Troubled Soul

My husband’s aunt came by today. She wanted to know about some lingo, possibly prison terminology, that her daughter heard. It wasn’t prison lingo she was after, but a sentencing level. Thankfully, I wasn’t satisfied with my response and after some consideration I plugged in a few key words to Google, and determined that we were likely talking about a sex offender. Possibly, even, we were talking about a child molester.

Let me back up. Her daughter, my husband’s cousin, works as a Kindergarten teacher in a lower-end district. Over the years she had had her share of rough kids, tormented kids, learning disabled kids, and then she got this class. Four days into the school year and her stories make me want to quit teaching, except that you can’t quit something you haven’t taken up. If you’re the praying type, pray for this talented, compassionate, no-nonsense young woman. Pray that she is relentless, strong, and able to weather this year.

One of the children, a 75 + pound, five-year-old Hispanic calls her the B-word followed by the N-word. He likes to throw his weight around too. Mom is somewhere in the picture, but Dad is clearly involved in prison gang life. His son is already in his foot-steps. Both parents reportedly laugh at Junior’s defiance. Clearly, he is an uphill battle for our cousin. And he’s only one of 20 or more in the classroom.

Upon hearing this, my heart sank for everyone involved, and I distantly heard the generalized band-aids profferred by each of us in the room. Nothing that was said would ever make it to a vote, and it’s questionable that our ideas would even make good laws. The solution isn’t simple.

Knowing (admittedly very little) what I do of the child and my past experience with the culture he was being brought up in, I understand how tempting it is to write him off as a lost cause. It felt like everyone in the room spoke of him like he was half-way in his grave. I used to believe you could help the young children, that this was the age and opportunity we had to sow seeds for independent thought and morality. I am wrong. How do you combat the brainwashing by the gang, a child’s natural desire to follow his father, and depravity single-handedly? One can not. But I am unsettled, deeply, deeply disturbed by my answer that we have no answer. How can my soul rest without fighting for another soul? How can I say that that five-year-old is doomed? And how can I accept the many victims he will trample on his path to Hell?

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Tiger Lilly

Let me begin by saying that I am not a cat person. At least I haven’t been a cat person since about the age of three when our Siamese, Sasha, passed away. She was a rarity, I later learned, in that she was exceedingly gentle and patient for her breed. That is to say, I have never remembered her for being characteristic of a Siamese cat in any way. Maybe that’s because I was three. I blame her for leading me to believe I liked cats, but many scratches, bites, and feline disputes lead me to believe I loved Sasha, not cats.

My husband declares with certainty that cats are good target practice. Enough said.

Then Tiger Lilly (so named for her coloring and because she is as delicate as a flower) came to play with us one evening and lounged about adoringly in our garage for the next 24 hours. My daughter left love notes on the garage floor for Lilly to read; my husband played with her and sat in the heat in order to scratch between her ears; my baby was enthralled. The next day she was gone. Darn, sweet cat. I liked having her around.

Tiger Lilly

Tiger Lilly

“Do you need a cat?” my husband kindly asked.

“No!” It isn’t often you get a trial run at a cat, which is really the only way to go when selecting one. I didn’t want a cat, I wanted Lilly.

Boiled down, my mood was tenuous that week, and the idea of Lilly seemed like a remedy. My girls squeak their final needs around the same hour my husband heads out the door to work. Even though I’m exhausted, I relish a few minutes of quiet solitude at the end of a day. Now that I’m alone when this time comes around, the quiet can become disquieting. A purring bundle of hair has helped restore the peace of my evenings because Lilly came back and my husband let her in the house with the now-you-know-how-much-I-love-you-look.

Why share this? I used to think I understood the girls’ love affair with the strays outside their windows. Mr. G., the Housing Manager, gruffly threatened to have the cats removed, but the father in him probably couldn’t bear the imploring looks of a dozen homesick girls. The cats were still coming for their daily dose of love when I left in May.

