Sunday, November 27, 2016


"What do you want to be called?" I asked him.

We sat in the dreary classroom -- its ceiling tiles drooping, shedding, missing altogether -- and waited for the rest of the inmates to turn out. He was a new guy and had not said much yet. He dodged the question and went into his reasons for coming to the workshop.

"I just want to be able to write and not sound like some idiot," he said. "I never really learned how to write in school. I want to write... better... be able to express my self, my ideas. I need more words, a better vocabulary."

He looked a little sheepish at admitting this, embarrassed. He had made himself vulnerable, something not often done in prison. As I listened to him, I heard an intelligence that he had not yet owned or recognized. His awareness of a term like "vocabulary," his intuition that words had some power, some magic, and that learning the incantation was worth pursuing.

"And I don't even understand what you guys are saying. Like 'abstract'... what's that? I didn't do that last assignment because I didn't know what you wanted, or where to start even. And about my name, it's John, but nobody has called me that for a long time. But it would weird for someone like you..." and here he paused, "to call me by what I go by in here."

That made me wonder what he meant by people like me. I assumed that meant educated, highly practiced in the skills of language, having some social position, professional. I also wondered who called him by his other "handles," and what that code meant in the circles he moved in. The yawning chasm between us, in his mind anyway, might have seemed impossible to bridge. He likely did not see that I saw more commonality between us than difference, in our interest in writing in particular.

"I think its brave to say that you don't know, don't understand. When that happens, stop and ask someone to explain what we're talking about."

He seemed to like that; he relaxed a bit.

"Yeah, I think John is best," he said. "I've never written anything like what the other guys are writing in here."

"Well, you don't have to write the perfect piece the first time," I said. "Just bring in what you write, and we'll start with that."

"I didn't know that poetry could be about what a prisoner thinks. Like S. last week, writing about his dad getting pissed about his son getting suspended. That was pretty cool. I could follow that."

"It was good. And it takes work to get the words down on paper. S. has been working on that for a couple of months. It's just now getting good."

"I didn't expect what I see in here. I've never been interested in learning to write. Now I just want to try. These guys are good. I don't think I'll ever be that good."

"Don't worry about getting everything at once," I said. "Just keep listening. Your brain will start to figure it out. Just give it some time." I felt like saying "Keep coming back; it works," but did not want to invoke a Twelve Step  meeting slogan.

"I really have nothing to give," he said. "I mean when I think about my wife, I have nothing to send her, nothing to offer."

"You can give her your memories, your hopes, some of how you care for her even though she is outside and you are here," I offered, thinking it may sound Pollyanna-ish or hollow.

"I do want to tell her that I hold thoughts about her, want to be like a warm coat for her, want to protect her."

"That might be a place to start. Write some of that down, maybe send it to her. I think she might like that," I said. "She might find that a gift, of sorts. Your honesty put into your own words might convey some of that."

A few of the inmates began to trickle in, turned-out finally. The room filled with man hugs, ritualized hand shakes, community.

"John... yeah... John. I haven't been called that for a while. Let's go with that," he said.

He settled in, began to take notes, especially inscribing the things he did not quite yet understand. 

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