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'We Took Terror Out Of Their Lives': Remembering Youth Advocate Mary Previte

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Child advocate Mary Previte spent three decades devoted to the compassionate care of the troubled young people in her charge at the Camden County Youth Center in New Jersey. Previte died last month at age 87.

She was born in China in 1932 and, during the Second World War, spent more than three years of her childhood incarcerated in a Japanese concentration camp. After the war, she emigrated to the United States, got a master's degree in education and English and taught high school. Previte's lifetime focus was on improving the lives and education of children. That led her to a job as administrator of the Camden County Youth Center, a detention center in New Jersey where young people accused of crimes are held as they await trial.

The conversation we're about to hear is taken from interviews Terry Gross recorded with Mary Previte in 1993 and 1994. The first weekend Previte took over the Youth Correction Center in 1974, she had a riot on her hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARY PREVITE: When I arrived on the second floor, the boys were locked down. They were behind steel doors. They were doing a clanging, banging - just, like, bringing the roof down with the noise. That was what I came on.

And of course, my officers are standing by. I'm a brand-new political appointee, a suburban housewife, homemaker. And here I am walking onto the floor - I know you won't believe this, Terry - in a hostess dress. I had been giving a dinner party - crystal and china and candlelight - at my home when they called and said, there's a riot. So I come out onto this floor, and my officers are standing by watching because nobody believed that I was going to last in that place.

TERRY GROSS: This was your big test.

PREVITE: There was no question. I mean, here - they're standing by. These are people that had been punched in the face, kicked. There had been violence against the staff. There had been violence against kids. It went both ways. So they knew how dangerous these youth were. I mean, these are teenage boys charged, many of them, with felonies.

I had not a clue what to do. The only thing that I knew what to do was to get up to the first youngster that I had begun to develop a relationship with. And I went to his door. His name was Stevie (ph). And I lowered my voice really softly and began to talk with him. And I said, Stevie, what is this about? Well, you could just hear the noise level go down in the hallway because everyone wanted to know whether Stevie was going to be a rat.

So this lady standing there whispering or talking really softly at one door through the grate into his bedroom - everyone down the hall softened down the clanging. And noise is one of the biggest trippers of riots. Just that awful noise - it does something to your head. It does something to your, you know, fists. It just, like - it sets you up for war.

GROSS: So what did he say when you said, what is this about?

PREVITE: Well, it was - he just - something about recreation or something. And I thought, well, you know, you could fix something like that. There were ways of fixing no recreation or not enough fresh air or something. That's something you could fix. But it really - it was sort of a listening gently to kids as to - what was it about inside them that triggered this type of rage?

GROSS: How else did the kids test you that evening?

PREVITE: Well, really, that was really it. It was like a test to see if I was part of the thems (ph). The thems were officers that had been involved with brute force against youngsters. The business of mace - mace was regularly used. It was kept immediately available in the locked cabinet there on the floor.

And there were officers that would even boast that they just knew the way you could get a kid fixed down real quick. You just put some type of a blanket over his door. You'd spray the mace across his radiator in his room and lock him in, and you could keep a kid choking and gagging for an entire eight-hour shift and have him out of your hair.

GROSS: Mary Previte, you are not a physically imposing presence. You're about 5'4, about 125 pounds. You know, you live in the suburbs. You're not the kind of person who is going to show muscle and people will feel so intimidated by you that they'll behave. When you showed up that night, you know, during the riot, kids started asking you questions like, how much did that dress cost?

PREVITE: Absolutely, because...

GROSS: Were you drinking? What kind of food were you serving? And now, when I read this in your book, I was thinking, well, if this happened to me, I wouldn't know how to interpret it because I'd figured they were testing me, but I wouldn't know, like, what they were looking for in my response. You know, were they seeing if they could ask me questions that were too personal that I shouldn't be responding to like what my dress cost or what I was doing at home that night? Or should I just respond and just be really open with them? You know, like...

PREVITE: Well, that was my feeling.

GROSS: Respond and be open.

PREVITE: We need to be open. I felt that I need to not - needed to show myself as an ordinary human being because when you put violence and force out as your weapon, guaranteed, violence and force is what you will get back. I could never win on that playing ground.

GROSS: You know, as you say in your book, there's a lot of detention officers, correction officers who work by the creed that if you treat people with kindness, they will see your kindness as weakness, and they will take advantage of what they perceive as your weakness. They'll take advantage of your kindness.