The first time I met the cats I had to track my students down to an activity room where several girls stood huddled around a window where a corner of the screen between the thick windows and ancient metal bars had torn away. Fingers, anxious to touch something soft, stroked the matted fur. The cats were equally anxious for a kind touch. One of the girls peeled away from the group to tell me the cats’ names. Even though I got the sense that the cats came around often, my students reluctantly turned away to attend class.

At another facility, the dog training program is wildly popular with offenders. Why wouldn’t it be? The dogs live with the offenders throughout the program, so these men get a trusting companion and unmatched stress relief in a setting fraught with deceit and danger.

Lilly has crazy moments that grit my teeth. Somehow she hasn’t destroyed my furniture or curtains. After her frenzies, she wants to curl up in my lap and purr, purr, purr. She demands nothing but my existence and in doing so she delivers great calm. You better believe that in prison I’d be the first one in line to woo a cat to my cell window.

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Putting Down the Paintbrush

“I put down my paintbrush about a year ago,” she exclaimed as we waited to place our order at the downtown tea shop. When we had settled at the table by the window, me with my green pot of Darjeeling and she with her coffee mug piled high with whipped cream and smothered in caramel, she gave me her reason (I hope she’ll correct me where I’m wrong).

“I figure that if you really love something, you’ll miss it when it’s gone,” she explained.

I asked the obvious, “Do you miss it?”

“Yeah,” came the noncommittal reply, “but I learned other things I didn’t expect to during that time, which is often the case.”

On my drive back home I gave that a lot of thought. A few months ago I uncovered a poem I wrote my senior year of high school in which I talked about my need to write as a way of making sense of my world, but something happened shortly afterwards that caused me to lay down my pen for anything other than college essays. In my moves I’ve uncovered some overly sentimental scribbles I wrote about this or that in between dreary literary analysis, but for the most part I gave my pen a rest.

Did I miss it? Did I learn anything?

I didn’t really pick up my pen until my broken heart had mostly healed. I was living alone in an apartment abundant with character, and I was trying to endure a horrible job. It was write, I decided, or buy a Dachshund puppy. Everyone I know is probably better off for me realizing the puppy was an absurdly impractical idea. So I wrote, and I felt a whole lot better about life which is when I fell in love again.

Down went my pen. I had to live my life: marriage, a baby, a full-time job. I missed writing, but when? What about? We lived life breathlessly, but it was painfully predictable. The journal my sister-in-law bought me for my first Christmas with the family lay blank on my bedside table.

Our baby grew into a toddler, and in the middle of chaos we began to make memories with her. The camping trip when she first slept through the night; the Sand Dunes and waterfall; the Penny Arcade; field trips with the American Heritage Girls. Suddenly I could write again. My parents used to make me keep a family journal every summer. They aren’t anything special to anyone except my mom, written in my elementary handwriting and illustrated with cheap colored pencils, but oddly enough they prepared me to write down memories for my family as a mother.

Then we turned our lives inside out again, but I continued to write, this time about my experiences inside the prison. It was my coping mechanism. As we moved, practically sight unseen, to a different part of the country, I had to fight the urge to record the craziness, the daily lessons about the new culture we were supposed to call home. There was no time to process the changes, just to live them.

When I am not writing, I miss it; but sometimes you just have to live. I suppose writers, readers, artists, photographers–the list could go on–have to grapple with this dichotomy their whole lives. Maybe my student will find her peace with these questions and pick up her paintbrush again. The world will be a prettier place for it.

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The F-Word

He had gone along with the show one of my manics was creating until the final five minutes of class. I had had it up to here already and my eyes were snapping before he even took a seat at my table.

I don’t know what he did or said, but I evidently looked him straight in the eye and gave him a sermon about seeing the potential many were blind to. I wasn’t going to be there, I explained, during their transitional phase into the community when they might wake up and realize my assignment meant something. It might not too, but at least I was trying to make my assignments relevant. My voice grew sad as I recalled E., defenseless that morning, his eyes confessing far more than his words: “I dunno, Miss, I’m not used to this…” he gestured to the open space. “I see the fear in your eyes as you go to Phase II. This is just a tool to help you get through that,” I finished. Had I ever used the f-word with them? I tried to remember. We both seemed confused that I had dared say any one of them was afraid. He just smiled cooly, “Naw, Miss. No fear. Not us.”

