My bi-weekly 45-minutes leading my prison writing workshop are the best 90 minutes of the month. When my 10-yr old knows that I’m going she always says “Tell the ladies I say hi!” The second I walk out the door at the end of the class, I call my husband breathless and eager to talk.
I’ve been using an exercise lately to get them acclimated to the tone of my class. Mine isn’t like others they take, those being life-skills, issues of addiction, or a whole host of things they’ve probably listened to many times before. When they file into the room and I hand them a prison-issued bendy pen and paper, some roll their eyes and grunt when they learn that they’re going to have to write. I advocate for the excellence of my class cheerleading by saying, “Come on, this is going to be great. Really! I get the BEST reviews on the evaluations you all have to fill out. I swear!” This warms them up a bit except for the inevitable woman who is completely checked-out.
“I want you to tell me what people assume about you when they see you for the first time. Give me one adjective.”
This group was not as quick to participate as most. After I tried to urge them on, they pointed out that they hadn’t had time to have coffee before they came down. I recently changed my workshop time from 2:00pm to 9am so this suddenly made a LOT of sense.
“I’m too honest,” one woman said to get things rolling.
“I’m a bitch,” another.
“I’m evil,” another.
“Wow, that’s a really strong label,” I said.
“I like it that way,” she said. I asked why.
“I don’t give a fuck about what people think.” It was only 15 minutes later that I discovered, through another exercise, that this woman has a Master’s degree from an Ivy League University, has had her own business for 10-yrs, and has traveled the world.
If you have read my previous posts about my time in prison, especially “Release” you know that I then ask the women what people would be surprised to learn about them—one thing that is the antithesis of how they described how they think the world sees them. The “too-honest” woman who volunteered the first time revealed that she loves the ballet. Another adores opera. One loves to ride dirt bikes because it makes her feel powerful and sexy.
For the past two classes I found it only fair that I share something that I think THEY’D be surprised to learn about ME. In the context of the setting it seems much more compelling than the fact that I went to sleep away camp at 3.
“My best friend is a crystal meth addict,” I say, waiting for gasps and gaping mouths.
Aside from the one who asked if he could get her some, none of them were surprised. Their reaction was pretty much the same: “So, meth addicts are everywhere.” One even spouted (a rather hyperbolic) statistic that “85% of MIT students are meth addicts” and the others nodded and attributed it to their smarts and access to labs. Yet another completely different perspective on life that I’ve gotten from these wise and hardened souls.
At the end of the class I asked them (as I’ve done before with the groups that I’ve lead before) what adjective they would use to describe ME. Today, the only one worth mentioning, because it’s the best to date:
“Fashionable”…(short pause)…”A little bit.”