Life Sentence

Oscar received his GED test scores today; he failed all five portions. His reading and social studies marks were abysmal, his essay was incomplete, and he scored a 320 in math–forty points lower than on his previous test. How does one’s score drop after two months of intense study? I was disappointed but not surprised; none of the men I’ve tutored within the past two years had gone on to receive his diploma.

The first student I taught was Ellis, a kind-faced man in his mid-forties who had trouble with math. I used his prior experience in construction as the basis for our studies and showed him how to convert inches into feet and feet into yards using proportions. I drew diagrams of bookshelves, storage sheds, and arbors on the chalkboard and taught him how to find perimeters, areas, and hypotenuses using geometry, and to calculate the amount of timber and gallons of paint needed to complete a job. He told me his dream was to one day start his own construction company.

A few months after his release, I ran into Ellis in the chapel after the Sunday service. We shook hands. I thought I was hallucinating.

“Ellis. . . ? What are you doing here?”

He grinned at his shoes. “Violation,” he said. “I failed a breathalyzer.”

He told me later that the drinking began soon after he boarded the bus home when a civilian sitting beside him pulled a case of beer from his bag and offered to share. He was drunk by the time he reached the halfway house.

I asked Ellis about his construction company. He grinned at his shoes.

“It be funny how you forget those things soon as you out that gate.”

After Ellis came Martin, a thirty-nine year old with a forth grade reading level. We’d meet in the library on weeknights and read back issues of Junior Scholastic together. The process wasn’t unlike how my mother taught me to read when I was a young boy–sounding out each syllable, skimming the page with one finger. I recall her patience and gentle corrections. My favorite book to read before bed was Jill Murphy’s Five Minutes’ Peace, about a mother elephant driven to her wit’s end by her nagging child.

Martin told me that his goal was to be able to read to his own children, without feeling embarrassed for not knowing all of the words. I asked if his parents read to him as a child. He shook his head.

“My daddy wasn’t around,” he said, “and my mamma always be working.”

We didn’t make much progress; not long after we began reading together, Martin was shipped to a yard in South Carolina. I asked Ellis if he wanted to continue working on geometry, but he declined, saying that he didn’t want to waste my time. He was eventually released after serving the final two months of his sentence.

I think of these men occasionally, as I do when considering my own future. I wonder what they’re up to: if Ellis ever started his construction business; if Martin ever got the opportunity to read to his children. And what of the men who proceeded them? Did they make it? I suppose it’s possible.

Oscar asked how he could improve his math score. I told him to give up. He laughed, deciding it was a joke, so I relented and encouraged him to practice. I admitted that I myself was never very good with numbers; it wasn’t until I reached college that I made my first A in algebra. “I couldn’t even do my connect-the-dots in elementary school,” I told him. “My mother made me practice. She painted dots on a sweater and numbered them with fabric pant. Before I could wear it, I’d have to connect the dots with a washable marker. The lines created a picture of a star and moon.”

Oscar stared over my shoulder at three inmates pushing grass clippers past the window, the old-fashioned kind without motors.

“My mom didn’t do those things,” he said.

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