During my sentencing, the prosecutor argued that because I come from a good home and was raised by a good family, I am somehow more dangerous than other criminals who might have suffered traumatic or abusive childhoods, because while their crimes can be blamed on psychological disorders, my crime was committed out of deliberate negligence.
This, like the rest of her closing arguments, is nonsense. But it is true that I come from a very different background than most of the inmates here. I am white, college educated, and was raised in a middle class family by two parents. My ex-cellmate Voodoo once told me that I stand out in prison like a turd in a punch bowl, and that’s exactly how I feel a lot of the time.
I gave the students in my writing class an assignment. We read a short passage in which author Amy Tan describes the smells, sights, and sounds of her childhood home, and I asked the students to describe their own childhood homes using sensory details – touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Some of the students who were 50 years or older had trouble remembering their chilhood homes, so I told them to think back to the house they remembered most.
I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about teaching a writing class, and I don’t know what benefit, if any, would come from such an exercise. I was told to teach this class of students how to write a proper essay, but I get so tired of harping on introductions, bodies, and conclusions, and this paragraph needs four sentences, and this paragraph needs three sentences, and remember: don’t start a sentence with “and” (even though I do it all the time), and I am certain that the students are just as bored as I am.
So I told the class to forget about introductions, bodies, conclusions, and grammar and spelling and paragraphs – just write, I told them. Describe your childhood home. Paint me a picture. Make me see, smell, hear, taste, and feel that space.
As they began to write, I wondered if I wasn’t taking advantage of them. Maybe the assignment was more about satisfying my own curiousity rather than about teaching them something valuable. But I think that real teachers must struggle with this, too. They teach what they consider meaningful instead of letting students discover their own meaning; they point students in the direction of the answer instead of letting them seek their own answers.
As the class scribbled away, I decided it was only fair that I take my medicine and write a short description of my own childhood home, our apartment back in Brooklyn.
Our apartment sat on the second floor, directly above the family restaurant and across from Sheepshead Bay. The air always smelled of food and ocean.
The living room, dining room, and kitchen all opened into one large space with a row of windows along one side; a hallway at the far corner of the room led to my parents’ bedroom and the bedroom I shared with my older brother.
What I remember most about that apartment was the threshold between the kitchen and living room where parquet and cream-colored carpet met. When walking between the two spaces, I had to remember never to step on the threshold because the tacks that held the carpet in place would prick the bottoms of my feet.
Class ended, and students handed in their papers. I sat alone and read them.
The house was very large, five bedrooms…and there was not enough furniture to completely furnish the house. There was bad plumbing system. And the shower system was bad and the house had a bad odor you could smell from a distance. The house had this type of sound to it when you would walk on the floors as if it sounded like the walls were cracking. And through all of this you could feel as if this was the most unsafe place you’ve ever been….
I set the paper down and noticed how the student’s handwriting, neat at first, became more frantic as the composition progressed. I picked up another.
My mom worked hard and did all she could for me and my two brothers. She often worked. The area I lived in was rough. It was a gang area. I could go outside and smell marijuana in the air. I also used to see a lot of the gang members and we all went to school together. That’s when I got involved. I got a hold of many different things. I start touching drugs, guns, and other things….
The compositions continued. Burglar bars on windows. A boy who regrets growing up too fast. A dead cousin and a grieving aunt. What begin as descriptions of apartments, houses, and trailers turn into stories about their lives, and I feel the need to go to each student and thank them for sharing these intimate details with me, but I’m afraid they’d look at me and say, “What are you talking about? I just did what you asked.” And how do I explain to them that they teach me more than I could ever offer them?