A Virginia judge handed down an unusual sentence last year after five teenagers defaced a historic black schoolhouse with swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power.”
Instead of spending time in community service, Judge Avelina Jacob decided, the youths should read a book.
But not just any book. They had to choose from a list of ones covering some of history’s most divisive and tragic periods.
The horrors of the Holocaust awaited them in “Night,” by Elie Wiesel. The racism of the Jim Crow South was there in Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The brutal hysteria of persecution could be explored in “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller.
A year has passed since the youths spray-painted their hateful messages on the side of the Ashburn Colored School, a one-room, 19th-century classroom that had been used by black children during segregation in Northern Virginia. The swastikas and words were long ago covered with paint. The teenagers have read their books and written their reports.
The charges, destruction of private property and unlawful entry, were dismissed in January, Alejandra Rueda, a deputy commonwealth attorney who suggested the reading sentence, said.
“I hope that they learned the lesson that I hoped that they would learn, which was tolerance,” Rueda said.
So, did they?
WHAT ONE TEENAGER LEARNED
The juveniles who vandalized the old schoolhouse in Ashburn, a community of about 43,000 people northwest of Washington, D.C., could not be identified because of their ages. But the commonwealth attorney’s office has said they were public school students ages 16 and 17. Two were white, and three were nonwhite.
One of the teenagers agreed for this article to share the list of books that he chose. Among them were “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan; “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee; “The Tortilla Curtain,” by T.C. Boyle, about a Mexican couple trying to make a life in California, and “Things Fall Apart,” a tale of Nigeria by Chinua Achebe.
He wrote that two books affected him deeply: “12 Years a Slave,” a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana, and “Night.”
An excerpt from one of his court-ordered essays was provided to The New York Times, with his permission, by his defense lawyer. He describes not fully knowing what a swastika meant, and that he thought it “didn’t really mean much.”
“Not anymore,” he wrote. “I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair.”
Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of “oppression” and “white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case.”
He also wrote that while he had studied this period in history class, the lesson lasted only a few days.
“I had no idea about how in depth the darkest parts of human history go,” he wrote.
He wrote that he feels “especially awful” that he made anyone feel bad.
“Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” he wrote in his essay. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”
AUTHORS HOPE THEIR MESSAGES GOT ACROSS
Since the Ashburn case, the reading sentence has been applied to another case, one involving a 14-year-old who threatened a black student with a noose, Rueda said.
She gathered a list of 36 books with input from librarians who emphasized that the most enlightening could be “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” a poetry book about a black youth of the same age who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
Marilyn Nelson, the author, said she was concerned it might have the opposite effect to what was intended.
“I can’t say I’m pleased to know that my work is being inflicted as a punishment,” she said. “Will kids punished by being made to read poetry ever read poetry again?”
Other authors expressed hope that the underlying message in their works was not lost.
Boyle, whose “The Tortilla Curtain” is told from four points of view, said he hoped the teenager “will be able to live inside the skin of someone unfamiliar to him, whether that be the Mexican immigrant couple or the Anglo couple living in a gated community, and that the experience will enrich his social perspective.”
Hosseini, who wrote “The Kite Runner,” a story of Afghan boys struggling against cruelty, said he hoped the teenager was inspired to overcome an “us against them” mindset.
“Engaging with characters that differ from us in race, religion or culture, helps us feel our immutable connections as a species,” Hosseini said. “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading ‘The Kite Runner’ was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”
HOW THE COMMUNITY REACTED
After the graffiti episode in September 2016, the Ashburn schoolhouse underwent a renovation organized by students from the Loudoun School for the Gifted, a private high school that owns it. Money was raised, work teams were drawn from community volunteers, and the little schoolhouse eventually opened as a museum.
Some criticized the sentence. For example, an English teacher at Loudoun balked at the idea of associating reading with punishment, said Deep Sran, the school’s founder.
Kamran Fareedi, 17, a senior at Loudoun, had been working on the renovation before the vandalism. He said he thought the sentence “reeks of pampering and no consequences.”
“When I heard that the punishment was that they were going to have to do homework assignments, I was very disappointed,” he said. “All over the country we have a giant mass incarceration problem. And particularly African-Americans do the slightest thing, their interaction with the criminal justice system is way more harsh. When people of color make mistakes they don’t get the chance to start over.”
He said the fact that three of the youths were minorities also reflected the economic privilege of youths in the Ashburn area.
“It is astonishing that they are that disconnected from the serious implications of their history and their heritage and people of their background today in non-privileged areas,” Fareedi said.
Shailee Sran, a 16-year-old student at the school, said she hoped that the teenager learned the value of bravery in defending what is right from his reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“I actually thought the punishment made sense,” she said. “I feel like if they don’t understand what they did wrong it is not helping the problem. It is just teaching them not to get caught.”
“It is like what we were doing in trying to restore the schoolhouse,” Sran added. “We are trying to remember and trying to show people what happened and what is still happening. This shouldn’t be forgotten.”
In both cases, the youths also had to visit museums and had the option of watching relevant documentaries and speeches.
Rueda, the commonwealth attorney, said she saw the sentence as an opportunity to expand their minds.
“Is it going to change their perspective on swastikas if you put them in the juvenile center and locked them up?” she said.