Star pupil offers hope for teen-age inmates

Transformation: Shanae Watkins returns to the Waxter Center to tell the current inmates how she rebuilt her life after she fatally stabbed a girl.

February 26, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

She first arrived in pigtails, a big-eyed 12-year-old who didn't seem to understand what all the fuss was about, just because she had stabbed someone to death on the streets of Baltimore.

That was nearly seven years ago. Now Shanae Watkins has a new attitude, a child, even a touch of celebrity, and yesterday she returned to the scene of her transformation, the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel.

Greeting her were about 60 teen-age girls who have a pretty good idea of what she went through, mostly because they're going through it themselves as inmates of this juvenile jail by the woods. But they also know her story because they watched it unfold yesterday on a video screen, in the documentary film Girlhood.

Under lock and key as always, they sat in a darkened, sweltering gym to watch footage that was shot several years ago in these rooms and hallways. Then, having watched the on-screen Watkins make it out of the Waxter Center and go to her junior prom in a long white limousine, they burst into applause as the lights came up.

Watkins stood from her seat in the front row -- older now, but the smile just as brilliant -- and they cheered even louder. It was easy to see why. She is their star pupil, their good example and, in this rough arena where growing up fast is the norm, their elder sage, even though she's a few weeks shy of 19.

One of the center's supervisors told them after the film, pointing at the girls as she spoke, "If Shanae can do it, you can, too. And you, and you, and you."

Helping make the movie so powerful for them, besides the familiar setting, were the faces and voices of teachers, counselors and staff members who still patrol the hallways. Several girls gasped in recognition at every instance.

"There's Miss Massey," one whispered loudly as a big teddy bear of a woman gave the on-screen Shanae a hug.

When a staff member told Shanae, "You can do it, put your back into it," a girl smiled, whispering, "She said that to me last night."

Some of what they recognized was not nearly so cheerful.

Megan, the other Baltimore girl featured in the film, never did seem to work out her problems, even though she, too, got back onto the streets. Her mother was still in and out of jail and still fighting a drug problem that she seemed to have passed down to Megan like a hexed family heirloom.

The girls watched in rapt horror as mother and daughter cursed loudly at each other during a fierce and seemingly final parting. Some laughed nervously as Megan's grandmother resignedly told the mother, "I don't like you, but I love you."

"That's not funny," a girl seated toward the back muttered. "My mom told me that."

No one made a sound as the young Shanae, answering questions for a counselor, awkwardly explained that she had been sexually assaulted by five males at age 11. And no one made a sound as she explained how she had learned to confront her guilt and to accept responsibility for someone's death, having stabbed another girl in a fight.

All of the essentials of their young and troubled lives seemed to be on display -- every fear, hope and anxiety staring back at them from the bright screen at the front of the darkened room.

But perhaps the best lines of the afternoon came after the screening, when Shanae stood to answer questions.

"What if you don't have any prom to look forward to?" the first questioner asked, as if searching for anything that might make her believe in a future. "What if there's nothing to look forward to?"

"You always have something to look forward to," the wise old woman of nearly 19 answered calmly, "even if it's the rest of your life."

"How do you stay so positive?" another girl asked. "I mean, I can't do it."

"Don't get this twisted," Watkins cautioned. "It might have seemed like it was so easy for me, but it was not easy at all. They came [to do the film] when I was 14. I had already been here two years. I originally dropped out of school in sixth grade, so if I hadn't been committed here, if the judge hadn't been that hard on me, then I don't know what would have happened to me. `Cause when I got to the sixth grade, I already thought I was all grown up."

It is not as if Watkins has it easy. Her attitude might have changed greatly, but she still lives in a city where violence and strife guide much of what happens.

She lives with her grandmother and studies to be a medical assistant while raising a daughter who will soon turn 1. The child's father, her fiance, is in jail awaiting trial on a murder charge. Even for a role model, life keeps coming up with problems.

For one girl in yesterday's audience, the most puzzling aspect of Watkins' life was how anyone who made it out of the Waxter Center would ever want to come back, even in triumph. The place has many trappings of a school, but it is still a prison. Everyone who works there walks the halls with the signature sound of the jailer -- the brassy jingle of a large ring of keys.

"Surprisingly," Watkins answered, "this was not a bad experience. ... I still see this place as the best thing that ever happened to me."

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