Doing Time

Life goes on.

I knew that when my students couldn’t bear to miss out on another birthday, another graduation, another break up, another funeral, another family reunion; I felt it like a throbbing pulse, standing in the enclosed yard, looking out of those fences, the absolute agony of being powerless to celebrate, comfort, or fix things. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that’s their punishment, that’s the idea behind prison, and everyone of them did something to get there. That knowledge didn’t always make it easier on my heart.

At the same time I sympathized for my students, I understood the plight of their families and friends. Without Dad (or Mom) or son or brother around to bring in the bacon, fix the plumbing, negotiate a new radiator, and help entertain the terrible toddler once in awhile, it’s easy to grow frustrated and independent.

Both parties have legitimate needs and concerns. How relationships of any kind survive that mystifies me.

One thing I’ve learned this past week is the difference in time. In prison, everything slows down with schedules, security, and uniforms. Management and procedures change periodically, but overall prison remains monotonous. I see that now. Out here, on the outs, as they call it, real life moves at an incredible speed. We had less than ten days to find a place to live and move before my husband began his new job which would tie him up for about five weeks straight, leaving me to make a home out of whatever we could find and establishing my kids as quickly as possible in their new setting. My life is unusually busy these days, but even in quieter moments it moves faster than inside prison walls.

The day we signed our lease we also met with our pastor, picked out paint colors,  deliberated on new appliances, and tried to figure out how to get everything done in 48 hours in order to move on to other pressing projects. That night I sunk into my host’s couch exhausted and didn’t care that we were watching NBA finals. After a few sips of tea, I honed in on the teams and the scores. Oh! Miami was playing. I knew someone rooting for the team with all of his heart and mouth back at my old facility. I can picture him clearly now, but I know that memory will fade like an old photograph. Is it like this for prisoners’ families, I wonder? Going about your day when suddenly the tiniest thing reminds you? A city name, a color, a song, a phrase, a dull moment and I’m wondering how so-and-so is coping. Yesterday was PTR day I realize another moment, so then I wonder if certain individuals moved up in their status. Did Lt. D. miss my brownies or banana bread this month? None of this should matter to me anymore, these questions have no legitimate bearing on my life and I can no longer affect those individuals, but they will continue to grab at me for awhile.

My days will fill with blueberry picking, water slides, reading lessons, coupon clipping, gardening, marketing, and all things pink. Less and less will my heart and head be troubled with the shadows, thank goodness, but I won’t ever forget, just like a mother never forgets her child, no matter how rotten. Even the best of mothers can not always make the trip to those prison gates. A flat tire here, an extra shift there, the needs of a husband or another child detain her. Life. It goes on. Meanwhile, for the prisoner, life stands almost still.

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A Different Kind of Patience

Back in high school my husband was invited to go turkey hunting with a friend on the nearby Indian reservation. It’s the kind of invitation you don’t refuse.

He told me he and his friend got up at an ungodly hour in the morning to walk out into the untamed part of the reservation and started to dig a hole. With no explanation from Bobby, my husband helped to dig, wondering meanwhile when they were going back to get the guns. But they were hunting traditional native style, there were no guns.

After digging the shallow pit, he and Bobby lay quietly within, some brush covering them.   They waited and waited and waited until the bait lured in a cocky tom. When the tom came close enough, Bobby reached up and grabbed him. “It was like grabbing hold of a tornado,” my husband explained, “only a prickly, squabbly, jabby sort of one.” I picture his friend wrestling the turkey like a watercolor painting, nothing precise, but a beautiful mess of fall foliage, feathers, and natural toned clothing.

When he had finished telling me about this hunting story, he tried to explain to me that laying in the shallow hole that morning, the sun rising imperceptibly at dawn, the humidity lifting and then hovering over the forest, and the two adolescents waiting with every sense for a bird to pick his way over to their lair, he learned a different kind of patience than most of us are accustomed to.

