I recently bought a deck of “conversation starter” cards to use as writing prompts for my recent foray into being a writing coach. They each contain a question like: “What literary character would you most want to be friends with?”, or “If you could ask your hero one question what would it be?’’ and so on and so on. In working with teens it’s a useful way to at least get them thinking about how to best express themselves and a good way for me to get to know a little bit about them before we launch into actual writing.
The other night with my family we started pulling random questions from the deck, my 16-yr-old stepson editing out the ones he thought were boring or too obvious before bothering to read them. When he got to this question, it took us a lot longer to respond to than any of the others before it:
“If you could know one fact about every person you meet, what would it be?”
This morning in my prison workshop, I asked the women this question. Like my family and me, they gave it some deep thought. I didn’t lead them in any particular direction but stressed the word “fact,” something concrete.
The first woman responded in all seriousness by saying she would want to know their shoe size. Well, I guess it is a fact but not exactly what I was looking for.
“Really? Why?” I asked.
“Well, I have really big feet and I want to know if someone has a pair of shoes that I like if I can fit into them and borrow them. I’ve been looking at your shoes this whole time.”
(For the record, I was wearing fabulous brown leather clogs, wide strap with an oblong gold buckle. End-of-season sale at DSW last year, thirty bucks.)
“Maybe you have a foot fetish,” one of the other women pointed out.
“Maybe. Probably,” she conceded.
I pointed to other raised hands.
“I’d want to know where they grew up.”
“What’s their nationality”
“How old they are.”
“What’s their education?”
We agreed that the person’s answer to this question would help determine if there was any common ground between them, either putting them on equal footing or completely at the other end of the spectrum.
“Here’s how my husband and stepson answered the other night. I think my stepson said it first but my husband was very quick to agree with him:
“WHAT IS THE WORST THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE?”
I realize that this isn’t exactly a FACT, that it’s very subjective, but I thought it was a fantastic answer to the question. I said to the women that for some it might be stealing a candy bar and for others it could mean killing someone, but, I think the answer can say a lot about how someone looks at themselves, the things they hold themselves accountable for, how they look at right from wrong.
I didn’t intend for them to answer the question, threw it out there rhetorically, but they started answering anyway.
“Well, I accidently let 10 baby bunnies out into the hot sun and they all died.”
Somehow, a few of us couldn’t help but chuckle. This woman was in prison for SOMETHING and I’m assuming that it wasn’t for killing her bunnies. She didn’t take the laughter personally. “I was watching tv, and I guess I left the cage open and they escaped. I even picked up some that were still alive and tried to get them to drink but they died anyway.” Of course it was sad and horrifying to kill your pets, but she couldn’t help but giggle with us while reinforcing that really, she thinks it was the worst thing she ever did. When the next woman answered with “drug trafficking” the bunny woman said she would switch places with her in a heartbeat.
A couple of women aswered with starting smoking crack, selling drugs, hanging out with the wrong crowd and evading immigration.
In listening to the conversation my answer came to me, at a moment in my life where the question resonsates for me for all the right reasons:
“I would want to know what their dream is for themselves. If they’re 3, I want to know what they want to be when they grow up. If they’re 70 I want to know if they have lived their dream.”