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Writing Poems in Prison

“Wiggle your toes,” I said.

 

Ahmeze laughed nervously.

 

“Come on, try it,” I implored.

 

He took a deep breath, then proceeded.

 

The assignment was simple – write a poem, one page or less, and incorporate at least one of the plants we’ve learned this semester. You see, every week when I teach horticulture, I bring a USB with me that has a PowerPoint slide that contains our “Plant of the Week.” The students look at pre-loaded images of a plant – its flowers, leaf shape, and habit, then are asked to memorize its scientific name, common name, and family name. For many of these students, this is their first experience with Latin, so we repeat the correct pronunciation until their lips find the correct shapes required to say “Chaenomeles speciosa” three times fast. The idea behind this task is two-fold: 1) to help them understand and know the natural world around them and 2) to practice their memorization skills. Furthermore, they get a genuine kick out of knowing the plants they see on TV: “Wait, so those big blooming things in the background at The Masters are azaleas?!”

 

Before I introduced our assignment on poetry and plants, I asked for those who had ever written poetry before to raise their hand; maybe three went up. I walked them through a couple different forms of poetry with accompanying examples – odes, epics, haikus, limericks. I then gave them some time to sit and write and much to my dismay, the nineteen 17-year-olds I had that day did not sit quietly and think deep poetic thoughts as I hoped they would – they immediately started talking and goofing off. Half of them didn’t even have a pen or pencil to write with, let alone paper. I asked those who had to share with those who had not. The 15 minutes dragged by slowly, and looking around, I saw that maybe three students had written anything at all. I extended our writing time saying, “I can be here all day if we need to, but each of you will have to write something and get up here and present.” Finally, the rowdier students got the hint and reluctantly began to write. They’d been locked in their dorm for two weeks with no access to programming and little time outside their single-man cells. Who could blame them for being nearly uncontrollable? They are 17 after all.

 

The students in the front row began first. Each young man was asked to stand up, tell us their name, and the title of their poem. The students would be grading each other and I would average their scores together. Afterwards, they were to turn their poems in to me.

 

From middle school until I was a freshman in college, my face was scarred with acne. Having acne as a teenager makes you want to be invisible, to hide behind masks and remain unseen. Speaking in front of others is a nightmare – you think they’re all going to be looking at your face rather than hearing the words you say. When I was that acne-ridden child, all I wanted to be, most of the time, was unseen, unheard, and unnoticed. I know how terrifying it is to have to stand in front of a room and project confidence when you are everything but assured.

 

Many of these young men I teach feel the same way. They are functionally illiterate. Their faces bear scars and tattoos. They don’t get these tattoos because they’re tough or they think they look good – they get these tattoos because they help them form a mask. If I have an ice cream cone tattooed on my cheek you might not notice my missing teeth – teeth that my father knocked out, teeth that rotted away from methamphetamine use. If I get tear drops tattooed underneath my eyes you might think I’m violent and be scared to have a conversation with me. If I cover my face in ink to make me look like a clown, you might not notice the pain that hides behind my eyes, the sadness that permeates my soul. People look like strange freaks not to stand out, but to make you purposefully look away or avoid them.

 

I knew the task ahead – standing in front of their peers and reading a poem – would terrify many of my students. I was insistent though. One day, no matter how long their sentence, I believe each of them will stand before a Parole Board representative and have to speak for themselves. I want them to be prepared, to have the confidence that they have spoken in front of others before and can do it again, especially when their freedom and future is on the line.

 

The first few students struggled mightily. We applauded their efforts, nonetheless. One student, Charlie, read his poem quietly. It wasn’t that good if we’re being honest. But at home that evening, I noticed he had written another poem, except this one was crossed out.

 

Charlie is a quiet kid, the others make fun of him for his genial nature and tall, lanky, string-bean appearance. He’s constantly picked on and the butt of many a joke. I doubt Charlie has ever had anyone tell him he’s good at anything. He’s got a heart of gold though. The scratched out poem was titled “It’s a Beifull [sic] Day.”

 

I stand here alone

All on my own

Not much to say

But How is your

         day

 

After a few more poems, I called a timeout and shared with them a story my mom had told me. A couple years ago, Amy Grant fell off her bike and suffered a horrific traumatic brain injury. She had to relearn the lyrics to her songs, the very songs she had written and performed for decades. She was asked to speak at the White House during her recovery. She was terrified. One piece of advice she was given by Sheryl Crow was that when nervous on stage, focus on wiggling your toes; it’ll distract you and make you forget about the crowd in front of you.

