Learning Lessons the Hard Way

This week I planted a Roma tomato in our postage-stamp front yard. It’s in a container. I’m watering it when the rain isn’t. I planted nasturtiums around the base. Maybe I’ll get sweet basil tucked into another pot. The tomato plant was given to me by Trish, who’d reared it in her hothouse. Trish used to be a federal worker in D.C., but escaped to West Virginia for a quieter, purer, harder life. Now she lives on a 234-acre organic farm.

I met Trish through Carol. Carol lives in a little house up the holler from Trish. Carol invited me to lead writing workshops for a week at two nearby prisons—one federal, one state. Carol lived and worked for 17 years in a homeless shelter with a population larger than the federal facility we are visiting. Since 1998, she’s been directing Hope House—running summer camps inside prisons to maintain relationships between incarcerated dads and their kids.
Driving on West Virginia’s back roads, I saw billboards supporting the coal industry, flags at half-mast for the 29 miners killed at Big Branch, school buses and logging trucks, loons and Little Blue Herons along the North River, and precipitous rock faces of 500-million-year-old Catoctin greenstone. Tucked in the hills was the prison.
Twenty-five men were waiting, each eager to discuss Ernest Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in 1940s rural Louisiana. Carol arranged for me to be the visiting humanities scholar with funding from Humanities Council of D.C.’s “Big Read” program. A hundred copies of Gaines’ book were delivered to a prison with 1,200 men.
I based our writing assignment on the opening line of Gaines’ book: “I was not there, yet I was there.” Write about something that happened when you were not present, I told the class, but that really affected you. Heads down. Pens scraping away in composition notebooks.
“The Professor” detailed a history of the Southern Freedom Riders who integrated the bus system in D.C., making it possible for him to travel wherever he wanted to go. “Slim” wrote about how proud he was when President Obama was elected, and how mad he was at himself that he couldn’t go to the inauguration because he was incarcerated. “I can’t believe I’m wasting my life like this,” William said after hearing Slim read. Not there, yet there. Not there when a grandmama died, when daddy had a heart attack, when a precious baby girl was born.
In lively discussion, the men struggled over whether Jefferson, a main character whose unjust murder conviction landed him on death row, was a “victim of circumstance” or “just made a bad choice.”
“We keep saying that Jefferson was simple or retarded or slow or stupid,” said Nasir, his back up against the window, warm light pouring over his shoulders, “and that’s why he did those things that ended him up in jail. But we did the same things! We made the same choices. And we aren’t stupid or simple or slow.”
Each one connected to a character in the story. What were the choices he had made? How do you build up enough strength to make new choices when the same old situations arise on the outside? One man expressed his anger at the character of Rev. Ambrose, who peddles hope on Sunday morning, which fades by Sunday night. “It never leads to change,” he challenged. “What kind of hope is that?” It’s a perilous question for a man serving a life sentence.
Back in the city at the end of the week, I sat on my front steps watching Trish’s tomato grow. I’m outside. Beyond the thick walls, rolled razor wire, and guard towers; beyond the constant click of a door-lock release, the smell of disinfectant, security cameras, and men stepping back against the wall as I walk past them. Knowing that we are going to die, probes Gaines in A Lesson, how then should we live?
Carol called today. The men at the federal prison asked—and were granted permission—to start a writing group.
Rose Marie Berger, author of the new book Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood (available at store.sojo.net) is a Sojourners associate editor.

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