A Story of Transformation

This story is part of our ACG Fall Fund Drive Changing Lives Storyboard. Read our previous story, an interview with Judge Darlene Byrne who provides a unique perspective on ACG’s work with young people invovled in the Juvenile Justice Sysytem. Consider supporting ACG today! 


One of the benefits of teaching guitar at the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center is getting to witness the high rate of positive change that learning music brings to my students. Music has the unique ability to provide an honest experience in which the students’ hard work brings them legitimate recognition. For many of my students, this has never happened before. I get asked a lot about what it’s like working in a youth detention facility, and I usually say, “The bad days are bad, but the good days are really good.” Fortunately, we have many more good days than bad, and the abundance of positive change I witness turns the bad days into mere reminders of what these young people are truly dealing with in their lives.

I’d like to tell you about one student. Let’s call him Taylor.

Taylor is a long-term resident at Gardner-Betts. He is extremely intelligent and very intuitive. He reluctantly entered my class last year because he needed fine arts credit to stay on track for high school graduation. He was always polite and did what I asked, but made it clear he had no interest in being there.

One afternoon, Taylor walked into the classroom, and I could tell he was already having a bad day. Minutes after we started rehearsing I heard a loud “POW!” Taylor had punched his guitar in an attempt to vent his frustration. I immediately told him to give me the guitar, and explained that I had a responsibility to keep all of my students safe. Taylor responded by lobbing a flurry of colorful verbal threats of bodily harm at me. Fortunately, the Gardner-Betts staff members were able to calm him down without having to use physical restraint. My heart was pounding. I felt like I had failed Taylor, as this incident caused him to be removed from guitar class for the rest of the year.

“Taylor still has some tough days, but he’s learned to cope with them. He’ll tell me, ‘I’m mad, sir, not at you, but mad nonetheless. Is it OK if I just chill for a little while?’ When this happens, he always picks up the guitar by the end of class.”

Taylor was allowed back in the class this fall. He was in a better place with his treatment, and living in a quieter unit. We talked for a long time after class one day, and he apologized for what had happened. I told him how happy I was to have him back, and that we could try again. This time around, Taylor immersed himself in the class. He began to learn solos and compose his own music on the instrument. Every week he made a point to tell me he how sorry he was about what had happened, and that he hadn’t realized how much he would enjoy learning guitar. I kept reminding him how happy I was to have him in class.

Taylor still has some tough days, but he’s learned to cope with them. He’ll tell me, “I’m mad, sir, not at you, but mad nonetheless. Is it OK if I just chill for a little while?” When this happens, he always picks up the guitar by the end of class.

Last week Taylor performed Etude No. 1 by Leo Brouwer as part of our winter concert. This piece is a rite of passage for classical guitar students, and Taylor worked on it obsessively. All of the students played beautifully that afternoon, but Taylor stole the show, and got a huge ovation after his piece. I’m happy to say that Taylor is just days away from being transferred into a lower security facility. The strides he has made in the last four months have given his treatment team the confidence to expedite him through his sentence, and put him on a faster track to returning home.

If you’re inspired by Austin Classical Guitar’s work with youth in the Juvenile Justice System, please consider making a donation today.