Mapping the Belly of the Whale

When I arrived at Woodbourne prison for that first intake procedure I was surprised to find a certain level of relaxation. Maybe what I mean is not relaxation, but a kind of small town banter that was easy to slip into with the guard who checked me through the metal detector as I set it off again and again. He reassured me he was not going to make me take my shirt off, though the fact that it was fastened with snaps instead of buttons was causing the problem. I told him that I was wearing a T-shirt underneath if it was necessary to remove the outer garment. Harmless flirtation, or maybe just everyday humanity. Whatever you call it, I was not expecting to find it at Woodbourne.

The guard kept my keys and wallet. I kept my shirt on. I was escorted by another guard up a set of stairs and buzzed through a locked door to a mirrored booth set up like an old-fashioned bank teller’s window with a small metal drawer at the bottom. I was told by a voice behind the mirror to place my left hand in the drawer. The back of my hand was scanned with a light that showed it had been stamped with invisible ink by the flirty guard once I’d made it through the metal detector. I don’t know what was stamped on my hand since the ink only showed under the special light that he scanned over my knuckles as fast as a cashier at the grocery store. I don’t know what the face of the man who scanned the invisible stamp looked like since he was behind a one-way mirror. I wondered if the guard was alone on the other side of the mirror, if he had a newspaper back there, a computer, a hot plate, a gun—and why this was considered a job where it’s best that nobody see your face. Later, I found out this area is called the “Man Lock” because you can’t exit one door until the door you entered through locks behind you, like an airlock on a spaceship. This no man’s land marks the actual border between inside and outside the prison. It’s a room about twenty feet long and ten feet wide. The mirror is covered by bars, and the only opening is that drawer at the bottom, just big enough for a hand.

The voice behind the mirror said thank you; I said thank you.

As I waited for a new guard to escort me down to the “school” I noticed for the first time that the interior architecture of the whole place was faux-medieval. Outside, Woodbourne looks like any other penitentiary set high on a hill: a large brick rectangle surrounded by floodlights, barbed wire strung along the top of a cyclone fence and empty fields stretching out in each direction. Fields that a man dressed in prison-issue green would be spotted against were he to run across the yellow grass. Inside the building, the doorways have Gothic arches. Over one doorway I saw painted in black calligraphy: “Enter to grow in wisdom; Depart to serve better your country and your kind.”

I wondered who chose the quotation, then I wondered about the prisoner who may have been assigned to paint those words. Would the assignment have been a pleasure? A break in the monotony? A testament to his skill with lettering? There are lots of hand-painted signs inside Woodbourne: “Barber Shop,” “Visitors,” “Rx,” so I guessed it was an in-house job. The quotation is painted on an archway facing the exit from the Man Lock to the outside world: you don’t only have to serve, you have to serve better. “Don’t just count the years; make the years count” was another inspirational message I saw on a blackboard as I walked down the hall to the classrooms.

I was teaching at Woodbourne for the Bard Prison Initiative, which has a well-established program conferring liberal arts degrees from Bard College to prisoners in New York state, where Bard is located. It offers one of the oldest escapes from the tyranny of Time: books and more books. As one of my students said when we were discussing Madame Bovary, “I understand Emma Bovary because she reads a lot of books. She was trapped in this place she hated and she kept reading all these novels. I’ve been in here seventeen years and I’ve read a lot of novels!” We all laughed, but this smiling kid with a crew cut didn’t even look thirty. To be incarcerated that long, he must have been convicted of a violent crime “with a body,” but I never ask what my students are in for.

The Man Lock opened into the prison, and down a set of stairs there was a cloister with grass, surrounded by covered walkways that looked strangely familiar. I grew up in New York City and went on class trips to the medieval cloister in Fort Tryon Park—to see the unicorn tapestries and learn about how the monks lived. In sixth grade the monastery didn’t seem like such a bad life to me: doodling in the margins of every page was encouraged if you were a monk, plus they got to paint with all that gold leaf. There was one class trip when I slowly, methodically used the edge of a quarter to saw off a small piece of pink granite from the low wall surrounding the cloister as the guide repeated the same information we had heard the year before. I secretly sawed away with my quarter knowing that it was a terrible thing to do; this was a museum, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and each stone had been brought over from Europe by some rich guy so that kids like me could see the tapestries. I slipped the granite chip into my pocket. It may have been my first actual crime—no, probably not. I was a bad kid. This was willful desecration, a sign of moral bankruptcy no matter how you spin it.

