Was it two or three weeks before my classes and I started to sort each other out? The first week or two, I had to take deep breaths and I completely forgot to smile in front of their stony gazes. Then there appeared to be breakthroughs from the quieter, stonier ones, a few rays of light through the clouds, but I wasn’t willing to trust that.
Fig broke his hand “punching a wall”, his right hand, his writing hand. (I admit, I bought the lie at the time. Later I suspected it wasn’t a wall after all. He even had to admit to me months later that the wall was cover for smashing someone.) Wanting to be reasonable, I basically said sayonora to him while he pecked out typed paragraphs in Mr. W.’s room. When his hand had mended, nearly a month into the quarter, I still wasn’t sure about this guy. He made me nervous what with his punching walls, gang affiliation, and having a bad rep with the other English teacher, so I was surprised when he had me laughing with his stories and he kept giving above average speeches.
I still remember the attention he received one morning as he tried to make his way to my room dressed in the banana suit (the yellow jumper suit DL’s have to wear) and a state issued baseball cap which would stay on his head for at least a week. I think he was blushing. He typed me the story:
One of the most embarrassing moments of my life happened yesterday. On account of my impatience last night I tried to cut my hair because I was tired of waiting for pod haircuts. As I was cutting my hair the clippers suddenly quit cutting. They began to pull my hair, so I was stuck in the middle of a haircut. The whole top of my head was cut, but the sides were not. Since I had shorn patches all over, I did the next best thing that anyone would do: I shaved my heard. I tried to anyway. Unfortunately, I did this around count time. When it’s count time we can’t have razors, so I had to show staff what happened. Of course the first thing they did was laugh. Staff didn’t really have another choice except to let me finish what I started. Even though they gave me a razor, it was too much hair for one razor. In the end I ended up using three different razors. While I was shaving my head, different staff paraded by my room and laughed at me. Even worse, other residents stopped by my room and laughed at me too… The worst part of all though is how cut up my scalp is from the razors. Yesterday was definitely one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Next time I’m probably just going to wait until we get pod haircuts.
Not quite knowing what led me, I found myself suggesting a personal writing prompt. Thinking twice, I quickly added that no one else would read his essay except me. A sharp look: “No one else?” I shook my head. It was too soon, I thought, for that to carry much weight. He slid back to his seat and chatted with a friend. Seven other students demanded my attention so I forgot about it. He stayed back after movement though and asked me to repeat my promise, essentially committing to the prompt. I prepared myself for a string of lies. That was reasonable to expect.
What I got was an essay that he wrote behind the flaps of his folder so no one else could see. Even though he would go on to type it and share it toward the end of the semester, he wasn’t yet ready to tell his peers he wanted to change. He wrote me how most of his family abandoned him, about his bad name on campus, and about his daughter (whom he usually keeps secret). After participating in a small riot on New Year’s Day a couple years back he was faced with being revoked from the program. Although he still cites that time alone in the cell as his pivotal moment, it would take him over a year to make good on his resolve. The only thing that makes his essay more believable than others I’ve seen like it is context. A couple months later I assigned him a cause and effect essay which turned out to be even more personal than the first (even though in the original assignment students were asked to write about a newspaper article):
This time I think what I did was pretty bad. I should have thought about it before I acted. That way I would not be in the position I am. The scary part for me is that not knowing what’s going to happen…
Every time I come up to the hole I miss out on a lot of my classes. Since we are nearing the end of the semester this can be a problem for me. I am about to turn 21 and this semester is the last chance I have to graduate [by law].
Every year on Christmas Day I get a visit from my parents. This is the only time they come and see me… that one visit I get from them gives me the best feeling in the world. Christmas is coming up, and I’m sitting in the hole. I don’t want my parents to drive all the way out here and have to go back because their son is making the same stupid choices he’s made all his life.
He went on to say that 2011 wasn’t a good year for him, but I picked him for my TA anyway. We had a good discussion about my expectations because my TA couldn’t be parading about in a banana suit. I also pointed out that this could be his opportunity to change. He seized it.