Martha-Choco-Latta-Ya-Ya!- Milk-Chocolate Cookies! -243 eggs, 1851/2 cups of sugar, 187 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 234 1/2 cups of flour used so far- 31 recipes to go!

September 24, 2011


Martha's Milk Chocolate Cookies

André's Milk-Chocolate Cookies

There was a brown, cardboard box waiting on my doorstep a little over a week ago. Inside it were three cookie tins and a sweet note from a friend and former co-worker from back in the 90s when I taught high school theatre. She was, and still is a theatre teacher at the same school and has helped thousands of pimply-faced students with big dreams find their voice through the years. I was touched to read she actually wastes her valuable down-time following this blog. She gave me a list of flavors she’s especially fond of but with only 32 cookies left on the list, choosing the right one that would survive at least four days in transit was a bit of a challenge. My friend indicated she was fond of dark chocolate. While milk chocolate doesn’t exactly qualify as being dark I did add a bit of dark chocolate cocoa powder to the mix to try to hit the bitter notes you’d expect with pure dark chocolate. I haven’t heard back from her but I’m pretty sure these cookies made it out to her on time. I just hope they weren’t a crumbly mess or worse, stale.

Martha’s Milk-Chocolate Cookies are an über-chocolaty cookie made with cocoa, melted milk chocolate with chocolate chunks added to the batter. They are slightly undercooked and chewy and the recipe yields a lot of cookies. They are sweet but not too sweet and the addition of a bit of dark chocolate cocoa proved to add that tinge of bitterness I was looking for.  I hope my friend enjoyed them and was able to share them with her friends and family. She’s a special lady and I hope to see her this October when I head out to Baton Rouge to spend some much-needed time with family and friends.

“It seems to me, to get noticed, you have to be a Rhodes Scholar or gun down your entire school.”

– Josh (an inmate of the Indianapolis Juvenile Correction Facility-2002)

After the events of 9/11 sent me packing from NYC to live near my sister in Indianapolis, I found myself auditioning for the Indiana Arts Council as a new Artist in Residence. The program was developed to send State approved artists to schools and community centers stretching across the state. I had been on the Louisiana Arts Council artists roster so I knew what the expectations were in the audition. I’d enter a room and conduct about ten minutes worth of a workshop designed for children. In this case, though, the participants would be a panel of eight or nine arts administrators in business suits. My workshop was around clowning and I had three really good hour-long workshops designed to teach the fundamentals of broad physical comedy.

The audition was successful and a week later I received a phone call welcoming me aboard. Soon my calendar began to fill up with workshops, mostly schools or extra-curricular programs in distant rural areas that rarely received any arts education. I loved doing these workshops. The kids and teachers were always appreciative although the administrators, the principal, the vice principal, the secretaries rarely were. The moment I always dreaded was walking into the office in my oversized pants and oversized shoes informing them I was there to conduct a clown workshop. Usually these administrators would greet me with great suspicion and on more than one occasion I was made to wait while they called the Arts Council to confirm I was not a crazy person who walked in off the street.

About three months after being approved by the Arts Council I was sent to a Juvenile Detention Center for Boys. I was a bit worried. I wasn’t intimidated by the crowd but years before I had been hired to perform a show at a similar facility. In the show was a bit of magic where I transformed a ball of fire into a dove. On the small pedestal was a lighter. As soon as the show ended the kids all came up to shake my hand and in the chaos, the lighter went missing. The entire room went into lockdown while each kid had to be taken into a back room by the workers and strip searched for the missing lighter lest they burn down the facility that evening. The lighter was eventually found and the repentant culprit was reprimanded but it was such a negative experience. I’d been performing for a long time by that point but I’d never had a show end in a strip search. I felt I had failed these kids and the staff by not keeping an eye on that lighter.

This story was playing out over-and-over again in my head as I pulled up to the large guarded gate at the boys detention facility. The sky was dark with large storm clouds forming above adding to my already foreboding sense of doom. A former military base, now converted to house and rehabilitate young men between the ages of 10 and 17, it was a stark and severe place. The guards were armed men with dark glasses and little to no sense of humor. I was told where to park and that the warden would be out to greet me and escort me to the dining hall where I’d be conducting my workshop. I asked him how many boys he was expecting to attend. He responded, “All of them.”

The mess hall was filled to capacity with hundreds of young, rowdy young men but as soon as they saw the warden they snapped to their feet in silence. It was all a bit surreal. Here I was dressed in baggy clown pants and oversized shoes carrying a duffle bag filled with clown paraphernalia walking with military precision behind a man who commanded a sense of fear-based respect from a roomful of underaged inmates- just the sort of environment to teach comedy basics. When we reached the front of the room the young audience sat in silence. The warden introduced me and turning to me with a wink, he handed over the crowd to me.

What happened next was unbelievable. I’m not sure if it was from the rush of adrenaline or from the eagerness of the crowd to experience a bit of joy, but I conducted the best and most productive workshop of my career. Volunteers to come up and demonstrate various physical techniques were plentiful. Laughs were genuine and heartfelt. At one point I remarked at one volunteers commitment to a scene by saying, “Boy, you’re really convicted,”to which he responded with a goofy look, as if to say, “Well, duh!” The audience roared at this exchange. So did the warden. The crowd had a great time and towards the end of the workshop something unexpected happened. The clouds had given way to quite a thunderstorm and just before I wrapped up the workshop, the electricity went out. It was quite dark in the mess hall and several inmates took the initiative to open the metal venetian blinds to let a bit more light into the room. Heavily armed guards entered quickly into the room covering each exit so that no one was permitted to leave. The workshop was over, or so I thought.