I think about that phrase a lot, “a different kind of patience,” because I’m learning in the various roles I play out in life that there are more kinds of patience than anyone ever prepared me for. For example, I have a child who screams at the top of her lungs–with a shriek you have to hear to believe–when she’s happy, when she’s hungry, when she’s angry, when she’s bored–you get the picture. It comes out of nowhere, this scream of hers, and sometimes she gets so enamored with it, she lets it out in a successive,unstoppable series. At 10:00 AM I have patience, to a degree, in dealing with this without screaming at the top of my lungs myself, but at dinner time I have had enough. That takes a different kind of patience. Mothers know what I’m talking about, as do teachers.

I remember toward the end I played a parting game of Cribbage with a former student. We were both out of practice, but for some reason our games always come out close. Maybe I would win more games if I didn’t talk so much. With a full schedule he hadn’t had a chance to stop by and chat that semester, so I started asking between 15-2, 15-4, a pair for 6 where things stood with his family. His dad having passed, his mom had to find work, and I was surprised he was pushing the girlfriend out of the picture. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, but I knew she was a huge help with his younger siblings. That’s when he said, “You learn not to care, Miss, sitting in here.” He was honest enough to say that caring hurt too much to bear. This was his way. Others act out like crazed animals.  Most, however, acquire a certain far-away look, an expression in the eyes that I came to understand as a different kind of patience. That’s what you need to survive inside those gates.

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Boys and Bugs

I was always afraid that I would accidentally call him by his nickname Se-“Gay”-Via after I heard it. Fortunately I wasn’t around when he lived up to this, but it appeared to be common knowledge. I was uncertain if this was a permanent condition, or his way of getting through his stay.

My eyebrows jumped when I overheard him being teased for his ICE retainer. Evidently from a family dominated by Spanish blood, he was as pale as me with blue eyes. I would have believed he came from the northern mid-west, but he was going back to Mexico after his sentence.

Another strange one with even stranger hygiene habits, I let him lurk in the back of my classroom. Even though other teachers complained about him, he always seemed to get his work in, and did well. Occasionally I wondered where his head had gone on particular assignments, but then another teacher remarked he had been a sniffer on the streets. They never fully recover. In fact, they are the most erratic students we put up with because they experience shocking moments of clarity and intelligence only to fall back into murky waters out of which we can not hope to pull them. At those moments it is painful to see what was lost, what could have been.

When Oro was trying to study for the GED the other week, he allowed himself to get distracted by my other students. He talked about how he never managed to earn status in Phase I because of doing stupid things for two years. This led to telling us all how his room mate, Segovia, got dropped two or three levels for “playing with bugs.” I had to ask.

So he told us how they collected a black widow, two praying mantis, and a scorpion. “The Widow was cool,” he exclaimed and went on to describe how they kept her in a jar for two months, catching little bugs during their time in the yard to bring back to her. Then they stripped two cotton swabs, placed them in a criss-cross fashion in the jar, and watched her spin her web. The scorpion, I believe, bored them, but the praying mantis fascinated. One was large and white, the other small and green. I took the occasion to ask if they knew what female praying mantis were known for, and shocked them. “Miss, how do you know so much?” they asked. I stayed in school and listened.

From a security standpoint, I understood why we had to discipline the offender. I wouldn’t have wanted to sleep in a room full of offenders knowing that any one of them could drop the widow or scorpion on my bed. Even though I understand that, I told him I would’ve written the report, and then assigned them to write their own report about their observations for a partial science credit on their transcript. They probably learned more in those two months than their year in science class. He laughed, but I meant it.

Control called for movement, and I just shook my head. Boys. And bugs. You just never know what these guys are going to do next.

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Rara Avis

He was a rare bird. He stopped me at the temporary weight pile outside the school building, lounging on one of the equipment, to say good-bye and talk about investing in the stock market. He is one who makes it hard to leave.

They call him Ladybug, an apt description of the way his shoulders and back hump up around his ears, engulfing his squat neck. Eyes bulge behind his glasses out of a smooth, circular face, causing him to look like he is in an eternal choke-hold. When he first arrived, and no one could remember his name, the staff would say, “You know, the middle-eastern-looking… turtle… the weird-looking-dude.” We would nod our heads, “Oh, yeah, that one.”

