. I apologize.

  • Why am I being dragged into the mud slinging? You’ll note that I’m the one usually attacked by intolerant people, simply for my making conservative comments.

  • Because I’ve never sunk to the gutter level of calling you a “child molester.” Or is that one of your “conservative comments.” I guess so, since GOPers have elevated hysterical hate speech and manufactured insanities to the level of their “domestic agenda.”

    Since you’re a certifiable liar, racist, homophobic bigot and radical right-wing asshole, I only deal in fact when I call you out.

    Of course, the worst of your problems are probably the childishness and the cowardly “Eddie Haskell” evasions.

  • reg, you’re the only one who keeps bring up “child molester” in connection with yourself – not I.

    Celeste, I didn’t call anyone names, so don’t single me out.

  • If either one of you singles out each other for personal attacks—dirty names or no dirty names—I’ll be deleting you. If in doubt, I’ll delete. I want the comments section more functional. So I’ll be doing a lot of deleting until everyone changes their entrenched habits. Just expect it.

    Fair warning.

  • Facts are facts. Woody has called me a child molester here many times, which, of course is a lie he now wants to run away from because that’s his MO. He’s never even apologized, but the whole episode was so degenerate and disgusting and persistant that at this point it wouldn’t matter. So, yes, he’s also cowardly. He has also posted overtly racist comments and pictures, posted homophobic comments and crank right-wing stuff, such as the insane lies about the health insurance reform including “death panels” or “government takeover”, which is tantamount to asserting the Earth is flat because it looks that way from your back porch. “Asshole” did, in fact, go beyond your rules as a generic slur. The rest is objective fact, provable on the evidence.

  • I’ll chime in now and also say I am NOT ACQ, I would not hesitate for ONE second to claim the comments by ACQ, if they were mine. I happen to agree with most of what ACQ wrote, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

    A big Hoody Hoo to ACQ’s comments.

  • reg, you lie, again. It was months ago, and I did apologize. Since then, it’s been you who keeps associating yourself with child molestation. Of course, you’re not really offended by such a charge. You just like to play it as if you’re a victim.

    Frankly, the personal attacks here begin once you put your fingers to the keyboard.

  • Thanks for covering this memorable event Celeste. The children who are stuck in the system are born without a full deck of cards. It’s the adults, the egos,and the igonarance(very much like what’s happening in the comment section) that exists in their neighborhoods and this country.

    More energy should be spent on youth mentoring, the arts, real education and not memorizing the states and capitals for real healing to occur. It’s apparent that traumatized children are not the only ones that need that healing.

  • “Since then, it’s been you who keeps associating yourself with child molestation. Of course, you’re not really offended by such a charge.”

    The lies and smear just pile up. As for “I did apologize” – bullshit. I’m never going to let what a scum you are be forgotten as long as you continue to peddle your bigotry and insane drivel.

  • I did apologize. Just because you may have missed it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Well, maybe it’s time that you denied it rather than remind everyone.

    What about all the names that you’ve called me? Of course, you see no need to apologize, as you have no conscience and embrace situational ethics. Instead, you continue to label anyone who disagrees with you on honest, moral reasons as being a racist and homophobe. Why? Because you can’t win any argument based upon truth.

  • Fuck your “apology” – you made so many of those comments and so much racist and homophobic bullshit – for which you haven’t “apologized” that it’s just CYA. You’re a despicable little man.

  • reg: He’s never even apologized…

    Woody: I did apologize.

    reg: Fuck your “apology”

    So, reg, you really didn’t want an apology. You just wanted to say that you never received one in an attempt to smear me. When you were shown to be a liar, you rejected the apology. Don’t demand or expect something that you’re not willing to accept. It shows you for the fool and liar that you are.

    Now, I’m waiting on your apologies for the names that you have called me. The clock’s on.

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