I asked the guard about the cloister as we walked underneath the arched, brick corridor. He told me that the prison was originally built to house the criminally insane. In 1935 it was called the Woodbourne Institution for Defective Delinquents. Now this building with a cloister in the middle and barbed wire on the outside houses nearly 1,000 prisoners. The guard told me that the cloister looked nice in spring, with flowers in the raised beds defining a traditional cross-shaped pathway. One thing I remember from all those school trips is that the gardens and pathways lead into and away from a central point not only to form a cross, but also to enhance walking meditation and prayer.

“Do the inmates get to spend any time out here?” I asked as we arrived at the next locked door.

“No,” he said, “but some of their windows look out on it.” I looked up. The building was about three stories high with a series of narrow windows. “There’s a vegetable garden in the other courtyard. They can tend that if they want to,” he said. The next door slid open, and we walked into the “school.

 

First classes in creative writing are always a dog and pony show, as nobody has generated any work yet. I decided my prison class would follow the same syllabus I taught in the MFA Creative Writing class at Brooklyn College. It’s a competitive program, but word was that the Bard Prison Initiative students wanted to be pushed. The creative writing I encountered at the MFA level was often rich in language and poor in narrative structure, so I had begun to incorporate readings on the “Hero Journey” into our discussions of modern fiction. This “Hero Journey,” famously delineated by Joseph Campbell, is a traditional narrative arc that can be tracked in texts from “Little Red Riding Hood” to Lolita. Paying close attention to structure had strengthened my students’ writing at Brooklyn College and I was determined not to change my approach to the material for the inmates.

For my first class I used a very short story from David Eagleman’s collection, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, playful and sometimes darkly imagined afterlives that steer clear of organized religion. I had the students read one of these stories out loud, a story in which a man chooses for his next life to be transformed into a horse and realizes, in the midst of his metamorphosis, that he has bid goodbye to his human brain, possibly forever. After we read it around, I asked each student to take his notebook and pen and in just ten minutes write his own “imagined afterlife” to share with the group. Those first ten minutes of quiet scribbling establish any class as a community of writers; it gets everyone’s voice in the room right away, and nobody can expect sheer genius after ten minutes of writing in a notebook. Prison is very low tech: there are desktop computers in the prison library but no internet access, no laptops, no cell phones, and no e-readers. For their Bard classes each prisoner is given a notebook, a pen, and a mesh bag filled with books. There was a shy, middle-aged student who always looked slightly confused, never spoke in class, and turned in typewritten pages because a typewriter was allowed in his cell and it was the only way he could write in solitude. I found this out at a break, when I asked about the pages I was returning to him.

“Is it electric or manual?” I asked.

“Manual,” he said quietly. He still wouldn’t look at me.

The thin paper and uneven type reminded me of old letters I had found in a box after my father’s death.

As each man shared his work, I realized that every single afterlife was about some kind of superpower and teleportation. Only one man out of sixteen invented an afterlife featuring a good job, a lovely wife, and a brand new Lexus. The rest of them weren’t driving, they were flying. I said “thank you” after each student read, careful not to place any qualitative judgment on the notebook writing. The point was not whether the writing had any merit; the point was to be able to speak the words we wrote together in a room. There was a very large man sitting against the wall whose shaved head was accented by a set of ginger eyebrows and carefully shaved goatee. He was easily the biggest guy in the room, with muscular arms and meaty fingers that dwarfed his pen. He began to read, then abruptly covered his face with his hands. I waited. He put his hands down and tried to continue but was unable to speak. I waited again, then said, “It’s OK. Thank you.“ Nobody looked up from their notebooks. Nobody but me looked at him, and the room was as quiet, as it gets in prison, until I nodded at the man sitting in front of him to go ahead and read.

