I spend five days a week teaching English at East Bennington High and two nights a week teaching English at Attica State Prison. Which is to say, I spend my time conjugating verbs for delinquents and dangling participles for convicts. One class feeling like they're in prison and the other class actually being in one.
On the Attica evenings, I eat an early dinner with my wife and two children. I kiss my wife and teenage daughter goodbye and give my four-year-old son a piggyback ride to the front door. I gently put him down, kiss his soft brow, and promise to look in on him when I get home.
I enter my eight-year-old Dodge Neon still surrounded in a halo of emotional well-being. By the time I pass through the metal detector at Attica Prison, it's gone.
Maybe it's the brass plaque prominently displayed on the wall of the visitors room. "Dedicated to the Correction Officers who died in the Attica riots," it says. There is no plaque for the prisoners who died. I have only recently begun teaching there, and I can't quite decide who's scarier--the Attica prisoners or the corrections officers who guard them. Possibly the corrections officers. It's clear they don't like me much. They consider me a luxury item, like cable TV, something the prisoners did nothing to deserve. The brainchild of some liberal in Albany, who's never had a shiv stuck in his ribs or feces thrown in his face, who's never had to peel a tattooed carcass off a blood-soaked floor swimming with AIDS.
They greet me with barely disguised contempt. It's the PHD, they mumble. "Pathetic Homo Douchebag," one of them scrawled on the wall of the visitors bathroom. I forgive them.
They are the outnumbered occupiers of an enslaved population seething with hatred. To survive this hate, they must hate back. They are not allowed to carry guns, so they arm themselves with attitude.
As for the prisoners who attend my class, they are strangely docile. Many of them the unfortunate victims of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws that treat small purchases of cocaine like violent felonies. They mostly look bewildered. Now and then, I give them writing assignments. Write something, I say. Anything. Anything that interests you. I used to have them read their work in class. Until one convict, a sloe-eyed black named Benjamin Washington, read what sounded like gibberish. It was gibberish, and the other convicts laughed at him. Benjamin took offense at this and later knifed one of them in the back over a breakfast of watery scrambled eggs and burnt toast.
I decided on anonymity there and then. They write what interests them and send it up to the desk unsigned. I read it out loud and nobody knows who wrote what. The writer knows; that's good enough. One day, though, I asked them to write something that would interest me. The story of them. How they got here, for instance, to Mr. Widdoes's English class in the rec room at Attica State Prison. If they wanted to be writers, I told them, start with the writer.
It might be enlightening, I thought, maybe even cathartic. It might be more interesting than the story "Tiny the Butterfly," a recent effort from . . . well, I don't know, do I? Tiny brought color and beauty to a weed-strewn lot in the projects until he was, unfortunately, crushed like a bug by the local crank dealer. Tiny, it was explained at the bottom of the page, was cymbollic. I gave out the assignment on Thursday; by next Tuesday the papers were scattered across my desk. I read them aloud in no particular order. The first story about an innocent man being framed for armed robbery. The second story about an innocent man being framed for possession of illegal narcotics. The third story about an innocent man being framed. . .
So maybe it wasn't that enlightening. But then.
Copyright © 2003 by James Siegel
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