As my final semester winds down, I am spending a lot of time with friends and colleagues. The extended gang of teachers and administrators from Poetry Inside/Out held our end-of-semester meeting yesterday. We read a few poems, shared a meal and much laughter, and generally celebrated our latest successes and my contribution to the program, which is coming to a close.
Departing is such sweet sorrow.
During one of our first meetings in the county jail, one of the men broke down and cried. Considering the strong cultural pressure against crying in contemporary American culture on the outside of prison walls, you can imagine what it’s like to show such emotion in jail. Since then, raw emotions have surfaced many times, and we’ve had an ongoing conversation about crying. Initially, an inmate said, “there’s no crying in jail.” Right away another inmate pointed out that crying was banned from baseball, not jail. In the end, we created a superb mix of humor and tragedy, as if jail were a microcosm for society. Which it is.
Because the conversation extends to an alternative high school and also to the girls’ pods in the county detention facility, we have abundant, and abundantly rich, material. Consider, for example, this bit of writing from a 15-year-old girl about to leave detention for a stint in rehab:
My last words
by Little Cloud
Sadly this’ll probably be the last time you hear from ‘Little Cloud’ for those of you who remember me. But I hope the words I’ve written will have a lasting effect. But this ‘sister’ can only hope. My last words of advice:
1. We may all be badasses but it’s OK to cry
2. Don’t give up, it only takes one voice to change the world
3. Even though we are convicts we still are human
4. You are loved, whether you think so or not, us writing to you proves it
5. Listen, for you never know what good you’ll hear
6. Make a difference just because you can
7. People will forgive, especially when you think they won’t
8. Don’t EVER THINK YOU AREN’T WORTH BEING IN THIS WORLD
10. Keep an open mind because doing so will open worlds you never knew
11. How ever long it will be, one way or another you will be free (especially those of you sentenced to life)
12. You aren’t stupid, retarded or dumb, those people who say you are, are
13. Don’t forget ‘Little Cloud’ Ha Ha :)
14. We all have the right to grow and change
15. No time is wasted, as long as you feel & really learn
I’m crying myself, as I type her words. She’s fifteen years old and already wiser than me, not to mention just about everybody else I know. I suppose hard times will do that for you.
As we wrapped up our potluck lunch, at the request of my co-teacher and mentor, I read this bit from Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keeping Quiet.” It seems fitting, as I step away from one life and move closer to the land:
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
And now, a commercial message from our sponsor: At the request of a former student, I’ll be spending the weekend in Port Isabel, Texas. I’ll be spreading the word at the Port Isabel public library Saturday under the title, “Limits to Growth: Conservation Biology, Economic Growth, and Sustainability in the 21st Century.” If you’re clever and patient, you can scroll down to read about it here. And if you’re in the area, I’d love to visit during my abundant spare time Friday and Saturday. Please join me. We’ll commune with nature, and with each other.