Friday night was our third writing class at Stillwater prison. We are working with offenders at Level 4, one step down from lifers, although we don’t know what they have done and we don’t ask. The group consists of nine men, only two born and raised in Minnesota. Two are Mexican, two are Hmong and one is black. Their ages are hard for me to gauge, nowadays almost everyone seems younger than I, but some are in their twenties and one has grey hair. Four have previously taken writing classes and come to class with folders full of poems and stories that they have written.
We are locked in a classroom, with a dry erase board, and tables formed into a square, but there is a glass window so the guards can watch and we are given “squealers”, small gadgets that fit into our pockets. If we pull the pin, they will emit a high pitched squeal to bring guards running. The outside world disappears, though, as we read, write, and listen. Even shouting in the halls outside our door is tuned out as we concentrate on the magic of creative writing. Their desire to improve their writing is tangible. The first class amazed us with the honesty, self-awareness, and quality of some of the writing. We continue to be amazed with every class.
We can’t meet the third Friday of the month, so I gave them homework. Their assignment was to read an interview by Michael Meade, author of Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul and write on “How to move from Fate to Destiny”. I asked them to write about their backgrounds: their ancestors, family, community, neighborhood, and cultures.
Xee, a young Hmong man and beginner writer, admitted that he struggled with the assignment. He said he asked about 12 men in his cell block what they thought it meant and some told him that they don’t believe in either. He continued, “I got a lot of help in writing this.” before reading his piece. He started with describing his parents fleeing the Laotian war to become refugees. Tears came into my eyes as he described their terror as they fled for their lives. Then he described the culture shock of living in the states, the challenges for the Hmong community as gangs were formed, and how he got swept up in it. He described his transformation while in prison to change and to choose peace. It was a hand written story of eight pages, coherent, articulate, and moving. He shyly smiled while we applauded.
The next piece read was also by a beginner, the other Hmong man, and he wrote about the ceremonies and beliefs around death, mourning and burial of one’s ancestors before tackling the cultural shock of being a refugee. He had us laughing at his shock of being hugged by a little blond girl when he was a child. Again, I was astounded.
And the black writer, with writing experience and a deep melodious voice, wrote a piece that had us on the edge of our seats as he described an ordinary outing for ice cream with his family. The word “nigger” was shouted at them from a moving car, the first time he had ever heard that word, and then he heard a loud popping sound. His mother managed to hustle them home before he realized that she had been shot.
Around the circle, we heard things that are beautiful, moving, terrible, and thoughtful. I told them that I knew this was a hard assignment, and I admired them for tackling it, and tackling it well.
The homework assignment for this week is what it means to be a man: what they were told and what they have since realized. Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Crying Poem is the prompt. I can’t wait to hear what they write.
The teaching assistant and I walk out of the prison shaking our heads at how such bright, articulate men could have ended up here. We know that for some, it was under the influence and youthful arrogance and we also realize we are working with the men who want to change, who want to grow and find meaning in their experience.
The walls dissolve, around us and between us, as we celebrate the power of words to express what is deepest within us: our fears and desires, our longing for circumstances to be different, our realizations that we have to work with what we have, our awareness that we are on a journey, a journey of self-discovery. I feel privileged to be a small part of their journey, as they are part of mine.