IN MY TWO HANDS
THE GUARD LED me into a tiny room. "Just knock when you're ready to leave," he told me as he exited, locking the door behind him. I turned my back to the door's huge window of glass and sat down on one sideof the room's single small table. E.T.'s hefty frame already filled the flimsy plastic chair on the table's other side. E.T. had turned 17 five days before and his T-shirted body was certainly man-sized, but as I looked at his short-cropped hair and his pained eyes, what I saw was the little boy E.T. must once have been.
I didn't know E.T. when he was a little boy, but I have known him since he was 15. E.T. was a student at the continuation high school where I have been teaching poetry. For over two months, though, he's been here at Juvenile Hall, charged with murder.
Guards, glass-filled doors, young men and murder. How have these prison particulars assumed such a prominent place in my life? Middle-aged, middle-class, white, Jewish good-girl--I'm always teased or put down for how scrupulously I follow the rules. Even people who love me laugh at how often I close my eyes at the movies: scenes of violence seem to shake my whole being into some different internal shape.
Despite this aversion, my life has been filled with--and my heart deeply touched by--people who have participated in real, not celluloid, violence. From 1985 through 1989, I taught poetry at San Quentin on a California Arts Council residency grant. For the past two years I have been CAC Artist-in-Residence at the East Bay continuation high school where I met E.T....
E.T. was in front of me now, his hands shaping a V on the table between us. He described the two roads he feels always forking before him. "I'm trying to live with faith. But," now it was E.T.'s left hand moving, "I sometimes fall back, feel it's too hard, not worth it. I'm tempted again by this wrong road."
E.T. knew he might well be on his way to Youth Authority or prison, and he thought of this possible future with dread. Still, he felt that he was being given a spiritual second chance. Now in this small walled-in-glass room, E.T. searched for words that would accurately convey what he was feeling. He looked down at his two hands on the table, then up at me. "How am I going to stay on this right road here, at this place, where some inmates tick you off and you're put in a situation where you could end up with more time on your hands?"
This world behind bars isn't my world. But as my life has brought me in as a witness, I've noticed that surviving (both physically and spiritually) a long prison sentence demands exactly what E.T. described: Developing the capacity to observe one's responses rather than reacting with habitual emotion. As I listened I also was thinking that in prison, this demand is made of those who are apparently least equipped for the task.
For E.T. knows, I know, we must all know, that although the fact certainly doesn't justify crime, most men behind bars have grown up with multiple strikes against them. Prisons are filled with the consequences of poverty, racism, classism, absent fathers, poor education, limited jobs opportunities, alcohol or drug use. Men in prison have grown up in a country where money is what's most valued and where "being a man" means flaunting power. (San Quentin is an all-male prison and, although I've worked briefly at women's prisons, the prisoners I've known best have been men. In addition to the above list of strikes, many women in prison have suffered a lifetime of literal blows.)
But in front of me now weren't statistics; in front of me now was a very young man. I hugged E.T. upon parting and watched him walk back toward the unit. Then I went out the double locked doors and down the long path leading away from Juvenile Hall.
My eyes were open as I walked, but on some
interior screen I saw a succession of images, heard a spoken-word
sound track. First I saw E.T.'s two hands and heard the words he
had just used to describe his struggle. This image led to
another, an image of a different pair of hands. This pair
belonged to Lynnelle, a woman who had taught visual art on Death
Row for many years. I heard again what Lynnelle had once told me:
"The men that I work with have done horrible things. But in
their work with me they are funny, bright, creative and caring
human beings who often make beautiful art. I can't reconcile
these facts. All I can do is hold them in my two hands." The
next was an image of the face of a friend as she looked straight
into my eyes and demanded: "These guys are murderers;
who cares about their 'spiritual growth'? Do their
In the parking lot I paused for a moment before unlocking my car, staring at one more image on the now-silent screen. What I saw was the image that faced me every day as I walked through the last gate and into San Quentin: There is the Catholic Chapel on my right; over there on my left is Death Row.
As I drove the car onto the freeway, I railed for a moment against Paradox. For I was stunned by E.T.'s honesty and courage and hard work, just as I'd been stunned by the honesty and courage and hard work of so many men at San Quentin. "But why," I inwardly screamed, "does it take serious harm to another human being and a prison sentence before these guys are able to grow up?"
Then I thought of the book I'd just read, Father Greg and The Homeboys. Author Celeste Fremon described Father Greg Boyle's work with Latino gang kids in East LA as "lighting a pilot light." She said he often has to relight each pilot many times before the light stays on.
During my last days at San Quentin, many of my students advised: "Now you have to go work with young people, while they still have a chance, before they come here." I knew that to be able to follow this mandate--in order to have the ability to light pilot lights--I had to strengthen my capacity to hold paradoxical truths in my two hands. For the world my continuation high school students are coming of age in is a harsh one; every choice we're making as a society seems to be at the expense of our children This is true and, at the same time, I know there's no point in working with young people unless I can reflect hope, unless I can be a mirror in which each on sees his or her beauty, special gift.
In one of my first classes at the continuation high school, students--many of them already in trouble with the law--asked me questions about San Quentin. No one wanted to end up in prison, but many thought it likely that they would. I asked if there was anything anyone could say that would make them change their prison-bound behaviors. "No," they told me, "We have to live out our own fates."
I shared this information with one of my former San Quentin students, a man who turned his life around in prison. "They're right," he said. "I wouldn't have listened to anyone's advice when I was their age. But," he counseled, "you still can plant seeds."
I took this image back to my students and they nodded their heads. They talked about the positive messages adults gave them, and the value these had even when they didn't change their immediate behaviors. They made lists of the seeds they felt planted within them and imagined who they might be years down the road when it was time for these seeds to crack open and bloom.
My students seemed to be asking me to find a way to hold hope--to be a source of encouragement and passionate concern--and, simultaneously, to detach, to set them free to follow their fate. Perhaps this is what teen-agers have always asked of adults, but the stakes are higher now. I pulled off the freeway and drove the few blocks towards home and the kid's poems stacked on my desk.
Copyright 1996 by Judith Tannenbaum
Judith Tannenbaum is a Berkeley poet and writer who taught for three years at San Quentin prison under a California Arts Council residency grant.
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