With three Friday morning classes at the ACJ now under my belt, I can say a few things for certain. One of those things: I will never stop being surprised.
Appropriately, the overarching theme for our class is “expectations.” Each morning as the men arrive, they spend the first part of class free-writing on words related to expectations: disappointment, freedom, love. We read pieces about expectations. We discuss our own.
And every day, at least one thing happens that completely amazes me. In our second class, we gave them an exercise – to write as if they were lying in bed, using all of their senses except sight. The first student to share had me completely confused as he read about how it felt to lie there every night with a man sleeping on top of him. He was halfway through his piece when I realized that he wrote the entire exercise from the perspective of his own mattress in his cell, a possibility I had never even considered. Most of the men who write poetry are also interested in hip-hop and rap lyrics, so we brought “The Violent Space” by Etheridge Knight, a poem with rhyme and rhythm similar to the poetry and lyrics that they write. They told me they preferred the Billy Collins piece, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991” from the week before – that they loved Collins’ metaphors, and the fact that his mind could go so many places when he was just sitting at his typewriter. I hear frustration – how can they describe scenery like that when all they can see are these four walls?
I’m slowly realizing how much we have in common. We ask them why they want to write, and they tell us they want to inspire people, to share their struggles. We ask how writing is going, they tell us they’re struggling to find the right words, to talk about love and make someone understand how deep the feeling goes, how their story is different than any other story. They say that metaphors escape them, that nothing seems to express exactly what they want their readers to feel.
Me too, I say.
“Expectation is the root of all heartache,” said William Shakespeare. We started class with this quote – something to think about, to write about, to agree or disagree with. Nothing against Shakespeare, but I disagree. So far, my expectations have been upended again and again, and I couldn’t appreciate it more.
-Jamie Wyatt, Teacher