Not about me, but sometimes about me

Posted: November 18, 2011 in prison, general, prisoner writing, story, teaching, The Hero's Journey Workshop, writing

I went to the prison this past Tuesday with little of myself left to give. I had not slept a full eight hours, let alone four or five hours, in days. My emotional tank had been spent on the personal challenges I am facing (nothing life threatening, though possibly life changing). My head and heart were in a multitude of places other than teaching writing craft and the hero’s journey story structure. My goal for the night was simply: do not burst into tears for the next two and a half hours, no matter what.

The specifics of my own personal drama are not essential to this post, and are probably best saved for a future short story about how hard it is to both love another and live as you desire all at the same time. I will ultimately be fine. But I was not fine on Tuesday night. I could only tell myself I was going to do my best and be thankful that my co-facilitator was doing the bulk of the teaching for the night.

I often tell people about this prison work that I learn as much from our students as I think they learn from us. What I don’t always say is that sometimes I go to the prison only for myself. Tuesday was one of those nights. It can be a relief (and I recognize the sensation of relief is only possible because I can walk back out of the prison when I choose) to hear the various prison doors closing behind us as we make our way deeper into the prison, each one locking me further away, even if only for a brief period of time, from the outside world, from a life that momentarily feels out of my control. In the prison there are no cell phones, no email, no fucking Facebook. There are no partners, no family, no lovers. There are concrete walls, metal-barred doors, familiar security procedures and at least an appearance of control and order. For two plus hours no one from the outside can reach me, no matter the crisis.
I went to the prison on Tuesday wanting to be locked away for a while. That was my only desire. I knew I would not share any of my personal struggles with the group (not appropriate). I did not expect to walk out with answers or new insights that would help guide me through the coming days and weeks. I just needed to disappear. And I did, and it was exactly what I needed.

What I did not expect was the unintentional kindness of so many of the students. Kindness that manifested in ways they probably didn’t intend or recognize. M-, for example, when he came into the classroom, shook my hand as always and asked how my last two weeks had been. I said, “It’s been a little tough, but I’ll survive.” He said, “Shoot, you don’t have to pretend in here, we get tough,” and gave me a big smile that did actually make me feel a little better. M- also read a personal essay, which was both well written and powerful and clearly demonstrated he’d been paying attention during our last class when I presented a craft lesson on scene vs. narrative summary. I was proud of him and his work, and pleased with myself for maybe having reached at least one of them to help make a difference in how they think about constructing their words on the page.

At the break, J- asked if I wanted some tea. He’s been bringing extra with him for us volunteers. I said I’d love some (I needed the caffeine), and then when I wasn’t paying attention because we were calling the group back to order for the second half of the night J- placed in front of me a hot mug of water, a tea bag and two sugar cubes. It was the sugar cubes that nearly undid me. Such a simple act of kindness in such an unkind environment on a day when I was feeling like the only person I would ever be able to depend on again was myself. Sugar cubes. I almost cried. Instead I said to him, “You just made my day, seriously,” and meant it.

J- is serving consecutive life sentences for some gruesome murders.

J- brought me sugar cubes.

We laughed a lot on Tuesday night. I got excited about an opportunity one of our students has to explore his fascination with fire when he was young, and somehow got myself pegged as a closet pyromaniac, which made me remember the time I got grounded as a kid for giving matches to another kid. That in turn made me remember I was once a kid and I made mistakes then just as I do now, but it still all worked out eventually.

I left the prison, walking through mechanized door after mechanized door, feeling better. Nothing had been resolved. I was headed back to my life where the same issues I’d left behind a few hours before still waited for me. I had no new good answers. But I felt cared for and respected. I felt like in a life filled with chaos at the moment, I’d found a small sliver of something that felt normal. And most importantly, I’d been gifted the smallest acts of kindness in a place and at a time when I expected none. In a small way, those sugar cubes fortified my resolve. Life is hard…and occasionally still sweet.

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Comments
  1. Cindy Zelman says:

    Damn, that was gorgeous. This book is going to be gorgeous. Great job, Erika. I’m going to repost on my Wall and link out to Twitter.

  2. Loved this post! Finding civility in such an uncivilized environment…a sweet surprise and, you
    tied the ending up with a bow!

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