Then he grew sober and settled into the pen and his paper. Conveniently, class was over before he could begin. He asked to cut his 7th hour class to finish his speech, and the other teacher was happy to do so. We had just finished his second paragraph about his education when his vein started twitching, his eyes grew moist, and couple of other behaviors caught my eye. He was a big guy and I didn’t want him getting upset.

We were talking about goals, how he wanted to learn about the real estate business from his uncle in Las Vegas. He didn’t like that city, the way everyone seemed snobbish, but he couldn’t go back to his home city. Sitting at my desk that afternoon, he claims he was more successful in Vegas, and wonders how life might have been different if he had stayed. I wonder too based on his stories. Nevada doesn’t offer programs like ours that will allow him to remake his life before the age of 25.

Like many others, gangs are a way of life. The gang and the family have become one and the same. They’ve even found a way to integrate and justify their religion into this lifestyle. On Sundays, he informed me, they didn’t discuss gang-related business in the home. He told me a few other rules that boggled my mind, but he can’t see the inherent conflicts.

I hope it works out for him. I only saw him one more time after this conversation. He got caught up in a situation a couple weeks before I left that put him on the verge of getting revoked from the program and serving his full adult sentence. All because of a girl.

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Good Thoughts v Bad Thoughts

I saw him the other day. And him. And him too.

We had stopped in a parking lot on our way back from visiting family for the Fourth of July, a holiday, I suspect, my students had parties for, but don’t care to understand. Anyway, we took a different road home and we had to double check our turn because the roads don’t make sense down here, each one bearing at least three different names a piece. Sometimes the map calls it one name and signs call it two others, and I am oft-reminded of our trouble with the road signs, when there were any, in Dublin. While my husband fiddled with the GPS and paper map, I looked around because we knew a place for sale nearby that had our attention, but everything about the town screamed, “No!”

Off to the right of the strip mall where we sat, across a short sloping field, three black, teenage boys lounged in the shade of cheap apartment buildings and idly watched the mall. A flecked, dark gray Impala with new tags in the window pulled up in front of the Laundromat and three young Mexicans piled out. Almost without speaking, but working in harmony, two strutted slowly into the convenience store while one peeled into the Laundromat. I watched as he moved slowly, but purposefully toward the back door propped open, like the front, for ventilation. He appeared to be looking for someone, finally stepping out back and surveying the scene from back there. He reconvened with his buddies back by the car. That’s when I realized what about them caught my eye.

Their dress, which I had at first written off to the one’s entering the Laundromat (maybe their decent clothing was being washed), and their mannerisms were keenly familiar. The penny loafers paired with long shorts that didn’t quite go with the shirt made me look closer. It reminded me of the few times I saw the offenders dressed casually in the pods, shower shoes, sweat pants chopped near the knee for shorts, and the baggiest under shirt they could find. The second one to reemerge from the store sagged and bagged his shorts in yet another familiar way. Although these young men wore different colors and fabrics than I had become accustomed to, they looked like they had sauntered straight out of my facility, so new to the free world, they hadn’t yet straightened up their wardrobe or walks. I almost felt like if I saw their faces clearly, I’d recognize them. I knew better, though. Because of their age, I wondered if they had served time yet. Because of their bearing and demeanor I thought maybe one of the three had. At any rate, their time had to be coming.

I wanted to take them all by the scruff of their neck and hope for some magical words to shower them with when I remembered my children in the back and looked away. Catching sight of the teenagers in the shade watching more closely than me, I mumbled something about never wanting to live in this town. Wasn’t this what we had moved away from? For weeks now we had enjoyed endless hospitality and almost more kindness than we could bear. People warned us away from certain parts of town, but even there it didn’t feel as bad as where we’d been. Not thirty minutes away from us, however, was a different story. I was glad to know. And sad, unutterably sad. We had just spent a relaxing two days with family, so I tried to put the picture of these three out of mind, tried not to wonder who had made it to Phase II this month with everything going on, and wonder if anyone managed to kill his number without siring another child or going back to jail or both, and how—o how—Heather was going to make it next month with her newborn. I turned my thoughts to the meal I was going to teach our neighbor’s daughter to make: Classic Italian Two Lemons and Chicken, served with parmesan risotto and a large salad. Too young to enjoy Pavarotti with red wine like my dad taught me to cook, I thought maybe some long U2 songs and bread dipped in true olive oil might work instead. That ought to be worth a couple hours of babysitting.

