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by Thomas J. Cottle - November 30, 2012

An interview with a young adolescent in jail for selling drugs, reveals the complex interactions among his background, the trauma of witnessing his father's murder, and how he came to "learn" just how unintelligent he was and how unsuccessful he was destined to become. He speaks about his country, culture, and family, and offers perspectives on justice, violence, and a failed educational history.

I cannot rightly claim that in a series of interviews with seventeen-year old Jaylyn Timmer I have heard the story of America. Clearly this is not the case; no one person reflects a story so complex and rich. But there is, in his words, a narrative replete in this country that all too many people would just as soon ignore. Jaylyn’s life is not what in these times one calls successful, surely not in a country consumed by mathematical, financial, and educational metrics of success, or the glory of fame.  Rather it is a narrative of the ways a wounded person, in the classical trilogy of trauma, fights, flees, or becomes stunningly inhibited. His story involves how his mind works, and, in his own eyes, fails to work. It involves the profound difficulty he experiences in attaching to people, trusting them, and believing in them.

“Ain’t a whole lot of folks I get to call my friend. Friends like money. You don’t want to put your money in a bank ‘less you know it’s safe there. Ain’t no banks in my neighborhood, if you see what I’m saying. I learned you don’t stand too close to nobody. Stand too close, you only gonna lose something, some part of you. Always happens that way. Least that’s the way it is for me. And I’ve studied this.”

It involves the moments of schooling wherein he felt genuinely appreciated one moment, and disregarded, even humiliated, the next. It involves his sense of himself as an African American, and what may be evoked in him when speaking with an older white man. It involves the manner in which he addresses and contemplates his own intelligence and sensibilities.

“Truth is I see myself as pretty smart. Had a few teachers, not many, but they thought I was smart. They told me right to my face. I believed ‘em too. Turned out they was just lying. How you tell a kid he is smart when he’s failing every subject? Hey, I was cutting the gym classes there ‘fore I left. I think I can get most of the stuff, but it just comes on too slow. Or maybe my brain can’t slow down for it to come into it. See what I’m saying? But look there. If I can’t explain it to you, and you’re supposed to be smart, why I can’t learn, don’t that tell you all you need to know about just how smart I am. So I’m just lying to myself too. Just like those teachers I used to hope was telling me the truth.”

His narrative involves descriptions of his present existence and the chapters of a past that, in his own mind, has brought him to this place, literally and figuratively. But it involves almost nothing that could be seen as eager anticipation, expectation, or hope; there is but a glimmer of what a future might hold.  

“You the big doctor, suppose you tell me what could ever come to me. You tell me, put a straight face on now, and tell me there is still hope for me. You gonna do that? There ain’t no hope. You know those soldiers they bring home in those bags. What they call those bags?”

“Body bags.”

“Body bags, yeah. Only difference between me and them is that they gonna stay in those body bags. Me, I get to walk out of ‘em. But I ain’t alive like you and most other folks. I’m just killing time ‘fore I end up in the bag for good. ‘Whatever become of that Jaylyn boy? He ever make it? He finish school, tell me? He ever get to go somewhere with his life?’ ‘Hell no,’ they gonna answer. ‘Ended up just like his old man. Why’d you think he was gonna make out okay? You a damn fool thinking that. You talking ‘bout Jaylyn Timmer? Boy spent his whole life in a one of those body bags!’

“Guidance counselor told me once, ‘Jaylyn boy, you got to learn to cope with these things. No matter how bad they be, you gotta learn to cope.’ You know what I did? I went upstairs to the library. Only time I was ever in that library, and I found the dictionary. I look up cope. If she say I got to cope with it, I got to know what she’s talking ‘bout.”

“What’d you find?”

“I don’t remember now, but it made sense. Maybe get through it. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cope. See there, I didn’t forget the word. People got to help you with it. Whole city got to help you with it. Too big a job for one boy to handle. We gotta have coping armies working with us, looking out for us, lifting us up over all the mess we make of our lives, and the mess other folks make for us.”

And one thing more, the traumas of one’s people live in the stories of individual souls. Indeed, we often replicate, or at very least continue to dread the trauma of violence experienced by our ancestors. Even the best coping mechanisms may be unsuccessful in breaking cycles of pain. Beyond individual psyches, cultures too, have a role in shaping coping strategies. Cultures too, possess memory.

“Some folks bothered by all the garbage lying around all those yards in Oaklawn. Me, I always thought the mess around here is invisible. Everybody’s making it. You can’t see it, but you feel it inside your self. That make sense to you?”

In this one instance, an instance that might well stand for a thousand instances, a single life, absent surely of what the literary critic Lionel Trilling referred to as the “variousness” of human qualities and possibilities,1 reveals just how it is that a culture and a community, a political economy, and a collection of people and institutions shape the very structure and substance of a child’s brain, and dare I say, heart as well. One life reveals just how it is a youthful soul could be so wounded by a culture, by a community, by a country, by a history, that the only word an aging researcher can conjure is mourner.

“Body bag, yeah. I got three things ended up destructing me. I am alone, I feel terrible about myself, that’s for two, and I can’t come up with nothing that’s going to make no difference. That’s for three. I’m helpless most of the time. Only time I’m not is when I sleep. Wind blows this way, that’s the way I stumble. Wind blows that way, I stumble off that way. That make sense? And no matter what way I go, I always end up deciding I’m no good and nothing’s going to make no difference on me.”

“You think about shame.”

“I don’t just think about shame, I am shame. Man, you looking at shame. You looking at a helpless shamer. You think you looking at some kid in a jail cell, but you looking at shame. Do something about it then, you thinking. I’m thinking, I wish I could, man. I wish I could.”


1. Trilling’s complete thought went this way: “Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16954, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:45:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Cottle
    Boston University
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS COTTLE is Professor of Education in the School of Education at Boston University. His books include At Peril: Stories of Injustice; A Sense of Self: The Work of Affirmation; and Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment.
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