In 1997, Mark Dostert ('97 M.A.) began working at Chicago's 500-cell juvenile jail as a "children's attendant," thinking he would serve as liaison between the inmates and the actual guards.
"How wrong I was," he says. "We were the guards -- no uniform, no badge, no cuffs, no mace. Nothing. 'All you have is your mouth,' as one coworker explained to me my first week there."
Dostert writes about his one-year stint in the just released book Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side (University of Iowa Press), hoping to let readers experience what it's like to interact with America's most at-risk youth. For his job, he had to supervise showers, meals and recreation -- and break up fights about once a week.
"Not many people have worked a cellblock where they are outnumbered 12 to 1 or met anyone charged with murder, much less someone under 18 years old," he says.
His essays, which have appeared in The Houston Chronicle, Ascent and other publications, have been cited as notable in editions of The Best American Essays and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Dostert now teaches seventh-grade English in the Houston ISD and is working on a master's degree in English at the University of Houston.
The first draft of Up in Here took nearly five years, and he credits Laura Stern, associate professor of history, for helping him out years earlier during the writing of his master's thesis.
"Dr. Stern held my writing feet to the fire," he says. "She purged anything and everything that was confusing or extraneous. From her, I've gained an appreciation for paying extremely close attention to each word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, so as not to waste the reader's time or insult the reader's intelligence and to write with a purpose."