In prison, the two-hour class is broken twice by a loud bell which signals a break when the men can buy candy or have a cigarette. At the first break the big man walked right up to me. “I’m sorry, Professor,” he said, looking defiant and embarrassed. “It’s all right,” I said. “It happens.”

People do cry in creative writing classes sometimes, but not usually in the first class, and this was my “get to know you” exercise. I have two kids, and when a student breaks down I usually get all maternal. But how to comfort a man whom I would very likely cross the street to avoid if I saw him on the outside? He broke our gaze before I did and walked quickly out of the classroom. He wasn’t looking for my comfort. He never came back to class. I was told he transferred to calculus.

There was a large Formica desk pushed against one side of the classroom, which had a wall of blackboards at the front and windows facing the hallway where guards strolled by during class. When I’d first walked into the room all of the students were already there, waiting for me to arrive. One man had been sitting behind the desk, and he got up when I came in and asked if I would like to sit there. But all of their chairs were facing the blackboard at the front of the room, not the desk on the side, so I gave up the desk (which felt like a protective barrier) and chose a chair near the blackboard. At the end of the second break the young man who would become a fan of Emma Bovary wheeled up a padded swivel chair that I hadn’t seen at the back of the room.

“Professor Chace, would you like to use this chair?” he asked.

I hesitated.

“I wouldn’t say no to that.”

I smiled, but I had never felt so female or so white.

 

When I did my required “orientation” and received my prison ID, I also had to get a TB shot and be fingerprinted. Because of scheduling at the prison I didn’t get to see the orientation video, which is famous among other professors for the segment entitled “Games Prisoners Play.” It apparently warns about all the ways you might suddenly find yourself having consensual sex with an inmate with magical powers of persuasion and invisibility, since we were never left unattended by a guard—except while in the classroom—when it was suddenly just you and a class full of extremely muscular men squeezed into those molded metal chairs that you remember from high school. The other professors talked about “Games Prisoners Play” the way middle schoolers talk about mandatory sex-ed.

But nobody had mentioned being fingerprinted—and I wasn’t prepared for the intimacy of the process. The waiting guard pulled on a pair of latex gloves. I had removed my rings at the metal detector, and as he took my hands I had to remove a Band-Aid from one of my fingers, revealing a bloodied cuticle. I felt ashamed. I have struggled with biting my nails ever since I was a child, and though they are better overall, in fact, things had not been going too well lately. The guard rolled black ink onto a large pad and pressed down the fingers of each hand. My identity was marked on two separate sheets of paper that I signed without reading (I had already signed a lot of papers, mostly about not having sex with the inmates). I was ashamed of how my ripped cuticles belied my nicely ironed slacks and shirt. I was too old to bite my nails. I was too old for most of the things that were causing me to chew my fingers until they bled. After we were done, the guard peeled off his latex gloves, tossed them into the garbage and showed me where there was a sink to wash the ink off my hands. As I was leaving he gave me a fresh Band-Aid without comment. I took this as an act of kindness and discretion.

In the classroom, most of the students looked me directly in the eye. But in the hallways, I noticed that the dark-skinned men didn’t look at the white woman accompanied by the white guard. The prisoners pulled back, stopped walking and averted their gaze; they let us walk through every doorway first. Another thing I noticed: a room without a door. I looked in as we passed, and it took a moment for me to realize that it was lined with men peeing. I’ve seen enough prison movies to know why there is no door, but I was shocked by this deprivation of privacy. I wondered if the same was true in women’s prisons. After that I never forgot to turn my head away when I walked past that doorway.