At first he caused a stir, one who was forever in trouble for small, immature acts. He preferred the company of those who engaged in other strange activities, and this creeped me out because, unlike his buddies, he had a twisted mind he wasn’t afraid to use. Offenders hinted that my instinct about him was right; then I learned about his more notorious offense.

Hanging out one day with his roomies, they had the bad idea of trying something that has become popular in the adult facilities. Crushing up metal or other hard objects like dominoes, they cram this powder into designs under the skin. This sounds like a bad idea anywhere, especially in prison where diseases spread quickly. These boys thought it would be a good idea to try the process on their private areas. As the Lt. said, “You’re lucky you’re not permanently injured.” Ladybug turned dark in the cheeks. When he discovered that I knew the details of his thoughtless actions, he hung his head and the class laughed at our mutual embarrassment. There are some things a teacher should not know about her students.

We started to see a difference in him shortly after this. His shoulders lowered slightly, he started to gain status, he wasn’t so strange. The math teacher who has more experience said that I was watching someone come to terms with his crime and sentence; I was also watching someone mature very quickly. That’s why, toward the end, he was one I could have a nice, normal conversation with. I sometimes wondered where he came from because his speech pattern and interests were so different from his classmates, even though it was clear he was cut from similar cloth.

Because of the dark, cunning nature of his mind, I wonder how long he’ll make it in society. At the same time, thinking back on the last few conversations I’ve had with him, I see a glimmer of hope. He’s one I would’ve liked to see off to Phase II and III.

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And The Gates Closed Behind Me One Last Time

My friend’s story this morning summed up my experience. On Friday both of the school leaders were absent. Joking, they say my friend, the administrative assistant, is the boss in their absence, but she’s not. She doesn’t pretend to be, nor does she want the responsibility. Some people, hungry for power or recognition, can not understand this.

Let me back up a bit. The woman who refuses to speak to me moved in to my old classroom last week. There’s more to that story, but for the purposes of this one, you need to understand she has a lot of stuff. She was supposed to have her room put together by Thursday afternoon, but in prison nothing goes according to plan. The facility spent a couple hours conducting a fire drill that included the fire department entering the gates which shut everything and everyone down. Although our assistant principal wanted this teacher to start classes on Friday, and made a point of telling my friend, my friend reasoned that the expectation was a little strict. When the teacher asked to cancel her morning classes to finish what she had to stop the previous afternoon, my friend said that would be fine. She didn’t mean to suggest that she had authority to make this decision; she could see with her own eyes that the classroom was still cluttered with boxes. Where were students going to sit?

Later that morning the teacher entered my friend’s office. She has the most remarkably kind voice. In this gentle voice of hers she told my friend; “If you ever need any help making decisions [i.e. administrative decisions] you can always ask me or Sue. We have advanced degrees.” Ouch. I looked helplessly at my friend. The comment had cut deeply on several levels. It would make leaving her in a couple hours that much more difficult.

She finished the story by telling me how she was silently praying as she left for lunch that afternoon when a small event changed her oppressed attitude. Approaching her car she heard her name being called across the parking lot by one of the work crews, “Hey, Miss H. Miss H.! We saw your daughter when we went to work at the Raptor Center.”

“Did she tell you what a mean mom I am?”

“No, she said that you’re a wonderful mother.”

At that my friend laughed, “My daughter doesn’t use the word ‘wonderful,’ not with me.” Sad, but true.

“Aww, Miss,” they laughed with her. Then one piped up, “But we think you’re wonderful.” “Yeah,” they chorused, “you’re really great. You help us, and you’re nice.”

She went to lunch remembering that being thoughtful, leaving that kind of mark on these individuals is why we choose to go behind the barbed wire every morning (at least some do, although most come for the paycheck). The offenders might go waste their opportunities, squander their drug money, and destroy their lives, but they’ll have a memory that someone treated them with kindness. Maybe one of them, one of these days, will let that memory of kindness change him. That’s all we can hope for, all that we can do, and that’s all that matters.

