Dear Governor Ducey,
Yesterday, I did go to teach writing at the jail. I was nervous right until I got there and then, as usual before I teach, I calmed down. We walked down hallway after hallway, through locked metal door after locked metal door. I was told not to look anyone in the eye, for it could come off as a challenge. I kept my head down.
The men in the class had all applied to be there. They were housed together in a group. My teaching hours were part of a larger program that taught the inmates how to write resumes, draft cover letters, explain to potential employers their time in jail. We met in the common area—a few 8 foot tables in rows. Their cells were right behind the tables. Two per. Toilet in each. I was told I might hear flushing—the student/inmates could get up and use the restroom whenever they wanted. They all had big plastic cups. I asked them what they were drinking. Danny said, “Iced tea with a little lemon and sugar, you know. Like in a can.” Ray said, “Coffee.”
I probably overdid it a bit, talking about form and nonfiction. I asked if any of them had heard of creative nonfiction. I made a really big deal about the oxymoronic nature of the term and about that’s one reason I love it. That the creative butts heads with the nonfiction. I said, you know when you write and it comes out a gloppy mess? When its all self-serving and self-indulgent and bemoaning your outcast state? I told them when that happens to me, I try to use something strict, like research, to give my writing some shape. I wrote about it here, how creativity needs a little structure, sometimes in the form of information, sometimes, like my friend Lynn, in the form of a sonnet. I asked them to brainstorm two separate things, one about them and one about something they knew about. For an example, we chose ingrown toenails for the thing about the self and 7-11 for the thing we knew something about. You’ve done the brainstorming thing, right—free associating with little bubble planets coming out from the main sun of the idea? For ingrown toenails, we got pink, pain, pus and a story about some guy whose toenail grew all the way out of his toe. For 7-11, we got Big Gulp, Slurpee, Funyans, roller machines for hot dogs, and homewrecker, which they didn’t explain to me, due to, I guess, the tenderness of my ears.
I set them to work on their own two bubbles. Then, after a break, we came back and I asked them to write for two minutes from one bubble. After two minutes, I asked them to switch to their other bubble. Going back between “self” and “thing you know something about,” they switched 3 more times. The only other rule is they had to use one word from the last sentence they wrote before I asked them to switch. Barry asked for a little clarification. I repeated the rules. Pete repeated them again for Barry. Barry and everyone else nodded that they got it and I started the timer.
Everyone wrote, which I had been warned wouldn’t happen. But there wasn’t a pencil (only pencils allowed, no pens) still. Furiously writing. Faster than my undergrads. As fast as my grad students.
8 minutes later, whole pages were filled. I asked for volunteers to read their pieces. There were 16 students 11 of them stood up in front of the other students to read. Pete read about coaching and parenting, Ray wrote about football and bricklaying. Tom wrote about his dog and golf. Norman wrote about police and beer. Danny wrote about money and time. Boon wrote about working at Stanley Steamer and about the plot of land he hoped to own one day. Terrance read about fast food and Flagstaff. Then he asked if he could read a poem where the long a sound in “mistake” carried him through: Say. Chaste. Make, Pay, Waste. Make. Take. Haste.
It was a long two hours but also too short. It’s exhausting to teach. I’m really an introvert. I had to draw myself out. I had to explain big concepts and how to focus on the detail, the story, the pus, the Big Gulp. I had to show them how each of them had written something amazing and how amazing it was they had been willing to share. As I do with my regular students, I told them it’s easier to hear what you do well and repeat it than to stop doing what might not be working. Keep doing the stuff you do well.
These were amazing students. Each of them gave something to me by participating but really, to each other, by sharing. Sometimes, I wonder what the point of writing is. All this mess that has to be untangled and revised and reordered and re-seen. But maybe that’s what’s so excellent about it—the chance to see things from a new perspective. That’s what the double-bubble assignment is meant to teach. When you smash two unlikely things together, surprising words come out. To me, the standing up to share, even in a small group, is one of the great joys of writing and I was envious of them, in a way. The support they had for each other’s work. A community, these students have built.
I hated to leave them because I won’t be back for a while. This is a jail. No one’s there for too long—most, not even as long as a semester. I hoped they wouldn’t end up back there but I also wondered what jobs were there for them. I wonder if they had had a little more chance to go to college if they wouldn’t have ended up in jail at all. They wanted to work. They wanted to learn. Something, a lack of money, got in the way. You know,right, that it’s cheaper to send someone to college than to pay to house themin jail?
I ran out of time. I had another lesson planned. It will have to wait until I return. I was ready to read them the letters my grandfather wrote to his mom when he was in jail. I had a copy of a letter I sent to you ready for them to see. I think there’s a great lesson to be learned if you want to be heard. Write a letter. Maybe someone will read it.