86-Year-Old Music Teacher A Hit Among Jailed N.C. Youths

Mar 27, 2013
Originally published on March 27, 2013 9:55 pm

Prisons are notoriously difficult places to work in for obvious reasons. But one prison in North Carolina has an employee who is indispensable: a grandmother.

Millicent Gordon is not a guard or doctor — she's a music teacher. And she not only brings her warmth to the state's only youth prison, but her popular butterscotch candies, too.

Only one person at Western Youth Institution has a reserved parking space, and it's not the warden. Smack dab outside the front door of the 16-story youth prison, halfway between Charlotte and Asheville, is a small sign. It reads, "Reserved for Millie Gordon" — the music teacher.

Her music classes and choir are made up of the state's youngest offenders, but she says she's never been scared.

"Some of them have done murder. Some of them have done rape, just any crime you can think of, somebody there has done it. And the best way to handle them is to treat them all like grandchildren," Gordon says.

She doesn't ask about her students' crimes. Her secret to success, she says, is not judging them. That and the butterscotch candies don't hurt.

"When you finish a paper in her class you get butterscotch and everybody love[s] butterscotch," says Kaseim Anderson, one of her students. "When you get the butterscotch you have to say thank you. Although there are a lot of disrespectful people in this facility, nobody disrespects Ms. Gordon."

Gordon always wanted a career in music. She even took classes at Juilliard. But when marriage and kids came around, music became a side item.

Then her husband left her. Not long after, Gordon says, she had a dream of young men reaching through prison bars. When she woke up, she remembered a call she had received two years prior — a man asking her to start a music program at the prison down the road in Morganton.

She called him back.

"As soon I said, 'This is Millie Gordon.' The man who had called me said, 'Are you ready to start that music program?' And I said, 'You mean in two years you haven't found anyone?' And he said, 'I guess we've been holding it for you,' " she recalls.

Now 86, Gordon still teaches three classes a day, about 10 students each class.

On the chalkboard in a beginner's music class, above several scribbled music notes, Gordon had written her own note: "You can if you think you can."

She dismissed class early, but not before she concluded her other lesson.

She passed out a poem called "I Am Special." Amid some chuckles, the students took turns reading.

"I am beginning to realize that it's no accident that I am special," a student read out loud.

She said they're actually lucky to be in prison.

"And that's what's kept me here all these 30 years, is that you guys are special, that God has chosen you," Gordon told her class. "If you'd stayed out on the street you might be dead now, and you know some of your friends are deceased."

She rarely hears from students once they get out. She's not allowed to contact them for a year and by then they've usually gone on somewhere else.

"But I turn them over to God and say, 'He's your child now, you know what to do,'" Gordon says.

"I never thought in my youth, when I was studying for a career in music, that in my old age — in my 80th decade — I would be doing the work that I'm doing behind bars. Thank you, father," she laughs.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Prisons are notoriously difficult places to work for obvious reasons, which makes this next story all the more surprising. Briana Duggan from member station WFAE introduces us to a woman who brought a grandmother's warmth and candy to North Carolina's only youth prison.

BRIANA DUGGAN, BYLINE: Only one person at Western Youth Institution has a reserved parking space, and it's not the warden. Smack dab outside of the front door of the 16-story youth prison halfway between Charlotte and Asheville is a small sign. It reads: Reserved for Millie Gordon. She's the music teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUGGAN: Her music classes and choir are made up of the state's youngest offenders. But she says she's never been scared.

MILLIE GORDON: Some of them have done murders. Some of them have done rape. Just any crime you can think of, somebody there has done it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GORDON: And the best way to handle them is to treat them all like grandchildren.

DUGGAN: Millie doesn't ask about her students' crimes. She says her secret to success is not judging them. That and the butterscotch candies don't hurt.

KASEIM ANDERSON: Because Ms. Gordon, like, when you finish a paper in her class, you get butterscotch. And everybody love butterscotch.

(LAUGHTER)

DUGGAN: Kaseim Anderson is one of her students.

ANDERSON: When you're getting butterscotch, you have to say thank you. Nobody like - although there's a lot of disrespectful people in this facility, nobody disrespects Ms. Gordon.

GORDON: Up on the right, down on the left.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Like that.

GORDON: Now, keep going.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK.

DUGGAN: Millie Gordon always wanted a career in music. She even took classes at Juilliard. But when marriage and kids came around, music became a side item. Then her husband left her. She says not long after that, she had a dream of young men reaching through prison bars. When she woke up, she remembered a call she had received two years before, a man asking her to start a music program at the prison down the road in Morganton. She called him back.

GORDON: As soon I said, this is Millie Gordon, the man who had called me said: Are you ready to start that music program? And I said: You mean in two years you haven't found anyone? He said: I guess we've been holding it for you. What's something that's fun that you remember from your childhood?

DUGGAN: This morning, it's a beginner's music class.

GORDON: OK.

DUGGAN: On the chalkboard, above several scribbled music notes, Millie has written her own note: You can if you think you can.

GORDON: We're going to have to dispense with class early, but I want to do this poem.

DUGGAN: She's passing out a poem called "I Am Special." Amid some chuckles, the students take turns reading.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm beginning to realize that it's no accident that I am special. I'm beginning to see that God made me special for a very special purpose. He must have a job for me that no one else can do...

DUGGAN: She says they're actually lucky to be in prison.

GORDON: And that's what's kept me here all these 30 years is that you guys are special, that God has chosen you. If you'd stayed out on the streets, you might be dead now. And you know some of your friends are deceased.

DUGGAN: Millie Gordon rarely hears from students once they get out. She's not allowed to contact them for a year, and by then, they've usually gone on somewhere else.

GORDON: But I turn them over to God and say: He's your child. Now, you know what to do. And we'll do verse one. I never thought in my youth when I was studying for a career in music that in my old age, in my 80th decade, I would be doing the work that I'm doing behind bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD JESUS LIFTED ME")

GORDON: Thank you, Father.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD JESUS LIFTED ME")

GORDON: Come on, shout it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD JESUS LIFTED ME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) I'm so glad Jesus lifted me.

DUGGAN: For NPR News, I'm Briana Duggan in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD JESUS LIFTED ME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Jesus lifted me. I'm so glad Jesus lifted me singing glory, hallelujah, Jesus lifted me.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.