Did you know that you can make Vitamin C water by boiling pine needles and drinking the acrid water? This tip came from one of my more interesting and tired colleauges. I don’t recall the catalyst that began her adventure, but I do know that she, her husband, and three boys crammed into a car one day and drove from the middle of Texas to a remote patch of land outside of a small town in the South West. There they lived off of the land and their ingenuity. She and her husband made a home out of a teepee, their boys made a bedroom out of a tent.
A SPED teacher once told a story of a family who spent all their money on their dream property only to wind up living in a tent. Their children went to school unbathed, underdressed, and underfed. This is not that story. Ms. Hunter, as I shall call her here, is the queen of resourcefulness. If she has a drop of Indian blood in her, her ancestors are smiling. Her family lived well, and her boys grew up into strong, industrious, solution-oriented men. No one lives in a teepee anymore, but as a family they still boil the fat of the bears they harvest to light lamps and other things beyond my realm. Around campfires at the Mountain Man Rendevous every summer they tell the story of how the mountain lion tracked the boys to the bus stop one snowy morning. Her granddaughter, whose upbringing is more contemporary than her father’s, is growing up learning to throw knives, shoot, and knit.
Most of the people I work with have been touched by a grave tragedy, beyond anything I’ve yet to experience. Hers was the first I learned about: her daughter-in-law had died with twins in her womb a few years before. Her son is still successfully persuing a malpractice battle.
Ms. Hunter primarily teaches the females. She’ll head up first thing in the morning, finally coming back in the last hour of the day. She has a number of health problems that make the walk difficult, so she stays with them during lunch too. People new to the prison system probably see the rigid, thick rules about co-eds as a little excessive. Consider the consequences, though. Then the rules make sense, and you’d probably want to make them more severe. We are the only prison that houses both females and males (only one prison baby has come along as a result). The few females we house (we’ve never had more than twelve at a time in twenty years) live in a building separate from the males. Staff must check in at the same command center we all do, then walk up the hill across the parking lot, and be permitted through another series of gates.
Now that I’ve been assigned as the English teacher I sometimes get to observe Ms. Hunter with the females. While you might be able to boil down the values of these female offenders and Ms. Hunter to self-preservation, their notion of self and preservation are very different. You should see the skeptical looks they give her, even as they respectfully keep their mouths shut. She might go on about how the bear ate her first batch of chickens while they look at blankly. Raising chickens? They bring her back to their reality with a question about their latest sewing project. At first, many rebel against this new skill, but they can see its value. Advanced students begin sending home clothes they completed in class. They can wear these when they’re released, or they might send baby clothes to the newest member of their family. Offenders who have been released call back with stories of how they earned a few extra dollars with their sewing ability. Newbies catch on to the satisfaction and therapy of the class. They press on.
I remember the gal with the tattoos covering her arms, short hair, and gruff personality who would’ve prefered changing the oil over changing thread dwadling over the stuffed bear each girl sews as a final novice project. It’s about how I would have felt. Nine months later she was proudly showing off a beautiful button-up blouse, complete with all sorts of feminine touches. Kudos to Ms. Hunter.