The warden stepped up before the crowd and thanked me for the fun program and the inmates rose to their feet and cheered. He also announced that I’d be staying for lunch since the electricity was out and no one was permitted to leave. They cheered again. A line began to form to enter the cafeteria to get their daily serving of overly-salted institutional cuisine. When I joined the line, each inmate moved aside politely so that I and the warden would be served first. The warden and I took our place in the middle of the room at a table that quickly filled up with inmates eager to tell me their story. I, being curious as to how so many boys landed in this awful place, was ready to listen attentively.

I found out from the warden that over ninety percent of the boys in the facility were seventeen years old and were convicted of statutory rape. I didn’t understand. He went on to explain that many had girlfriends in high school who were younger than themselves, only by a few months in many cases. The laws of Indiana are very clear that  17  is the age of consent and if it can be proven that a 17 year old has had sexual relations with anyone 16 years or younger, he can be convicted of statutory rape. Most parents don’t want their young daughters having sex and if they can prove that their daughter has had such physical relations with her boyfriend and he is of the age of consent, they can press charges. I was shocked. From what I could tell, most of these boys were good guys, no different than the students I had been teaching for years, better actually. It seemed like an awful abuse of a law. These boys were just starting out. Most of them weren’t violent criminals. They hadn’t burglarized or thieved. They hadn’t vandalized or injured. They had simply made a bad decision fueled by their hormones and a culture that has sexualized them since the age of twelve or younger. When these boys return to society they have to register as sexual offenders. How are they suppose to go to college? How are they suppose to meet a girl? How are they suppose to one day marry and start a family? How are they suppose to find a job? At the age of seventeen, these boys are looking at a lifetime of embarrassment and ridicule, a constant uphill battle for redemption. For what? To sate a vindictive parent’s sense of justice? How is this rehabilitation? How does this punishment match such an ambiguous crime? It didn’t make sense and looking at the faces around the table, my heart broke a little for them.

Lunch was over and my still full tray was returned to the kitchen. The electricity had not been restored and so I offered to conduct a smaller workshop in the corner with twenty of the inmates while we waited for the lights to come back on. The warden handpicked the twenty participants and we retreated to the corner of the hall moving our chairs into a circle. I gave each boy a piece of paper and a crayon and asked them to write one word. The word would be the thing they most desire. Without thinking too much, the group scribbled out their thoughts and handed them in. I read each aloud and we discussed what each word meant to the group. The first word was “Range Rover”. The group laughed. One boy spoke up and shouted, “That’s freedom, man! I mean when you’re behind the wheel of that big-ass Rover, you can go anywhere.” The laughter stopped and faded into a moment of pondering the thought of one day being free. I read another word, “Fame.” The boys nodded, they desired this. Fame meant wealth, respect, acknowledgement, women, friends, power… being noticed. “Why is it important to be noticed?” I asked. A young man who had remained fairly silent in the corner spoke up, “Because no one does. Unless you’re a jock star or part of the popular crowd, it’s like you don’t exist. What are the rest of us suppose to do?  It seems to me, to get noticed, you have to be a Rhodes Scholar or gun down your entire school.” There was silent nodding from the group after that. The boy stared at me expressionless. His statement took my breath away. A few moments later the lights flickered on and the warden dismissed the inmates to their bunks. I shook a lot of hands and got a lot of pats on the back for being a good sport. I kept thinking about what that quiet kid said. The little red head, younger than the rest who had expressed himself so eloquently. What had he done to end up in such a place? The warden escorted me to my car and I asked him about the young man. “That’s Josh,” he replied, “Josh will be with us for a long time. He murdered his little brother when he was ten. No one knows why. It doesn’t make any sense.”

I placed the pile of papers I’d collected from the boys on the passenger seat. On top was the word scribbled in red crayon. “Forgiveness”

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3 Responses to “Martha-Choco-Latta-Ya-Ya!- Milk-Chocolate Cookies! -243 eggs, 1851/2 cups of sugar, 187 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 234 1/2 cups of flour used so far- 31 recipes to go!”

  1. Thomas Pluck Says:

    Of the many important and touching stories you’ve told, this one stunned me. So many lives forced through the meat grinder of the prison industry to make men rich, lives ruined because parents are pissed off their daughter had sex.
    It makes a mockery of real statutory rapes, of which I am sure there are many. It’s a difficult subject and it’s sickening to see an industry made around it.
    You did a great thing going to perform for those boys, even ones like Josh. I don’t believe anyone is born bad. Not to excuse his atrocious crime, but who knows why he did what he did. Something happened to him that made him the kind of person who’ll have to be imprisoned for much if not all of his life.

  2. Sylvia Says:

    Andre,

    The cookies were wonderful and the chocolate quite balanced (notice I use the past tense–yes, they are already gone).

    But what a heart-wrenching story (albeit beautifully told).
    You continue to amaze me with your breadth of experiences,
    wealth of talent, and depth of compassion.

    Concerning the boys in detention, I agree with what Thomas commented.

    Take care, and keep writing!

  3. Chelsea Says:

    Very moving story, Andre. I’ll be thinking about it for days. Thanks.


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