 

The town of Woodbourne consists of a few houses clustered around a traffic light at the foot of the hill marking the crossroads of Route 52 and Prison Road. Many of the houses have good bones fallen on hard times: broken windows and peeled paint, bed sheets tacked to the inside of the windows rather than blinds or curtains. The biggest house in town at first glance looks like a hotel, but it’s a funeral home. According to the 2000 census the per capita income for Sullivan County was $18,892.00 and 17.40% of the residents lived below the poverty line. Hard to imagine that times have improved since then, though employment by the Department of Corrections is holding steady if inmate population is any indicator. Towns like Woodbourne, once strung between booming Jewish Borscht Belt resorts like Grossinger’s, are spooky in late January, when our semester began.  In summer, the children of Orthodox Jews fill the sleepaway camps where black mosquito netting and peeling white paint announce their presence. “The Ivy League of Torah Study,” reads one sign just before the marker for the Western Mohegan Tribe and Nation reservation. Some of these towns operate like a shtetl in the woods, with the men commuting into the city during the week. It was the same during the heyday of the Borcht Belt—but nowadays the bungalows are bracketed by poverty and strict religious observance rather than cocktails and mahjong.

The prison and the Orthodox have spawned their own concentric circles of employment and consumption. Signs with Hebrew lettering share the window of a gas station advertising “Live Bait.” They cohabitate in these mountains the way most New Yorkers do on the subway at rush hour: they may be rubbing right up against each other, but they survive the experience by pretending that the other does not exist. I stopped to get gas off Route 17, where two mini marts sat directly across the street from each other, the price of gas the same: one had kosher food and one did not. I happened to pull up to the kosher one. Every other car in the tiny lot was a minivan, Dad talking on his cell phone while the family bought snacks or used the bathroom. Across the street were compact cars with teenagers in tight T-shirts, sauntering in and out of the other minimart, every one of them with a cell phone pressed to their ear.

 

Our first novel was Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. I drew an arc on the blackboard marking stages of the Hero Journey, and we discussed it in terms of the novel. They were much less critical than my MFA students. The Brooklyn College students thought that Murakami’s references to the Oedipal myth lacked subtlety. The prisoners thought the novel was a fun read, but it was Joseph Campbell who really got their attention. One man (let’s call him “A,” who always wore a red skullcap and had already impressed me with his knowledge of political theory) raised his hand:

“So, Professor, tell me if I’ve got this right. You’re driving down the road and the cops pull you over for no reason. They pull you out of the car and pat you down, legs apart, and one of the cops plants some drugs on you and they bring you in. This is what Campbell calls the ‘Call to Adventure,’ right?”

I nodded.

“So then you’re arrested, but there’s this lawyer who thinks she can prove the cop planted the stuff on you, and that’s your ‘Helper’ or your ‘Supernatural Aid.’”

I nodded.

“But then she disappears on you, and you’re sentenced, so that’s like ‘the Belly of the Whale.’”

I was still nodding.

“But then you study up, and you get this other lawyer, and this time you get a re-trial, and that’s like—doing battle in the underworld, or passing the final test—and then you get proved innocent and you finally get out of prison. That’s, like, the Hero Journey, right?”

I might as well wrap things up right now. Everyone gets an A.

But of course I wasn’t done; in fact it was only the beginning of the semester, and I was having trouble even remembering all of their names. It always took me a while to learn the names of my students. But in prison, they had more nicknames than any other roster I’d brought into a classroom. The given names I won’t repeat here, but here is a sampling of the names they would prefer to be known by: Reliable (I liked that one, of course), D (just “D”), Prince Assan, Enlightened Allah—when I asked him if there was anything he liked to be called, he said, “Enlightened.”

Okay.

Two weeks in, I was still mixing up the names of two of the four white men, and one of them joked, “I know, we all look alike.”

Fact: Everyone in this classroom was much more direct in talking about race than in the MFA classroom. After Kafka on the Shore we read Michael Thomas’ 2005 novel, Man Gone Down. The protagonist in the novel has different kinds of worries for his biracial sons because he believes that the younger one can “pass,” while the older boy is darker-skinned. There is also a daughter in the novel, a baby whose skin color is not discussed by the narrator. Most of the students at Woodbourne knew that the skin tone of a biracial baby often goes through changes from newborn to adulthood. They talked about why Thomas may have chosen to have one boy dark and one light and the political ramifications of that choice. The MFA students (an all white group) discussed the protagonist’s relationship to his children, but were not as interested in the significance of skin tone.