I left her crying in the parking lot, feeling like a complete baboon. When I went out for maternity leave she made light of my eight week absence by saying that she would miss my normalcy, but at least she knew I would be coming back. In eight weeks she would  have someone to talk to in between the hatred, the simpering, the downright dumbness she has to monitor daily as the nice assistant. This time her lonesomeness stretches on without end, and we can only hope the next new person will be capable, for her sake. I’ve been stuck in fruitless, oppressive jobs before; I’ve seen my friends there too; I’ve heard them console themselves with, “I wonder what God wants me to learn from this?”; and this never gets easier to bear as a friend. It feels like lead. I’ve seen some blossom from this low point; I’ve seen some sink ever deeper. Knowing this woman and the town where she must remain, I find it difficult to pray or hope. She has suffered much in life for the sake of other people, so I wish she could find meaningful employment with generous co-workers. If I had done nothing else I had made her burden lighter in the time I worked there.

Like a frame narrative, I looked up from clocking out for the last time to see Officer Sanchez, the same round, chubby, friendly face that greeted me the day of my interview. That narrative touch made the writer in me smile, not that it held any other significance. If the weather foretold anything, however, my next year is going to be perfect. As one person used to say on Friday evenings, “Any day you leave prison is a good day.” That’s particularly true when you leave for good.

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How do I carry the weight of their stories? I used to ask this question of myself every lunch and every drive home. One of my students was kind enough to tell me one day that he thought God gave me the gift of a huge heart. The trouble is that I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth; my heart, in fact, is very small and analytic to a fault. I don’t know how to absorb the pain some days, and I hold my breath for a quiet moment to pass on the burden to God himself. He can handle it, not me. When prayer is not enough, my commute home usually is.

My commute looked much like this.

I had thirty minutes to drive through beauty like this.

While I would be driving under clear blue skies and sunshine, I would watch the storms cover the mountains or gather in the prairie. Then the rainbows came.

I drove this stretch of the interstate years and years ago when I was driving away from my past and inching toward my future. That journal is in the bowels of my storage, but I clearly remember wondering how I had managed to survive five years in the Midwest where one only gets a glimpse of sky through thick foliage. Here, where the sky stretched for an eternity and the stars glistened, my head could clear.

Sunrise on my way to work. A great way to start the day.

My co-workers often wondered why I lived out here, and I admit it was hard to adjust living forty miles from conveniences and having to catch mice every couple months, but in the end it was probably best. We had our reasons, even if no one else cared what they were, and now we have our stories. When we rented the homestead, I remember telling my mother-in-law that doing so would give our daughter a different kind of education. It did. Our oldest child will remember processing the deer my husband killed in the ravine behind our house; the bear that sat on our porch to munch on our apples; the alder bugs that infested our walls in the Winter; the Miller Moths that plagued us in the Spring; the cows and horses and antelope; the cowboys; the white, one-room school house we passed each morning; the original post office with the rifle holes in the security windows; the merry-go-round where the pioneer children and Apache children used to play, and where we took our Christmas picture. We will remember sand plum molasses; eating rabbits; shooting parties with USAFA cadets; how all the floors sloped; apple sauce, apple cider, and apple pie; Thanksgiving and other dinners with my husband’s classmates; that view from the living room–I couldn’t get enough; how the refrigerator, dishwasher, and disposal quit within days of  each other; how the plumbing backed up and the well went dry during the drought; how dust coated everything no matter what you did; the squirrels chasing each other in the bathroom walls and pinging off the copper pipes; that afternoon when we heard the squirrel’s cache of acorns spill down the inside corner of our bedroom; and chopping wood all that second winter so that I wouldn’t get cold. My co-workers would complain that I missed work when it snowed on the ranch but not in town; they ridiculed my dirty car; they whispered that I thought I was too good to live in town; and they made other snide remarks that had a way of reaching me eventually, but they’ll never understand how the ranch house was an important part of our family’s chapter.

The original Apache City post office.

The original Apache City post office as seen from my living room window.

