Tuesday, June 26, 2012

6,000 Sad Stories

I was barely 22 when I first started teaching at San Quentin.  I had a fellowship, so I was pretty much there full time, and taught classes in various units.  When November came around, little elementary-school-esque paper cutouts of Thanksgiving paraphernalia started popping up around the Education building.  For some reason, that broke my heart.

Maybe it was because it was my first Thanksgiving away from my family, maybe it was just the cumulative effect of having spent all my days inside a prison for the past 3+ months, but the realization that Education would be closed on Thanksgiving made me cry.  My students and I had all grown pretty attached to our Poetry classes, and the fact that they'd all be alone on Thanksgiving with these depressing paper cornucopias and canned gravy slopped onto their trays in the chow hall--and I couldn't even come in to teach our class--suddenly it was just too much to bear.

The Artist Facilitator at San Quentin, with whom I worked closely, said to me: "Claire, there are 6,000 sad stories in this prison.  You can't carry them all around."  His advice worked--it sort of snapped me out of it--and over the past 8 years, I've kept his advice in mind and been much better about detachment.  It's true: everyone has a sad story.  Especially prisoners.  I wouldn't be able to teach there if every one of their stories lodged into my heart.

And yet, occasionally one does.

I'm pretty tough.  I don't ask my students why they're incarcerated at San Quentin, and frankly, I don't really care.  I'm there to be a teacher.  Of course, given that I'm teaching poetry, their stories often come out.  Still, I take my red pen and mark up their poems just as I would if they were privileged university students.  They're there to learn.

But for the past two years, I've had this one student, O.  He's 23 now, which means he was just 21 when he joined my class.  He's tiny, and he has those you-can-spot-em-anywhere prison tats blotched on his arms, behind his right ear.  And he's a phenomenal poet.  He's especially into the female confessional poets, and his own writing has come so far that he's ready to send his poems off to journals.

O was arrested at 16 for robbery and taken to California's notorious Youth Authority (juvenile prison).  He was incarcerated there until he was 20.  When he was released, he went back to his mom and stepdad's house in Fresno.  His stepdad had recently been laid off from his job at a cattle farm, and was scrambling for jobs to pay the bills.  It wasn't working, so he and O headed up to Napa County to work in the fields during the marijuana harvest season.

Federal agents caught them in the fields and shot his stepfather, who was standing beside O.  His stepfather died immediately, and the agents arrested 21-year-old O for cultivating marijuana and possession of a firearm.

He came to San Quentin.  And he's set to be released later this week.  And I'm nervous as hell.

In California, state prisoners have to parole to the county of their last legal address.  O will go back to Fresno, where his family lives.  His mother has struggled since her husband was killed by federal agents and her son was taken to prison in one fell swoop.  All the kids he got in trouble with in his teens--they still live in that same neighborhood.  And let's not forget how institutionalized O is by this point; he's hardly seen the outside of a prison since he was 16.

Who's going to give him a job?  Rent him an apartment?

There's a part of me that strongly believes that we're all accountable for every decision we make.  Actually, all of me believes that.  But when you grow up with family members in the Mexican cartel, as O did, and you experience the drug trade as a normalcy--how are you supposed to learn otherwise?  At what age do you become responsible for teaching yourself better?

I imagine that it's easy for most people to think of prisoners as sociopathic, manipulative monsters.  And some of them are.  But all of them have stories, and crime doesn't occur in a vacuum.  My hope is that people--citizens, voters--are thinking, deeply and critically, about the problem of prisons in our country.  It seems to me that we'd get a lot further as a society if we focused on healing rather than punishment.

Send some positive thoughts toward San Quentin on Friday as O walks out those big iron gates, if you will.  He's got a tough journey ahead.

27 comments:

undomestic chica said...

Oh Claire, this is exactly why I switched to a psychology minor instead of major - I was too afraid of bringing it home with me. These people are so fortunate to have you as their teacher, you're so compassionate and nonjudgmental. I will be keeping O in my thoughts and hope that he doesn't end up back in the system.

Dee Stephens said...

Wow..
Thanks for sharing this story. I'll be saying a prayer for O that he can find the right path and be a stay out of prison.

Ren- Lady Of The Arts said...

Really great post- I admire you for being able to separate your emotions (mostly) and concentrate on your job as a teacher. Obviously the world needs caring people like you.
I would find it very difficult to teach in a prison setting.

Tiffany said...

This just breaks my heart. I will be praying for him for sure. The "justice system" is so screwed up in this country and I think that we all too often forget that each prisoner is a person, with a story. It is so great that you work with the people at San Quentin!

~Tiffany
http://tiffanyd22.blogspot.com

Meghan said...

I will say a prayer for O. It boggles my mind how few services there are for released inmates to try and transition to life outside of prison. I so agree with you - if this is how one grows up, then how can we expect them to understand?

Krystal said...

I wish him the best. This is not totally the same, but I read a book called 'monstor' from an ex gang member, and it talks about a lot of these things...it's really interesting!

Lesley said...

what a well written post claire. i am always impressed by your empathy for people that so many of us can't relate to or understand. i am very proud of you for doing everything you can to educate others and for being so strong. love you.

Megan said...

Wow, I really hope that he can see positivity and hope when he comes out. I would be thinking lots about him, too.

Lacey in the City said...

Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. I will definitely be directing positive vibes toward San Quentin and will think of O as he adjusts back into unincarcerated life.

Meri said...

