It’s never a sure thing, in jail. No matter who is coming to visit, or what is planned for the day, a lockdown stops all movement. John Edgar Wideman writes of his own experience with this in Brothers and Keepers, voicing frustrations about trying to visit his brother at Western Peniteniary. Any number of things could cause a lockdown, and there's nothing you can do about. So their classroom teacher Kristine and I were careful not to get too excited at the prospect of Wideman visiting our class this morning. We hadn’t had a class canceled for lockdown in the entire semester, and here we were, two days before the visit, crossing our fingers.
My students are anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old, being held in an adult jail. While they hold the enthusiasm and imagination that any young mind should, they are also used to being let down, and they probably wouldn’t take it as rough as we did if something came up. Besides, I think Kristine and I were a bit more excited about this than they were. We had both read Brothers and Keepers before meeting each other, so using it as our textbook for the semester seemed like a perfect match.
Our young writers instantly caught on to the book, both from a narrative standpoint—what happened with Robby, and why is he still incarcerated?—to the way Wideman crafted his brother’s voice so truthfully, so much that Robby became more of an author than a main character.
We spent each week reading passages in class, alternating between John and Robby’s voices. Then we wrote creative responses. The passage that stood out to most, I think, was along John’s quest to find out where Robby’s path diverged, revisiting the death of Robby’s friend Garth and its impact on his brother.
A lot of these youngsters have already dealt with more grief than many ever experience in their lives. Most, if not all of them, have had a best friend or sibling pass, and many of them wrote about that in their creative work.
I should probably tell you at this point that it happened—John Edgar Wideman visited our class today. He brought nothing but his mind and voice, but that was more than enough to fill the room with great wisdom and encouragement to love yourself, to take control of your life, and to dream.
Instead of reading his own work, the Pittsburgh native shared the stage with our students, who took turns reading creative pieces. Everyone was invited to chime in with feedback. It was also a practice run for their formal reading on Friday, when they’ll share some of this work again in front of all the Words Without Walls creative writing classes. This practice run just so happened to include coaching from one of the most premier fiction writers in the country.
Wideman also answered questions with humbling honesty. He admitted that Brothers and Keepers would always be a disappointment to him as long as his brother was still incarcerated, and deep down, he really wrote the book because he thought it would somehow lead to Robby’s freedom.
He spoke of the neglect of Homewood, of walking around and seeing so much empty space. He discussed the discipline and reward of time management, and always listening, reading, and working toward your goals. He urged them, along with everyone else in the room, to push back against anyone and anything that wants to make us, as individuals, irrelevant.
This was truly a remarkable morning, one of several visits Wideman has made in his hometown communities. This whole event wouldn't have been possible without the help of Dan Kubis and the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Through that program, he also visited a class of Westinghouse high school students and gave them feedback on responses to the same text. Eventually, we are planning to add their work into a compilation of student responses—not just a chapbook, but also a commemoration of an inspiring visit. This morning was the culmination of remarkable nine weeks, here in the juvenile class at ACJ. I couldn’t have asked for a better semester.