I say that we were able to talk about race more frankly in the prison—yes and no. There was always that sign blinking over my head: WHITE FEMALE. There came a point in discussions about race in works of fiction where it felt like we were pretending to be more comfortable than we actually were. The prisoners had all read W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk as part of Bard’s required curriculum. But despite our shared intellectual references we couldn’t completely live above the veil in Du Bois’ “region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.”[i] As Du Bois writes in the same paragraph in which he first introduces the metaphor of the veil:

The shades of the prison house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.[ii]

As one of the students reminded me in the course of a class discussion, “You have no idea.” I nodded and said nothing.

But I do have some ideas about teaching, and as it turned out the mythology spoke more strongly to these students than the contemporary fiction I paired it with. They didn’t care about Murakami’s plot holes; they wanted to talk about whether it was right for Oedipus to try to defy fate by leaving home once he heard the prophecy about killing his father and marrying his mother. And what about his parents putting him out on the mountainside to die when they heard the prophecy? Were they wrong to do that? I pointed out that this was a big argument: Do you believe in free will or determinism? “A,” who had been very vocal in this discussion, stopped dead. “You want to talk about that in here?” he asked.

“Sure I’ll talk about it in here. We can talk about anything as long as it has to do with the work.”

“A” gave me a long look and for once he didn’t say anything. I had the feeling he knew that I sounded a lot braver than I actually was.

 

I wasn’t sure where I was on my own Hero Journey but I knew that I was still on the lookout for my Supernatural Aids. I wasn’t the only one, lots of people I knew were getting the kind of Call to Adventure that my student described: one minute everything’s going fine and the next you get pulled over to the shoulder, dead stop—“please get out of the vehicle.” It may have been hitting forty, hitting up against a place in the marriage or a place in the body. All of a sudden there was a twist in the narrative, and it was either Stage Four Black Death or Humbert Humbert, take your pick. Either way it was clear that nothing was going to be remotely the way you had thought it would be. I wasn’t teaching in the prisons because I was an altruist; I was teaching at Woodbourne because my husband (we were still legally married, so maybe it wasn’t yet Belly of the Whale) had stopped sending any money for the kids. I was teaching in prison because I needed the money.

I spent a lot of time in prisons that year because my friend’s husband was incarcerated in the Tombs in lower Manhattan before he was transferred out for his trial and sentencing. We brought him clothing. There were complex rules about what color and kinds of clothing could be brought in: gray was the only color allowed, apparently because of gang activity. That was the first time I found out about not bringing in a cell phone. The other women coming in for a visit told us to go to the newsstand across the street. The Tombs is on the southern edge of Chinatown and at the closest newsstand the guy has a sideline going: Five dollars to keep your phone while visiting the jail. We handed ours over wondering if they would be gone by the time we came out, but what could we do? We had a plastic bag of clothes, visiting hours had already begun, and we hadn’t even been searched yet. The Tombs is one of those jails with a reputation built from crime novels and prison movies, like Sing Sing and Attica. But all the prisons have names and they circle us like humming giants, carefully placed out of sight of the major highways.

When her husband of twenty years walked into the visiting room wearing an orange jumpsuit his wife grabbed for my hand. I met him when she and I were sharing an apartment in the East Village divided into two bedrooms and a kitchen. She paid a little more rent, so her bedroom faced the alley while mine faced the airshaft. I am not nostalgic for that apartment, which was dark and airless, with a hallway light that sputtered off and on as you took the long walk to our front door. I used to keep my keys facing out between my fingers, clenched into a fist so that I could theoretically slash at someone’s face with them. My house keys versus a handgun, but it was a place we could afford to live. Years later, her husband liked to tell the story of his first glimpse of my hand on the teakettle as he looked down from her loft bed into the kitchen. I always wondered why he remembered it so vividly. There was something odd about his focus in that moment—a hidden observer in the intimacy of early morning, watching from my best friend’s bed—that made me unsure of him, but it is only now that I see that. We were all very young. She and I have been friends since the tenth grade; they met in college when he poured sand onto her open textbook like Tom Sawyer.