I think a lot of us don't WANT to take a deeper look when it comes to sociology, which is really sad. Thanks for this "thinker" of a post. We could all be a little more compassionate at times, I think, and more thoughtful.

Erin @ Sassin' Southern Style said...

I'm so proud of what you do.

I'll be thinking of O, it has to be the worst of uphill battles, but he can overcome.

Distract yourself with an $11 top at JCP. ;o)

Happiness Is... said...

This is why I work in public education. It is a sad fact to me that we build prisons based on African American male illiteracy rates. If all children have access to an effective teacher, the country would be in such a better place.

Praise you for fighting the good fight.

Mrs. Monologues said...

Girl, this post is beautiful. You are so right, not everyone is a horrible criminal, people do make mistakes and learn from them. It is sad to see that our state does not help more with rehabilitation and set them up for success.

Thank you for doing a job that so many others, including myself would be terrified to do.

heather said...

i am definitely sending good thoughts. xxxx

Deals, Steals and Heels said...

saying a prayer for this young man...i took a class in college on the sociology of deviant behavior, and it made me a lot more aware of the problems with the american penal system. between that and watching some shows, and reading a memoir or 2 about women's prisons...i'm no expert, but i know that adjusting to life on the inside does NOT make it easy to adjust back to life on the outside.

i think you're awesome for doing what you do =)

Gracie said...

Oh Claire, I really feel for you. I think you are an amazing teacher and I think it's great that even though you have to detach yourself you still feel for your students. I really pray and hope for O as he is released. x

Amanda said...

What a great saying, yet what a terribly sad story. I can see why this would break your heart, but do not fret. Even if he's going to be in a bad location, it might not be so bad for him. I'll be thinking positively that it all works out.

Micaela said...

This absolutely breaks my heart. I will keep O in my prayers.

I love you for making a difference in this world. We need more hearts like you.

xo

Leesh said...

I recall a twitter conversation you had with another blogger, how when it's a serious post, no one comments. Well, look...I see people have commented.

This story made me tear. I worry for him when he leaves. It will be difficult to get his life back together and I hope that he doesn't fall back into a bad trap.

You are making a difference in this world, just like Micaela says. I admire what you do for a living.

meghan said...

I can't imagine how difficult it must be to have to know that they all have stories and then not to be able to internalize them. I worked for a bit at a title 1 school in atlanta and was told similar things about not letting their stories get inside of me. I couldn't imagine living in a world where Christmas wasn't exciting, because it meant no breakfasts and lunches at school and no stability. You really are a wonderful person for doing what you do, and I guess you can only hope that O remembers what he's learned in school during his time and is hopefully motivated to stay out of trouble. I'm so sorry that there's no answer. I wish there was.

Katie Price said...

Can I just say, Wow. What a story. Thank you for sharing a little glimpse into something that is so easy to overlook. I really hope that O is able to make it in Fresno and doesn't immediately get hooked back in to the same life.

What a great first post to read. I love finding blogs that talk about real life!

drollgirl said...

oof. i feel for o. i hope he will be ok. i do not have great advice for him, but i hope he finds a way that he can make a living and stay out of prison.

i am not sure what else to say/write here, but here goes:

i have an ex that made a LOT of mistakes that resulted in a LOT of jail time. he has been clean and sober for about 10 years without any arrests, which is kind of a major accomplishment for someone that was in so much trouble in the past. he isn't a saint, and he has technically paid his dues to society, but getting a job isn't easy. and getting a GOOD job isn't easy at all, as your past is always discoverable, and most employers don't want to take chance on a thug or a former thug. he also hates that he can't vote. it sucks. i understand accountability and punishment, but sometimes one wonders where the line(s) should be drawn. these are not easy issues. not at all.

hoping for the best for o. i hope hope hope he will be ok.

kimberly rae said...

thanks for posting this.

im just finishing up my fifth year teaching in the south bronx and in that time ive had a few students sent to jail for various crimes, the most serious of which being murder. its interesting to think that i was a part of their story before they went to jail and there are people like you who come into their lives when they're there.

i was JUST talking about how sad it is for these kids who really are a product of their environments and yes, they need to be held accountable for their decisions but i wish that as a society we cared MORE and didn't just look at people behind bars as lost causes.

i'm glad O (and all your students) have someone like you in their lives and knowing someone cares could just be the thing that makes a difference in their lives after prison.

Kristen said...

I just want you to know you make me so proud to "know" you. The work you do, your heart, your compassion, your open-mind, your dedication...
I've always wished this, but even more so now that I have Quinn... I wish more people in the world looked at things like you do. Looked at people like you do. I think this world would be a better place.

I will be thinking of O and praying he is given a chance, a fair shot, to live his life outside the walls of San Quentin.

Marz said...

This is one of my favourite posts you have ever written (and I have a ton of "Claire" favourites). I think you even talked about O on our girls trip in CA. It's been five days since O has been out and I'm praying he is doing well out in this world. I'm definitely adding him to my prayer list. If everything in this world happens for a reason, there was a reason he ended up in San Quentin and crossed paths with you. I pray that if he ever finds himself in a bad situation, he will think of you and the things you've taught him and make wise decisions. You influence these men in ways you might not even know. They are so lucky there are people like you on their team to give them a voice. Love you Claire! You are amazing! xo

sheba said...

i hope O will be ok out there. thank you for sharing his story.

melifaif said...

Wow! By chance, are you keeping in touch with O? I would love to know how he is doing. What a great feeling that must be!?! Yet so scary that his chance of ending up in trouble again are high. Best of luck to him...