Nobody warns you that empathy is an unraveling; that familiarity becomes untied when you’re no longer familiar to yourself – like when you arrive at a place where life gives new meaning. This happens to me each week in prison. I place my keys, purse, and book bag on a scanner for the first guard to search. I pass a second guard station. Then, I walk along a cold concrete floor where emotions are bare, where guard-inmate relationships are distant. I assume the felon position; arms outstretched and sign in with the purpose of my visit. Sounds of steel doors reverberate like a 12-guage shot gun. I settle in a classroom alone, locked in, waiting for eleven men to share their ideas, hopes, thoughts, dreams, and vulnerabilities with me. When I’m having a bad week one offers this advice, “While other people may be able to stop you temporarily, you’re the only one who can stop you permanently.” It’s true, and I use the advice through the week and it gets me through the next. They are at a crossroads in life but so am I.
My students wear tan-colored jumpsuits that button up the front over white T-shirts. Sneakers are all white. My job is to teach them how to write, so I make a list of prompts, but by the second class I find that I am the one learning too. “Scratch” means “money,” “wiped down” means “robbed,” “a dime” means “ten years.” And “The Slam” is the staple food of correctional institutions: Ramen, peanut butter, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and ranch dressing, and I learn how to connect papers by tearing off the ends to make a staple. I ask them to describe an everyday noise that drives them crazy. A favorite holiday. Their first love. Amazed by the ease with which they open-up and their willingness to share secrets – then I lose two students along the way to early release dates – and I feel the loss harder than I expected. And I ask myself, was there more I could have taught them?
Author Samuel Johnson said, “Everything that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shows man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable.” More than the humid smell of eleven bodies joined in a room each week – what permeates this place isn’t the stench of suppressed energy, testosterone buzzing like a thousand-volt live wire – it’s the sacred space we create – a sense of home that moves us beyond these prison halls, away from our past, and away from our troubles – into a place where only light grows.