This was first posted on Best American Poetry's blog.
When I was girl, I remember driving past the jail in downtown Charlottesville. I don’t know if my memory is accurate or if I only imagined I could see men moving behind the bars—just the tops of their heads.
Who’s in there? I asked my father, imagining men on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Just some fools down on their luck, he said.
Do you know any of them? I asked. He just laughed.
It was a reasonable question. Over the years, a few criminals worked on our farm. (My husband suggests I not elaborate for fear of former farmhands who might read my poetry.) By criminals I don’t mean the petty thieves like Charles who stole farm tools, or compulsive liars like Toby who spent most of his working hours drinking and catching snapping turtles from our mud pond, or unpredictable men like Fred who let the heifers loose on the freeway one night. No, I mean the pedophile, the drug dealer, (okay he was just a marijuana-dealer), and the man who stole a neighboring farmer’s tractor and killed his wife. (But it was a crime of passion, my parents explained, as the murderer continued to work for them for another forty years.)
As far as I know, none of these men went to prison. Or if they did, it wasn’t for long.
My parents’ friend, Betty Smith, told me once that people who lived through the depression, as she and my folks did, had grown accustomed to hiring some of the strange men who wandered up the dirt roads, seeking employment.
She was visiting on the day Ernest Holmes arrived at our farm in a Yellow Cab, looking for work. Earnest claimed to be, among other things, a traveling barber. Anyone need a haircut? he asked, lifting his black bag from the cab. Intrigued, my mother said, Why yes. She selected me to be his guinea pig.
Together we watched as Ernest set up shop, seating me in a folding chair, wrapping a dish towel around my neck, and placing a blue plastic a bowl on my head before cutting circles around and around the bowl, my hair getting shorter and shorter until it was shaped like a shaggy Yarmulke. My mother immediately hired him to be a cook.
Cutting hair and cooking weren’t Ernest’s only skills. He also taught me to drive. And drove me and my sister all over town—to various lessons and school events. With six children in a family, someone always needed to go somewhere.
After several years of working for us, Ernest was pulled over by the cops. It turned out he didn’t have a license.
This experience might have upset other parents. Mine just laughed.
The two things my mother and father shared were a subversive view of the world and a dark wit.
While they wanted their children to be high achievers and were proud of their valedictorian and their goody-two shoes daughters, they were most impressed by their rebellious daughter. They never stopped bragging about my sister who, given a set of true-false questions, got them 100% wrong.
Once or twice, when I was sent home with a note from the teacher for bad behavior, I watched as they first tried to suppress a grin and then broke out in giggles.
They both loved stories of tricksters, escape artists, and clowns: the Pucks, the Brer Rabbits, the Houdinis.
Whether it was Aesop’s fable about the fox that tricked the crow, or the Bible story of King Solomon and the two women, or Odysseus with the Trojan horse, I can still hear my mother practically crowing, You see? He outwitted them.
When she was an old woman, I read my mother some of the Nasreddin stories. She laughed and laughed. How silly, she would say. Read me another one.
She particularly liked the story of Nasreddin called Mortal’s Way—a tale about four boys who are arguing over a bag of walnuts. The boys ask Nasreddin to divide the nuts for them. So Nasreddin says, Would you like me to divide these nuts as God divides things? Or in the way man divides things? The boys choose God’s way. (What could be better than that?) So Nasreddin gives most of the walnuts to one boy, a few to another, and one or two to the last two boys.
My mother was delighted. That’s exactly right, she said. God might be a lot of things, but fair is not one of them.
She immediately asked me to read the story to her evangelical friend.
So what is fair?
I studied a lot of religion and philosophy, but I avoided the topic of ethics.
But a few years ago, I almost served on a jury. I took the judge at his word when he informed potential jurors that this was our special day. Because we all now had a rare chance to learn about the great American judicial system. He encouraged each of us to ask as many questions as we wanted—something which he later regretted. I asked so many questions, I was dismissed.
Partly because of my courtroom experience, and maybe partly because of my childhood questions about our downtown jail, I was curious about teaching a class to prisoners. So when Philip Brady invited me to guest-teach my latest book, Why God Is a Woman, for his prison class, I was thrilled.
The class, done by video, involved two prisons, a men’s prison and a women’s prison.
But the prison class was nothing like I had expected. Accustomed to students who are shy, unprepared, and bored, I was surprised to find that the inmates had not only read my book, but they were eager to engage and challenge me.
What surprised me more was how socially conservative these particular men and women seemed, how middle-of-the-road their political views.
We discussed gender stereotypes, and both the men and the women said they couldn’t imagine breaking out of their traditional roles. A man explained how humiliating it would be for him to raise the children or become a care-taker. No one respects a man-mama, he said. A woman said that while she wished she could get paid the same as men, and she often felt taken advantage of by men, she couldn’t imagine being a feminist. Another woman said that she had no role model for a powerful woman, at least not one that she would want to follow.
What do you think a feminist is? I asked.
A ball-buster, one woman said. A man-hater, another joined in. A bra-burner. Others nodded in assent. In fact bra-burning seemed to be something they were all familiar with. An African American man said that he really didn’t blame those women for wanting to burn bras, but then added, Don’t blame the men for that. Maybe Jennifer Lee was right when she wrote in Time that feminism has a bra-burning myth problem.
I closed the class by reading an essay about my experience in court. Afterwards everyone went quiet. One man raised his hand.
Mrs. Andrews, he said. You don’t mind being different. I like it. But next time you get called for jury duty, I want you to dress up real nice. In a little suit. With your hair done up in a bun. Button your lips. And don’t say nothing ‘til you’re on that jury. You understand?
Since teaching that class, I have wondered about other poets’ experiences with teaching in prisons.
I began talking with my dear friend, Nicole Santalucia, who regularly teaches a prison class. She will be reporting on her experience tomorrow.