As she and I sat in the holding room with the fluorescent lighting, we managed casual conversation punctuated with occasional silences. There were four or five vending machines and toddlers running around while their mothers stared at the television screen with the volume turned up high. My friend wasn’t sure if they were going to remain married but she called him when he could receive a phone call. She spoke to his family for him and she brought him clothes. She wanted me there for the visit, and I didn’t ask why. Many of my students at Woodbourne made a point of frequently mentioning their wives and children. The ones who didn’t were quick to change the subject.

This is what happens that nobody told you about: What you thought of as the contours of your life before this happened disappear. This person you love is the same person—but now they are simply gone or in the hospital or in prison.  My friend wasn’t asking advice, she just wanted company. I may have been her Helper but I was not equipped to be her Supernatural Aid. After visiting hours ended, we went to the newsstand and got our phones back.

 

Madame Bovary read in tandem with “A Ticket to the Fair;” A Thousand Acres read concurrently with King Lear; Hamilton’s Greek Mythology; Chekhov, J.M. Coetzee and George Saunders. As with the MFA students, I assigned a lot of reading, as well as one writing assignment per week. Unlike the MFA students, I had to ask them to slow down rather than handing in two writing assignments at a time or pressing on into the next book before we had gotten there on the syllabus. It was easier to talk about the books because the writing didn’t get any better. I wanted to help them write one of those breakthrough prison stories you see on talk shows, a book deal for the Hero with me standing in the background playing the Sydney Poitier role in “To Sir, with Love.” It may have been my fault, but no matter how I responded to the work they simply handed in more pages than I asked for. I got tired. They didn’t want to revise, they didn’t want writing prompts; they mostly wanted to write about imaginary sex and imaginary worlds. Who was I to tell them any different?

Spring began in the outside world, and though there were no windows to the sky from our classroom, as I walked through the cloister I saw freshly dug beds of earth. Outside were the pink and white blossoms of dogwoods, flowering cherries, stalwart forsythia—the first signs of hope against the backdrop of brown hills and houses with tarpaper tacked outside. “Enlightened” was always in the classroom before I arrived, though he had stopped handing in any writing and told me that he had to prepare for his parole boards instead.

I understand that the purpose of imprisonment is punishment, but the longer I spent in prison the more I noticed that deprivation is in the details of that imprisonment. Loud monologue from a self-improvement film in the next classroom makes it hard for us to hear each other speak. The men troop down the hall, yelling and talking through their routine “movement” period, during which groups of prisoners are taken from one part of prison to another. One night “Reliable” arrived halfway through class because he got caught somewhere and had to wait for another “movement” period in order to be able to come to the school. I also had to wait for a “movement” period when I would be escorted in and out in the company of substance abuse counselors, ministers, and an Orthodox rabbi. One night there was incessant banging against one of the walls. I asked the students what it was and they laughed and shrugged but didn’t answer.

 

I went with my friend to pick up her husband the day he was released on bail. He was wearing a tie for his sentencing, which was almost as uncharacteristic as the orange jumpsuit, and in some ways he looked even more different in civilian clothes. Nothing would ever be the same as before, but I hadn’t expected to see the irrevocable on his face. When we got to the car, he wanted to go to a diner for a big breakfast. He talked and ate more than either of us. We had a long drive back to the city, but he wanted to go on a short hike he knew, a trail to a waterfall. It was February, there was snow everywhere, and we said OK. None of us had any idea what might be the appropriate thing to do on the day you get released from prison. My friend knew this trail, as well; it was a place the two of them had been before. I was keeping my head down and my mouth shut.

We walked up the trail, snowy but already marked by dog walkers and the kind of people who go hiking in the winter. It was all there: the sound of water running underneath the frozen skin of the waterfall, snow softening the landscape as if there was a God who could give you the right thing when you needed it most. We had gone on many hikes together, we had brought up our children together. We talked about nothing. We took some pictures of the waterfall. Then we dropped him off as planned at a Hampton Inn, and I drove the six hours back to the city while she looked heroically out the window at all those cars with people on their way to do things that we knew absolutely nothing about.