Some evenings I would drive 20 mph when I could have driven 40 mph on our country road, just to drink it all in. I’d try to imprint a  particular beauty in my mind’s eye because some day, I knew, I wouldn’t have this. I will miss the mountains, the snow, the antelope, the dust. I will miss the West with a romantic yearning Swede from Peace Like a River understands. I also miss the redwoods; the stinking, changing of the tide; the thick, thick morning fog and the deep-throated moan of the fog horn; fresh, fresh, fresh fish n’ chips and clam chowder enjoyed while watching the boats slide into the docks; cold, hard, gray, pebbly beaches; and the massive horizon on the Pacific Ocean where I grew up. It’s OK to miss these textures, smells, shapes, and sounds that have become a part of my fabric. I will find beauty in my new home, little bits of nature to overwhelm and impress me, and places to enjoy immensely.

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Almost My Last Day

It wasn’t until I started to change into my evening clothes that it hit me: I will never wear a uniform again. Not a public servant uniform that is, I can assure you. With relief I pulled my stress-sweat stained undershirts from my dresser drawer and dropped them decidedly  into the trash can. I had been looking forward to this moment, but it passed with less ceremony than I imagined. Just another turning of the page into a new chapter. I must be getting old if I am starting to look at new chapters objectively.

The first 24 hours transitioning into a stay-at-home Mom has been a difficult one. A sticky, icky cold makes  me want to drink lemon-honey tea and sleep while it drizzles outside, but kids don’t allow for that. Only semi-joking I told my co-worker, who felt bad that I had to spend my last full day at work with a kleenex almost permanently affixed to my face, that I was getting more rest at work than at home.

Immediately after work I went to pick up my eldest who took one look at me, ran to a hiding spot, and threw an unreasonable fit, the likes of which I haven’t seen from her in months, maybe a year. Sighing, I sat down on a tricycle to look her in the eye and tried to calm her with a gentle touch. The past month couldn’t have been easy on her, even though she’s been incredible through it all, so I tried asking her questions. In Sheparding a Child’s Heart Tripp wisely challenges parents to address the heart, not the behavior, and I thought this was one of those moments where I needed to get to the heart of the matter. Well, she wasn’t going to have any of that. Due to her level of defiance, a spanking in the bathroom wasn’t going to do either. She escalated quickly into the wait-’til-Dad-gets-home level of discipline. I ended up carrying her out to the car. How embarrassing. It was one thing to chase my child down at our home on range, but it was quite another to haul my child out of school dressed as a prison guard. On my last day, nonetheless.

To my disappointment she wouldn’t explain anything beyond, “I didn’t want to go home.” So much for getting to the core of the matter. Then, just to keep Mom on her toes, the next morning my daughter didn’t want me to leave her at school. I looked dumb. Feeling like I was drowning from my cold and with a baby balanced on one hip, I was unsuccessfully coaxing my daughter into the classroom. She was about to throw another uncontrollable fit. Finally, another mom complimented on her dress about five times. That did the trick, and she twirled into the center of the morning circle, her brimming tears forgotten. Dropping off the one child interrupted the schedule for the other child who screeched and screamed for one reason after another the next four hours. Teaching criminal youth how to diagram sentences suddenly seemed like a dream. I knew staying home  full time was going to be  hard for me, but I thought the first couple of days would be sweet.

Last week one of my colleagues rolled his eyes when he learned I’d be spending the next year at home with my kids, and he commented, “Yeah, I’ve never been one to sit around and watch soap operas all day. I hope you like it.” Had he missed all the jokes about how I worked too hard to be a state employee? Surely he didn’t imagine me going home to twiddle my thumbs. This is the ignorance I work with.

I corrected him: “I don’t have a TV, and I’ll be homeschooling.”

“Well, in that case,” he tried to recover, “you’ll have the smartest kids on the block.” That’s my plan. After today I’d like to know when I am supposed to have time to watch soap operas and eat chocolates. I’m not even sure when I’m going to fit in laundry and meal planning, let alone spelling and math.

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