It is our last day of class and Nicki walks in. Her black hair sits high on her head in a thick pony-tail. The first time I met Nicki I told her, “You look like Sandra Bullock.” To which, Nicki leaned back in her chair and said, “Yeah, I know. Julia Roberts, too.”
Nicki smiles and greets the other students in the room. I try to hide the surprise illuminating my face. Nicki hasn’t been in class for weeks. I overhear her tell the other students she’s been too depressed to leave her cell, to do anything. She says she finds out tomorrow if she is getting released or sent up state.
When we make eye contact Nicki smiles and blushes.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” my co-teacher Alison Taverna says.
Nicki shrugs. She walks to the front of the room, and sees all the students’ work printed out and in piles. As I pass out course evaluations and explain the anthology MFA graduate student Tony Ciotoli is organizing, Nicki pours over her classmate’s words. She touches the poems and paragraphs printed on clean and crisp sheets of paper.
“How did y’all fix the computers?” she asks.
“We didn’t,” I say, “I typed up everyone’s work at home.”
In a flash Nicki is at one of the many monitors that line the room. She finds her previously saved work, starts copying her words down from the screen and onto notebook paper. She looks over her shoulder and asks me if I will type up her poems, too. I say yes, “Give me as many as you want.”
Truth is Nicki, who never shares, whose voice shakes, who can’t always maintain eye contact unless she’s telling a joke, writes the realest shit I’ve ever read. I missed her the weeks she didn’t come bobbing down the hall. I couldn’t help but feel hurt when she refused to come write and read with us week after week. I felt I had done something wrong—Alison and I weren’t the teachers she’d wished for. It never occurred to me (the graduate student who after class gets to go home, sauté garlic and asparagus, boil a pot for tea, and smoke cigarettes on the front porch) that Nicki had a good reason not to show up. It wasn’t that our teaching, writing prompts, or poems weren’t good enough. It wasn’t that Alison or I had failed her.
You see, Nicki is a writer.
Sometimes getting to the root of the thing is too much to face. Especially when you're waiting to learn whether or not you're getting time served. Sometimes writing about your childhood, or reading Sharon Old’s “I Go Back to May 1937” loosens up all that pain inside you.
But you or me? We get to go home.
We get to call our mom’s to say we’re sorry. We get to write and write about what aches, and then we get to go sit in the sun. A poem that awakens the soul, the kind that kicks up all the dark particles clinging at the bottom of your gut, is cathartic to us on outside. On the inside—when a piece of writing touches you, when a lesson stirs some memory that you’ve kept shoved down for months and months—there is no counselor to talk to, no phone to call mom. There’s an empty cell and your head.
This is what our students face every time the CO comes to open the door. They shuffle back up the stairs with composition notebooks in hand. The words, poems, sentences, and images stacking up behind their eyes are theirs alone. But they come back to us. They turn in scrawled pages. They stand in the front of the room and recount their pain. They speak their truth in a place where freedom is no longer a lofty concept or privilege, but a missed reality. They give us their words after everything else has been taken away from them.
You see, Nicki is a writer. She’s been in her cell for nearly a month, scribbling in a notebook, too depressed to leave her pod, and on the last day of class she hands me a fistful of poems.
The class continues. The five women I’ve learned to love fill out a questionnaire about the “effectiveness” of our course. They ask if Alison and I will be teaching them again and when we answer no, they protest with fervor. Sam, the youngest student, younger than me at 25, simply cannot believe it. She is our most prolific writer and often reimagines herself at different ages and perspectives. She claims she never signed up for the class, and is “terrible at English.”
“I wanted to walk out the first day!” says Sam, “But now I know you guys!”
“You’ll learn to like the new teachers, too,” Alison says.
Our students start thanking us then and suddenly it is me who cannot keep eye contact. I know that they appreciate our class (they show up every week) but they’re defensive about their work, suspect of Alison and my intentions. They don’t believe us when we say we’ll bring in typed rap lyrics or new notebooks. They don’t expect us to ever follow through. But we do, and when we do, they are as grateful as children.
Today, my students are thanking me for being their teacher. I can’t handle it. I fiddle with the computer, nod when I hear them thanking me directly. I start to wish I had done other things in the course: screen writing, watching movies, slam poetry, sustained narrative, and letters. I want to start over. I want to go back to January.
Nicki walks up and hands me yet another paper. She sits at the desk next to me instead of writing at one of the student chairs. Well, she sits on the desk at first. But when she can’t bend down far enough to write, she pulls up a black computer chair. She laughs.
"We had a fire drill and they walked us to the gym. They say the jail is made of concrete so it won’t burn. But the jail is sinking into the ground,” Nicki says, “It’s going to fall right into the river. We’re going to drown first.”
Sabrina—a student whose spoken words sound like prophecy, who seems to validate everyone with whom she comes into contact—scoots up to my desk, too and continues filling out the class evaluation. They talk about the fire drill. They talk about their upcoming court dates. They say words like pods, upstate, release, stuck, out, time, waiting, home, home, home, and good luck. I sit between them and listen. I say I am sorry.
The correctional officer on duty walks in. I’ve never met him before. He opens the classroom door and leans in. He’s tall and wide.
“Get back behind the line!” he says.
He points to Nicki and Sabrina.
I look down. Red tape, thick and peeling, lines the perimeter of the room. My desk, the computer, the chalkboard, the podium all stand behind it. Since January, I’ve been setting up my students’ desks in circles. I’ve had them gather around the computer. I’ve touched their shoulders.
Never have I noticed this bleeding red line.
Nicki gets up and moves to her “designated” side of the classroom.
Sabrina stops writing and looks at me.
“Kindness ain’t easy.”
-Brittany Hailer, Teacher