 

My last class was in early June, and I was the only one being walked into the school that night. The air was warm, and the guard escorting me was in no hurry. When we got to the courtyard he stopped and showed me a carving on top of one of the pillars in the cloister. It was a robber cracking a safe, wearing a gangster’s raccoon eye mask. The top of the next column had a policeman wearing a cap with his gun drawn, running after the robber. They were all in the style of thirties cartoons, and there was a carving of a prisoner with a ball and chain and below that a pair of scissors, breaking the chains. A large book with LEX engraved above it, the traditional scales of justice below. There were bars that looked like a medieval portcullis and every other column had an hourglass with the sand halfway through. The guard lingered over them with me, the huge ring of keys at his waist making him look like a cartoon prison guard come to life. He clearly wanted to talk; he told me that Woodbourne was a lot bigger than it looked, with underground tunnels that run from one part of the prison to another. Sometimes it got so hot inside they kept the doors open to the prison yard, even in winter. He thought the Bard program, “keeps ‘em busy.” Then he added, “You got to commit a crime to get a college education around here.” I shrugged. He should know by now that the world does not take those beautifully carved scales of justice into account.

I wanted to do something different for the last class, and since I wasn’t allowed to bring cupcakes, I brought a poem: I Belong There by Palestinian poet Mahoud Darwish[iii]

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.
I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell
with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.
I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,
a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.
I have lived on the land long before swords turned man into prey.
I belong there. When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to
her mother.
And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears.
To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a
single word: Home.

We read the poem around several times. They liked that I had brought them each their own copy.

The quiet man with the typewriter raised his hand for the first time all semester and asked if I was coming to graduation the following week. I hadn’t planned on it—Woodbourne is a three-hour drive from Brooklyn, these were night classes, and my older daughter had been taking care of her little sister on these nights when I got home around midnight. It had been a long semester. Nobody was a hero, and everyone got an A. I asked if he was graduating, and he gave me a boyish smile, all shyness and pride.

“Quite of few of us are graduating.”

“Who else is graduating?”

Three more hands went up.

 

The graduation was held on a June day in an athletic field that I had never seen from the approach to Woodbourne on Prison Road. It had all the trappings of any graduation in miniature. There were eighteen graduates. There was a white tent with rows of folding chairs. The families were dressed in their Sunday best and never stopped touching their men on the hand, the elbow, the back of the neck, as if any break in physical contact could simply not be borne. “A” was an usher, and “Reliable” looked older in his gown, with his mother and leggy daughter each holding a hand. The quiet one waved me over to meet his mother, who was wearing a small pink hat with a half veil. We drank juice and ate flattened pastries, and she didn’t stop talking except to hear me say again what a good student her son had been in my class. He smiled past us both, and I didn’t ask about his plans after graduation.

At the appointed hour, the faculty walked down the grassy aisle to music from a small brass ensemble. All of the graduates wore the traditional black gowns and mortarboards; all of the faculty were in robes and hoods. For the first time these medieval costumes for conferring and displaying academic degrees did not strike me as silly. The men nervously checked that their tassels were on the correct side for the before/after moment. The president of the college made a couple of jokes. The Superintendent of Woodbourne and the founder of the Bard Prison Initiative spoke, but they had the sense to leave most of the talking to the four valedictorians of the graduating class.

When the graduates spoke there was no spin on the importance of that thoroughly impractical pursuit, a liberal arts education. Some would be released soon and some would be spending their lives in prison. I didn’t know what my guys were in for or when they might be getting out. I wanted to ask one of them how Enlightened’s parole board went, but I didn’t think that I really had permission. I had given them some good books to read; storytelling and scribbled words, as much a life raft for me as for them. I hadn’t been able to provide them with a complete narrative arc, but I was here, smiling like my heart would break. Just like any graduation, the families wept and smiled and wept again. There were the green hills and the blue sky and a French horn playing its inevitable melody.

 

 

Rebecca Chace is the author of: Leaving Rock Harbor (novel); Capture the Flag (novel); Chautauqua Summer (memoir). She is director of creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and 2014 recipient Grace Paley Fiction Fellowship at Vermont Studio Center.

 

Painting by Ken Buhler


[i] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Dover Thrift Edition, p.2).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] From Unfortunately, It was Paradise: Selected Poems. By Mamoud Darwish. Translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. Copyright c 2003 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

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