 

The room fell silent. Every young man sitting before me was wiggling his toes. A few seconds later, a collective burst of laughter broke out, “Mr. Spencer, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” I couldn’t help but laugh too.

 

We continued with the poems. Another excerpt, this one from Cole.

 

The Southern Magnolia is a significant tree

See it has beauty to share from its flowers to its leaves

It’s a tree that helps people believe

That nature is for every human being.

 

Towards the end, one student outright refused to present. I told him that was fine, that we could sit and wait. “I don’t have another class after this til 7 PM, so we’ve got 5.5 hours to kill, buddy.” He was adamant. He would not go. We sat and waited. Some of the other students began to cajole him - they had phone calls to make back in the dorm, shows to watch. I folded my arms over my chest and leaned back on the table, seemingly carefree and in no hurry. I thought back to our previous class with a different group of juveniles a year ago. Hagan had refused to present, just like this young man. We waited just like we were now. Finally, Hagan got up to speak, glaring me down menacingly. He read his poem and received a much-unexpected vigorous round of applause. His poem was beautiful and heartfelt, recounting the memory of a lost love through the lens of a bee looking for his queen. His classmates voted it as the best poem that year. Hagan went on to graduate as our class salutatorian. This year, he was quick to present his poem and once again received a rousing round of applause afterwards. He ended this year’s poem like so:

 

A lot of stuff doesn’t make sense

Plants grow, Flowering Quince

Shout out my favorite teacher

Mr. Spence

 

I’m frequently asked if I would ever consider changing careers. Get out of here. I mean, come on.

 

But back to the class. The student who refused to budge, Dery, was fuming. He finally asked if he could go last, and I replied, “Only if you promise to present.” He agreed.

 

The class clown got up next to read. I knew to check his paper first, and sure enough, it had several vulgar phrases and two different gang references. I took a pen and marked through the parts that were inappropriate, then took a quick look-over, thinking it just might work. He looked at the paper and said, “Mr. Spence, you took out too much. I can’t read this.” I told him he wrote it, so he would have to read it. He began, stammered, then uttered a croak of sorts. He stopped.

 

“Wiggle your toes,” I said.

 

Ahmeze began reading once more.

 

“The roses are blue.”

 

He threw the paper down.

“This wiggling thing isn’t working!”

 

I stood next to him to reassure him, “You can do it.”

 

The roses are blue

My mom told me don’t rob

Just be good

It wasn’t no love

Coming out the hood

 

Ain’t got that long

I’m on the way home

I steal a lot

I just can’t help it

 

She said she love me

I never felt it

 

I was in kinder garden [sic]

Ain’t know my ABCs

Now I’m 17

 

He paused, sheepishly looking up. His classmates were smiling, ready to applaud him. He beamed. I told him, “See, when you take out all the mess, all the dirtiness, there’s good there.” He nodded his head, genuinely listening to – and believing – me. He walked on clouds back to his desk.

 

It was time for Dery to go. He’s a heavier kid, one of the very few Hispanic kids in his dorm, thus, a target. He read a three-line poem; I can’t remember it verbatim, but the last line mentioned “I hope for all of us to go home.” His classmates whooped and hollered. I gave him a big pat on the shoulder and thanked him for sticking with it. He refused to give me his copy of the poem. I think he was proud of it and wanted to keep it for himself.

 

E. A. Robinson described poetry as “language which tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said.”

 

Most of these kids have never read Aulden or Byron or Frost. They know how to express their emotions through violence. Fists replace words. They’re repeating behaviors that are learned. Their music, movies, and video games extol the virtues of robbery, gambling, vice, and murder. Through a little horticulture class that meets once a week, we can show them so much more, goodness, beauty, Christ’s love, Southern Magnolias, Flowering Quinces.

 

Anne Lamott writes of a priest who says, “Sometimes, Heaven is just a new pair of glasses.”

 

For these boys, my hope and prayer is that we can play a role, however small it is, in helping them find those new pair of glasses and see the world – and themselves – differently. To see themselves as image bearers of the Creator.

 

Thanks for reading along and have a blessed day.

 

Spencer

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