PREVITE: I don't think that's - what you're describing is true. I disagree with it, and I don't operate my youth center from that. I have personally observed over 20 years that the officers that are most successful in connecting with young men and young women are the ones who come across as human beings that demonstrate that they really care. They're interested. They're absolutely delighted with the youth. And you can laugh over something that they do. That's the kind of person that develops a relationship. That's the kind of person that almost never gets the challenge of a fist or a foot or spitting or something awful. That's the kind of officer that usually can calm a scene when there's difficulty brewing.

GROSS: What's your philosophy at the detention center about how to help the young people who are there in the short time that you have to spend with them?

PREVITE: Well, first of all, there's only one set of rules, Mary Previte's rules.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PREVITE: The boys and girls come from a squishy world with no rules, no structure; do whatever you want. If there have been no parents around, they come and go in their homes as they please, when they please. I had one boy say to me - and he was a 13-year-old charged with murder. He said, a mom's supposed to say, don't do that. And he was horrified when, he says, you climb out the window or you go away and she ain't even ask you when you come in. A world of no rules, and here is a kid saying, but she's supposed to ask me - begging for structure.

So I say we will make a world that is comfortingly predictable. There is nothing squishy about the floor. You put your foot down here. You will do it this way and only this way. It's not going to be unpredictable. It's not going to be uncomfortable. You will know every day when someone's going to wake you up. You will know every day when it's time to clean up. You will know when you're going to go to school. You will know when you're going to eat. You will know when you're going to go to bed. And there's a certain way that you talk to people. And there's a certain way that you will talk - that you will respond to people. So the predictable structure - our children are living in an unpredictable world that is so frightening because they don't know when they put their foot down on any day whether it's going to be solid or when it's going to be squishy. No child can feel safe in a world like that.

GROSS: Have a lot of the young people who you've seen been abused by their parents? Is that a contributing factor, too, do you think?

PREVITE: Very, very common - I think one of the thing that really astonished me - we began to see boys and girls just blossoming in our classroom. And you say, why is this? We've had people walk down the halls and say, well, these schoolrooms here would be the envy of any schoolroom in America, where you wouldn't walk in any public or private school as orderly as this. And I began to wonder how that could be with children in a juvenile detention center all of a sudden taking seriously their school. Well, I have to give a lot of credit to the teachers. But then I began - it began to dawn on me. We took terror out of their lives. We discovered that when boys and girls come in, one of the first messages the officers will say is, we will not let you hurt somebody while you are here, and we will not let anyone hurt you. So there was a sense that you were going to be safe in this place.

GROSS: I want to ask you about something in your background that I have a feeling has some connection to the work you're doing now and the philosophy that you take. You grew up in China, where your parents were Methodist missionaries. And I believe it was the beginning of World War II. You and all the students and teachers from your school were taken prisoners in a Japanese concentration camp after Japan invaded China. Did you have experiences in this concentration camp that helped you do the work that you're doing now in some way or understand how you should be doing it?

PREVITE: Well, I didn't think of that until much later. But I think a lot of what I do at the youth center is very similar to what our teachers marched - that were marched off to prison camp with us. We had these marvelous, Victorian schoolmarm missionary teachers in our school that were marched off with us. We didn't see our parents for five and a half years, so you've got a whole school of children with no parents. And they seem to know instinctively what to do with kids in a prison camp. It was the most astonishing thing.

GROSS: Well, who did - the teachers?

PREVITE: The teachers did. The teachers did. And here were guard dogs and electrified wires and bayonet practice and all this - all the other horrors of war that no child should ever know. And these teachers would say - they didn't say it this way, but it was - they made a very predictable atmosphere. We knew when we'd get up in the morning. Does that sound like what I said to you a bit ago?

GROSS: Exactly.

PREVITE: We knew when we would get up in the morning. We'd hear Ms. Start (ph) come in to nudge us all to get up. We knew when we had to scrub our little portion of floor that was around our steamer trunks. We slept on steamer trunks. There were no beds. We knew when we were going to march off to eat. And the teachers insisted that we were going to continue with school, even though it meant sitting on the floor or sitting on the steamer trunks and using slates and a piece of chalk to do our school work. And there was a very comfortingly predictable structure. And, of course, absolutely, God was going to take care of us. There was no question about that, so that was a very comforting thing. They surrounded us with a world that we knew what to expect, despite Japanese guard dogs and Japanese bayonet practice around us. And I think I'd do much of the same thing at the youth center.

