Exactly Why

Some days I wonder why I get up at a bleary hour each morning to subject myself to leers and calls for staff support.  Other days I know exactly why I’m called to work with these wild youth. Take today, for example.

Today I had to brush off Winter’s first dusting of snow from my car to the music of unhappy cows in corral across the road. I tried very hard not to snarl at my sleepy kid sniveling because it was “tooooo coo-oold.” At work, I had barely cleared the metal detector when Upper West called for staff support. It was the second morning in a row to begin this way.

Second hour rolled around bringing Mr. Arizona shuffling up to my door. He had shown up a couple days before with eyes red with concern over job interviews. I had never seen him vulnerable like that before, and breaching security by walking away from my computer in the staff work room, I ushered him into my sunny classroom on the other side of the hallway. It was the kind of gesture he clearly needed. Calmly, I tried to answer his questions and reassure him that things were going to be OK. So what if he had only had one job interview in his life and he bombed it? That’s more than some of my students could say.

This morning he looked like his normal self, and sounded like his normal self-deprecating self too: “I didn’t ask any questions.”

I had noticed. After carefully coaching him through questions to ask the employer, he sat silent as stone in the far back corner. “I chided Mr. W. for asking one of your questions, even, so why didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t what I had expected. I thought it would be more one on one.”

“It was different,” I admitted, “but I learned a lot, especially when I asked your questions between sessions.”

He smiled at the floor, “Well, what did you learn?” I told him how expensive it is to be a technician; the various education routes available to him; the advantages of the construction job over the machinery job. He took in the information, and then he took me completely by surprise.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” he said, seemingly changing topics. I prepared myself. I’ve said a lot, especially to this one. He continued, “And you’re right.” Well knock me down with a feather. “I think I’m to up to Fort to–what’s that place called?” I named the half-way house where our offenders can choose to live when nothing else is available, and then listened. One of his former bunkies comes from the same town as Mr. Arizona, and he’s been talking to some of Mr. Arizona’s old friends, a term he uses loosely–trust me. “We’ve never come to blows,” he explains about the bunkie, “but it’s unspoken… he doesn’t like me… he’ll probably do something about it when we get out.”

“Do you mean to say you’ll no longer be a ghost?” He chuckled, unaware that I was serious and sad about this. “Where do you go after the half-way house?” I press.

“Out of state somewhere,” he declared without pause. After a series of questions I discover he wants to travel, and while he wants to be buried where he was born, home is another loose term for him. As usual, our conversation ranged and rambled all over the map, me often returning him to a sense of reality.

“I might do something like that [construction job] when I’m older. Like 30.”

“Why wait?”

“Shouldn’t I?”

“You heard him: this is a rare opportunity and there will be jobs for you in — during Phase III, and then you can get paid to travel with the company afterward. What else are you going to do for ten years?”

Suddenly we were talking about his grandpa, soon to be released from prison himself (I was starting to note a trend in the family). The two have started corresponding. He told me about memories of going to his papa’s church as a young child. It was church, church, church. Some nights, he recalled, he’d be sitting in the pews falling asleep to the drone of Papa’s sermon. Papa preached in Navajo so young Mr. Arizona could only understand bits and pieces of the message.

Visiting with Grandma a couple months ago he pleaded, “Please have Papa preach to me again in his letters.” The first letter arrived about a week ago. Mr. Arizona confessed, “I cried.” He shook his head at the memory, “My room mate saw and asked me, ‘What the hell is the matter wi’ cho’ foo’?’ Get it together before anyone sees you.'” So he collected himself.

I can’t tell you how precious the whole conversation was. After weeks of counsel, patience, and prayer, he was coming around to some sensible decisions and sharing poignant stories. I sat very still, hardly breathing, lest I disturb the moment.

I also get the satisfaction of answering someone’s burning question/comment of the day:

“I’m so sad, Miss.” [Well, tell me about it.]

“Help me with the ACT.” [I checked out an ACT book at the public library and put together a study schedule.]

“What is parallel structure? And hypophora? Is it really just a question followed by an answer? When would I use that?” [The college essay you wrote last week.]

“Why don’t you have dog?” [They’re social creatures, and we’re gone much of the day.] “I never thought about that. What about parrots? Do they ever shut up?” [Some people never shut up.] “O, that’s true.”

“How do you file taxes?” [I downloaded a lesson plan from the New York Times, and we filed taxes.]

“Can you drink urine? Because I saw this guy on National Geographic who uses pee to cure people. But our text book just said urine is toxic.” [I looked that up too and brought an article to health class the next day. No, don’t drink your urine, not even in prison. Not even, as it turns out, if you’re trying to survive a natural disaster.]

“Miss, I have a dilemma: I’m writing three different females.” [I can’t take this too seriously, but he didn’t even pick up on my sarcasm.]

From someone who is actually serious: “What makes marriage work? What do women want?” [I managed not to laugh when a glance at the clock showed he had given me three whole minutes to answer questions entire books and movies have tried to answer. We’re on our second week of answering that question.]

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About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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