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How I Survived

I became desperate for affordable housing, living—sort of—on little more than minimum wage in an expensive college town. That is why I answered the cryptic advertisement for a roommate wanted in a house out in the woods. Except for the premonition that there was something strange about the wording, the place sounded delightful. There I might find a retreat from the pavement and population where I didn’t always feel at home. One day after work I embarked on a short drive into the wonderful forested hills of Michigan.

Only on the final stretch on a private lane that connected cottages nestled in the greenery did I grow alarmed. It had recently rained, making the road slick with thick red mud. I wasn’t sure my car could get out of the driveway, but I walked boldly up to the front door.

A man, the perfect type-cast for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, including the checkered shirt and full beard, towered in the frame of the door. At well over 6’ 6” I couldn’t take him all in and I had to steel myself, and catch my breath, to politely enter the spotless, custom kitchen. He started to speak, but I was distracted by a peculiar smell that I have never smelled before or since, emanating from a small pot barely simmering on the stove. To the right, off of a sitting room, I noted a greenhouse area crowded with tall, unnamable plants. Even as I liked the place, my hair stood on end, so I tuned into what he was saying in order to hasten the tour. I needed to get out.

As he guided me toward the corner of the house, he interviewed me. Strange questions. We passed the second bedroom, the door partially ajar, where a strawberry blonde lay napping in a puffy bed surrounded by stuffed animals. He explained she was studying medicine at the university. I looked at him curiously, then back at her, then at the child’s toys. I am not the only one who brought a stuffed animal to college, a soft, cuddly thing to help cure home-sickness, but like most girls in the dorm, I only brought one.

Still puzzling over the girl, I glimpsed at the empty corner bedroom, expertly vacuumed and impeccably cleaned like the kitchen. Two large windows looked out into the woods. An added bonus was the large closet, a rare find in that region. The person who had lived here before, I was told, had suddenly packed up their things and left by the end of the day. I could see—no, not see—but sense why. Briefly I wondered if I would leave the house alive. Altogether the place bothered me in a Silence of the Lambs sort of way. Surely if they had let the other person go… I moved to end the interview, now.

This is not a story I tell. For one thing, I have never been able to find the words to capture the strangeness of the place and its inhabitants. You’ll just have to believe me. More than that, I am embarrassed that I went to the house at all. It’s one of my most vivid examples of a dangerous situation I blithely survived. There are other situations where others might have been hurt, but I walk out unscathed. Similarly I have befriended people before realizing later I really shouldn’t have. The reason I think is this: I am myself. My naiveté is laughable, but my lack of guile catches certain types of people off guard.

A few months before my encounter with the scary man I was taking a Kung Fu class in a warehouse district in Detroit. (That’s another story and another setting that’s almost impossible to describe.) I was paired with a student who looked as if he lived his life in a cave with computers for friends. In fact, I think that’s pretty accurate. He came out only for elaborate Goth promenades in the night and this class. We never spoke. What did we have to say to each other? On this morning his thin, fine hair had grown into his eyes in greasy strings. Although I don’t remember the loft being hot, sweat poured down his pasty, pudgy face. We were partnered because he was recovering from a bad automobile accident, and I was “gentler,” shall we say, than some others in the room. If I come across as shy or reserved or quiet now, you should have seen me back then. Silence, in this case, made me even more uncomfortable than attempting a conversation, so I tried talking. I got him to talk about his accident and recovery and I was thinking about a half dozen different things while he talked when I heard myself declare, very seriously, “You should take a bubble bath,” to relax, I suppose. Then my eyes bugged out. What had I just said? Did I remember where I was? The people I was with? I stopped asking myself questions when, throwing his head back, several drops of sweat flying to the floor, he belly laughed. My friend asked me later what I said because my Kung Fu partner told everyone else that at that moment he wanted to wrap me up in a hug and defend me for the rest of his life. Thank goodness he kept that from me. A few hours later we walked to a nearby joint that sold falafel and Turkish coffee. I looked around me, bemused at the crowd I found myself in, completely unafraid of dangerous Detroit. But what, what, was I doing here? I might have had the protection of a pretty deadly group, but I did not belong. Who talked of bubble baths to people who took seriously the art of maiming or killing with a few imperceptible movements of their hands?