GROSS: What kind of expectations of your behavior did the teachers have while you were in the concentration camp?

PREVITE: Oh, oh. Well, our teachers - we were growing up in the time of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, who were the princesses of - in Buckingham Palace. I was born British, so these were great characters in our life. And our teachers said, you will sit up straight with your backs up straight at the dining hall, where you might be eating slop out of a tin can. And they said, there is not one set of rules for Buckingham Palace or outside world and another set of rules for the Weihsien concentration camp. So we had to have rules and manners just like Princess Margaret Rose and Princess Elizabeth, even in the confines of a Japanese prison camp.

BIANCULLI: Mary Previte from conversations recorded with Terry Gross in 1993 and 1994. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANKY TANKY'S "FREEDOM")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversations from 1993 and 1994 with children's advocate Mary Previte, who died last month at age 87.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You are from such an incredibly different world than the world that you work in now. I mean, you are the child of missionary parents. You grew up in China, where your parents were Methodist missionaries. You went to a kind of fine and very strict school for the children of missionaries. Then, as we'll get to in a second, you spent several years in a Japanese concentration camp. Do you tell the young people at the detention center about your experiences in the concentration camp?

PREVITE: Sometimes, I do. They're absolutely fascinated.

GROSS: What do you tell them about it?

PREVITE: Well, the whole story. Sometimes, we'll sit down in a whole group, and I'll tell them the whole story, and they will just be fascinated. I was sort of a born storyteller, so I love to go and tell them stories, and often, they're stories about me.

GROSS: One of the stories I bet the young people really want to hear about you has to do with how you lost your hand.

PREVITE: That will shut them down to complete quiet when I tell them how I lost my hand in an accident. And all of a sudden, it's like I broke a code. You don't talk about somebody has one hand or some, you know, something that makes them quite different. So when I open the door - oh, well now, that is - it's just mass quiet. And this is how I'll tell the story.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you.

PREVITE: Go ahead.

GROSS: Before you do, I just want to say you are wearing a short-sleeve, red and white polka dot dress today, and your arm is severed a little above the wrist.

PREVITE: The wrist.

GROSS: And you're not wearing a prosthetic device to cover up the fact that you're missing a hand. It's - you know, if you look at you in a short-sleeve dress, it's obvious.

PREVITE: Very obvious.

GROSS: Right. So for a young person who's meeting you for the first time, they're going to notice that.

PREVITE: Sure.

GROSS: So - and as you said, they're not going to ask about it because you don't do that. So how do you bring it up?

PREVITE: Well, sometimes I'll bring it up. There - I tell this story for a couple of different lessons, so I may tell it in a different way each time. Some kid will say, so-and-so just got sentenced, and he was so nice, and he was only 14. And I'll say, let me tell you a story. I said, I was so nice, and I was only 14. And I one time bumped my hand upon a revolving saw, and now I'm - look how old I am. And I'm carrying a mistake that I made when I was only 14. Sometimes, saying you're sorry does not make the mistake go away. So you have to be careful what you do that making a mistake, even when you're so young as 14, can leave you marked for the rest of your life.

GROSS: The kind of work that you're in - there's such a high burnout level there, and you just get emotionally exhausted by it, I think, after awhile. You know there's no instant solutions. You're not kidding yourself about how you're, like, working complete magic, and everybody who walks out of your center is saved. What keeps you going in spite of all the obstacles and all the losses?

PREVITE: The little gifts. I get so many little gifts every day, and I look for the short-term and the little because I can never expect the long-term. And when a girl that has been in crisis and just so hurting will put her arm around me, will ask me to sit down next to her at the table, or a boy that I have just been working with a lot - or he and I have written a story for our student newspaper together, and I'm walking down the hallway, and then he will reach across the hallway and pat my arm, I go home, like, knowing every day that I get so much more than what I give. I get so high from those little touches that - you know you've connected with a youngster in a very private way. I have never been burned out.

GROSS: Mary Previte, thank you so much.

PREVITE: Thanks, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Children's advocate Mary Previte spoke to Terry Gross in 1993 and 1994. Mary Previte died last month at age 87. On Monday's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL")

ALEX BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) You should do stand-up, and I can help you.

BIANCULLI: Our guest will be Alex Borstein. She's won two back-to-back Emmy Awards for her role as manager for a housewife-turned-stand-up-comic in the Amazon Prime series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." She's also been on "Mad TV," the HBO series "Getting On" and the Fox animated series "Family Guy." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "DEBBIE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "DEBBIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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