I may never look at macaroni and cheese the same way.
The week before I had accused him of never writing an honest paragraph in two semesters even though an overwhelming number of my prompts were based on life experiences. We had the ritual down: He’d turn a paper in and I’d start interrogating him about the event in order to extract some details. “Who was there with you? What did you eat? What was the weather like?” Suddenly he’d burst into a huge grin, “Aww, c’mon Miss. I don’t know!”
“Because it didn’t happen. I made some sh– up.”
His was a wall I couldn’t tear down, but it was a pleasant wall. I finally asked him one day about his sunshiny disposition, “How do you do your time here? You’re always smiling.”
“What do you mean, Miss?”
“Everyone has their coping skill. One might use the calendar, another avoids the calendar; some get by from week to week, and some others just take it one day at a time. You’re altogether different. You have four years here, but you’re rushing through high school. In order to do what? At the same time, you never seem to have a care or worry in your life. I’ve only ever seen you have one bad day.”
“Oh, Miss. I have bad days,” he was serious in his voice, “but I try to make the most of things, ya’ know?” His smile was huge as he walked out.
A few days later, on account of a Speech topic, I followed up with him. “You ever heard the phrase, ‘When life hands you lemons, make lemonade’?” I asked. He laughed for an answer, so I continued. “Well, do people like lemons?”
“OK. How do you make lemonade?”
“With sugar water?”
“Yep. So when you have lemons–or, say, you live in a prison–you sweeten it to make something delicious. You remind me of that saying.”
“OK, Miss,” he said like he was trying to appease me, but not before looking me straight in the eyes before walking back to his desk to tell a joke.
A hard-working student, always respectful to me, I realized that after 35 weeks I probably know less about him than anyone. The pleasant mask, it turns out, is the most effective one in prison. It sure deflected my curiosity even though I should’ve known this pale, tow-headed young man who has grown up in Hispanic communities sports a black-gang tattoo. Figure that one out.
And then, after teasing him about his fictitious responses to my non-fiction prompts, he wrote about finding God. He described his heart as “warm and gooey, like macaroni and cheese” on the day he was baptised. I had to ask whether this paragraph was true. “Yes, Miss,” he said in a dreary tone that suggested I should back off for a while.
I contemplated celebrating baptisms with a dish of homemade mac n cheese in the future.