My ignorance of the world and a lack of imagination when it came to other peoples’ motivations navigated me into and through and out of fires. When I woke to find myself in a fire, I kept walking until I can get out. Other times I awakened after the danger had passed. At some point, after so many foolish situations, though, I had to grow more cautious.

When I started working in corrections, I thought a lot about my encounters with risky people and riskier places. I was younger when I stumbled through danger, I told myself, I didn’t know what I was walking into. From those experiences, I was certain, I could glean nothing. At thirty-years-old I was walking into a den of thieves with my eyes wide open, maybe too open, to learn from my past. I didn’t know what to look for.

From the very beginning staff sized me up and pulled me aside to advise me, “You need to a real B@$!# to make it here.” I thought I was prepared to become louder, more assertive, and sometimes downright mean, but I don’t have the nature, I guess, to become the kind of person everyone told me I had to be.

Also from the beginning, my boss told me I’d fall flat on my face. “That’s OK,” he assured me, “you can come in here frazzled anytime you want. Just give it one year before you decide to call it quits.” I think he even said I could cry, but I soon learned he didn’t mean that. He told me this several times along with, “If you don’t fall on your face, well… you’re probably doing something wrong.” Curiously, I had fewer problems than the teacher next door, but not all was perfect. Two classes in particular liked to push my buttons. Some days I was lucky to keep my composure until well beyond the parking lot. Even my gentle class would point out I was too tense. Well, I wanted to ask, how did they expect me to act after all the scary stories and warnings thrown at me during the Training Academy?

After weeks and weeks of uncertainty, trying to heed a variety of advice from the veterans, I realized I couldn’t be the person other people wanted me to be, I couldn’t go on living out other peoples’ expectations. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail honestly. I was going to be myself.

My students can tell you better than I at what point I made that transition. One offender, who intimidated me by his sheer strength and height, broke into a wide smile during a facility function around this time and pointed out that I had finally relaxed into my role. He made it sound as if he approved, not that it could possibly matter to him who didn’t even have my class. Comments made by these individuals out of the blue like that have a way of making you feel exposed, if not naked.

While I do not want to walk into dangerous situations with my eyes open or shut, I do best in those situations when I am authentic.

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The Trouble With Dreams

Half my class was in the hole, so we finished our lesson even earlier than usual. A quiet fell over my room, the kind of quiet my students often complained about because they preferred distraction from the demons in their minds. One leaned slightly and somewhere between a loud whisper and a low voice said to his classmate, “I had this dream last night.” We both looked up to listen, his pause increasing our interest, his wistful eyes arousing my curiosity.

“I was home, with family, you know. And we had had this really great party, so I went to sleep on my bed. It was so comfortable. It was so real I could feel it all, and it was almost too hard to bear when I woke up,” his voice cracked, which we respectfully ignored. He finished, “I hate those dreams. The ones that feel real, they are the worst.”

It was an angle of the prison experience I never before nor since heard about, the trouble with dreams. I knew many complained of insomnia once they were in custody, but I had never stopped to consider why. Some, I imagine, fear their nightmares; some live with a constant mistrust of their surroundings; and some, evidently, avoid the memories of better times encroaching upon their night life. This began to explain why the living units came surreptitiously alive at night, why they’d come to class with bags under their eyes and their heads would drop on the desk at the slightest opportunity. In class they were a little safer than other places, and in class they couldn’t sleep long enough for the bad dreams to come. I was starting to understand.

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