People in pods don’t live with a lot of exposure to the sky. Some don’t see the great blue or grey for months at a time. But sunlight still radiates from the faces of the seven students and I'm happy to start another semester at Words Without Walls. I’m working with seven female strangers this time. No one it sits outside of the semi-circle, comprised of two male teachers and seven female students. The male and female division is something important at the jail; incarcerated men are not to be on the floor at the same time as women and vice versa. I am this concern to the clucked, tucked just behind my red, hot, floppy, ears.
Everyone in the room makes light shadows with our bodies from the florescents. The air here feels stale, it feels suffocating. It always feels tight. I worry, still, that simply being a male presence means my students and I will have a poorer connection. I worry that I serving my worries as an entree in their home. I worry I have predicted a self-fulfilling prophecy doomed for fruition.
I never stop worrying. That's just me.
Jonny's semester number four: I’m going over the nuts and bolts of the class, the same spiel from the last three semesters. Please feel comfortable, please sign the publishing contract, if you wish to see a physical embodiment from this work. No we do not profit from publishing your work. It is an economical loss but a spiritual gain, gain, gain. My men’s classes with Taverna were smooth, just like this. Except this time, we start off answering questions about general feelings. I check for understanding and curiosities, we introduce ourselves. Nicki, Ciara, Tiasia, Olivia, Joanie, Anna, Lauren, Jonny, and Dakota. I’m certain we’ve all gotten used to being introduced: “Hi there. Hello. What’s your name? What do you do? Weather.” It’s all small talk. But this is deeper. This is “what do you like to write about?”
It so closely relates to, “what do you love?” And in a world more and more devoid of togetherness, this is what makes Words Without Walls what it is.
The single desk chairs are close against the wall, near the door with the security button. The same security button we keep pressing and saying “TEACHER” at to make the doors unlock. I don’t like the lady students being lined up against the wall. Please come a little closer, I say. The firing squad feeling was getting to me, I say. We laugh, and I'm glad most of us are on the same black humor page. The women wear what look like red medical scrubs, sandals with socks or crocs and socks, wristbands showing their number, tinier versions of the men's clothing. The light glares against flyers tagged on the wall: “REASONS TO GET YOUR GED”; “WHAT CAREER BEST SUITS YOU?”; “JAILHOUSE POETS FIND VOICE IN WRITING COURSE.”
The prompt we’ve assigned asks everyone to find things we have in common with people in the room. Who says “soda” versus “pop,” who says “y’all” versus “you all” versus “yinz” versus whatever. We screech desks and move around. It feels freeing to stir the stagnant air. I feel great with one-on-one conversation, and I know I could have used a little more of that when I was first learning how to write. I’m talking with a younger student who says “y’all” just like me. We go the usual route: Hello; What’s you name; What do you do. We land on where are you from and break through small talk.
“I went to undergrad at WVU,” I say.
“Oh yeah? You know Sapphire’s? I used to dance there,” she says. She used to work at gentleman’s club in Morgantown, right off the Mileground road. It makes sense that she and I both say “y’all.” I’m pretty familiar with Sapphire’s, and we laugh about that. She’s proud and open about it, a refreshing way to talk about stripping. Her white eyes and teeth pop from the contrast of a dark complexion, from smiling wide and making full eye contact with everyone in the room. Her honey brown eyes are friendly and her black braids tie loose, free. Pieces of kitchen curl around her scalp and at her ears. While I don’t fully understand the life of someone who gets naked for strangers, I respect her openness, her courage.
My co-teacher is a beautiful person. And I’m not thinking of his full green eyes or the James Deanish black pompadour against his white skin. And yeah, I think contrast in faces is pretty, but that’s not it. He’s uniquely minded. He’s intimidatingly aware of the marginalization in this world and has an androgynous air about the way he deals with issues. He’s a calming presence, he’s organized, he really pushes for clarity and great lyrical language and, well, beauty. Sometimes I feel like he’s like the embodiment of my every weakness channeled into strength. Maybe I'm just generally in love with people, and that's why I want them to like me, and be liked, all the time.
As an icebreaker, and to ease into the frightful and fun process of creating, Dakota asks us to give each other nicknames, and to remember to be kind. He wants us to think about how we would label each other. Ciara, a woman who's been shuffling her feet since we sat down, is excited to volunteer first, as if she’d been thinking about this for a long time. She has open body language, inviting and expressive hands.
“Let’s see, you’re Butterfly,” she says to the former Sapphire dancer. She says it with the warmth of a long-time friend. “You… you can be IQ,” she says to another girl with coke bottle glasses. Most of the class laughs. I make my first “teacher frown.” I’ll never understand why being smart or looking intelligent is funny. To Dakota: “Divalicious,” she says with a grin. I think she can sense his feminine energy from day one, and I can tell she respects it. She is brave enough, she is comfortable enough on day one, to notice it and remark positively on who he is.
“Romeo,” she says to me. A burst of air makes my lips rattle. I laugh. Romeo, please. I’m pretty flattered, even if it's confusion getting the best of her. That’s definitely the first “Romeo” I’ve ever gotten. I'm thinking I'm usually “nice guy” or “big awkward dinosaur” or “creep,” “dumby,” “idiot,” sometimes “asshole.”
Dakota says that while these name-games are fun exercises, and we become closer for them, labeling is part of what’s wrong with the world. To give labels sometimes is to take away the power. To me, giving a label to something sometimes means that we wrongly assume. We are simply typing a sequence of letters to give it understanding. Is that really enough?
We start on the writing prompt: “I liked us better when…”
Ciara says hey Romeo to me in the middle of our prompt, and as I'm walking over to her, I get lost in another one of those daydreams I have. ADD's fun to live with, sometimes.
If I saw Ciara outside of this place, you know, in the weather, beyond these barren grey ceilings, I imagine she’d choose to wear gold hoops, not silver. She’s wear a top that’s something loose and elegant, folds in the shirt like her laughlines. The shirt shines, not shimmers, on a rare day of Pittsburgh light. You have to catch the sun while you can, here. Maybe she’s wearing some purple eyeshadow. She’d be with a group of her girlfriends laughing. I think I know she has them. She’d nod to me, and her expression would say “I’m alright, Romeo.” I catch myself imagine-predicting her, labeling her, just after our discussion. Haven't I learned anything? And then I try to reason with myself: I’m not being malicious, right? I hope to never be. Maybe there isn’t any barrier like I thought, after all, and I’m just thinking too hard about everything. Maybe we’re very similar beings with different responses and premonitions and that’s good enough. Maybe labeling, at least when it’s done out of necessity or kindness or the hope of understanding another human being, is simply all that we are capable of doing, for now.
“You know how sometimes, you’re never gonna forget something?” she asks. I’m elated. She’s thinking deeply about the prompt, I think. Back to imagining, back to my other planet.. Yeah, she’s got something great to say about being from two different races, or she’s about to really open up to everyone, or she’s decided to talk about something funny to say about the times she was working as a beautician. I bet she's going to really knock a poem out of the park. She looks like a poet for sure. And I wonder why I feel like a goofy dinosaur sometimes.
“What are you writing about?” I ask.
“No,” she says. "Not the writing. I mean, I’m never going to forget today. This class,” she says.
I try not to cry. I succeed. I say: awesome. But I mean something bigger, entirely greater than that.