Monday, May 21, 2007

A One-Legged Prisoner and Robert Frost

As a teacher of inmates at a state prison, I strive to create an environment in my work area that is different from the rest of the institution. I have a genuine concern for these men, and in my vocation I not only teach academics, but I try to be a positive role model, and I try to treat each inmate with dignity and respect. That, in my opinion, is part of their education as well. How can you learn how to treat others with dignity and respect if you rarely see it modeled in the way others treat you? I bring to the job compassion and a sense of humor, and I try to share that with everyone - staff and inmates. Sometimes, though, it's simply sad to work at a place where human beings are like cattle in cages. Here is an excerpt from my journal about a prison moment which I hope will give you a bit of illumination about the strange world called Prison:

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Oftentimes I watch from the glass door of my building at the prison as inmates walk by, and I am sad for them. Some look invalid or mentally challenged (we would have said retarded, when I was a boy). This afternoon I was in the library, and I noticed a paperback of Robert Frost’s poems and The Best American Poetry of 2003 stacked on a desk. An inmate had just checked them out and was waiting to take them. He was a young-looking guy with a sad looking face, made sadder by scars tracing here and there a story of some past trauma.

I pointed to the Frost book and said, “Good choice.” He told me he likes to write the poems out and send them to his girlfriend. His voice was a bit shaky and rang of mental slowness. He reached down, for some reason, and popped off a prosthesis that was most of his left leg, and he began unscrewing something on it -- some sort of adjustment, I suppose.

As he put his artificial leg back on, I asked, “You like poetry?” Again, he explained, like I should have understood the first time, "I like to write it out and send it to my girlfriend." I wondered about what kind of girl would wait for transcribed Robert Frost poems from a crippled prisoner with a badly scarred face. I wondered what he had done to be in prison. I felt deep sadness at the pain that this young man has obviously been through, and I wondered about the pain through which he had put others.

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