Each week when I go to the federal halfway houses where I lead life skills groups I can expect some resident turnover. Some are released during the seven days between my classes and some new ones are brought in. The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that all of them take certain classes while they are serving out the rest of their time, and job readiness, one of my regular groups, is mandatory.
Because so many of these men (in this particular program it is all men) have done some pretty long “bids” in prison, they often don’t know the basics of navigating computers whether it be simple word processing, let alone the Internet. They’ve never had an e-mail address or conducted an on-line job search. Most have certainly never had a resume.
The men who have sat through my group look forward to seeing me every week despite the fact that they initially resented having to be there. Most turn out to be extremely humble in admitting their lack of knowledge and are very grateful when they see a resume, the end product of my group, seem to write itself before their eyes. I think they are surprised to see the skills that they do in fact have, the things they HAVE accomplished, laid out in such an impressive way.
Last week there were a couple of new guys assigned to my group. One came right in, sat down, geared up for whatever I had to say. Another, a rather large and imposing presence, hung back, looking a bit apprehensive. I forget that I look older than I think I do so I assume that a bi-focaled woman carrying binders and paperwork makes me appear like every other teacher or social worker they’ve been forced to sit in front of for years.
“You look terrified,” I said to him. “Guys, will you tell him he doesn’t need to be terrified?”
Those who knew me smiled and slapped him on the back and told him it wasn’t so bad, like telling a child that a shot will only hurt for a second.
“Come,” I said to the man, patting an empty chair, “Sit next to me.”
I’m still generally awed by the number of tattoos so many of these guys have. It’s often hard to discern any virgin skin beneath the entire length of their arms, shoulders and legs. There are names of girlfriends, portraits of Jesus, Bible verses, gang signs and all manner of symbols and scribbles that mean nothing to me. When this man sat next to me I did my usual and at this point reflexive scan of the jumble of colored ink and random drawings on his neck and within that chaos, like a hidden object children have to find in an illustration in a magazine, there was a swastika, which suddenly, in my eyes, made all the others disappear.
I have written before about having to suspend my judgement of this population in order to do my job. I’ve laughed with bank robbers, drug dealers and embezzlers. I had to process when one guy revealed to me, rather casually, that he spent nine years in prison on child pornography charges without denying a thing, and then move on. Now instead of judging him on that heinous crime, he just gets under my skin because he’s sort of a pain in the ass.
I’ve written endlessly about being the child of a Holocaust survivor and how much that has shaped my identity. I had to avert my eyes from that particular tattoo which by now had become an image in my head of a neon sign blinking, in red. It was imperative that I shut down my gut reaction and continue to work with this man who in all actuality was rather gentle and in need of my help.
Obviously, this wasn’t easy. I couldn’t smack him in the face and call him an ignorant fuck and walk out of the room. What was even more difficult was not being able to just ask, “Why? Why?”