“How was your writing week?” the teacher asks from the front of the classroom.
We’re in a small circle, a ring of warm bodies surrounded by cold concrete walls. All women, all eager to share what’s resting inside. They do this at the beginning of every class. Talk about their writing weeks. The good. The bad. The writer’s block. I’m back at the Allegheny County Jail, or ACJ as the employees call it, observing the women’s class this time.
“Sucked. Mine sucked,” says one of the inmates. Her face shifts from the teacher to the floor when she speaks, as though her eyes are being pulled by a string. She goes on to express how her writing week was tough since her sister had been killed the previous month during a big snow storm, a hit-and-run on an icy street in Homewood.
I think of tragedy. The tragedy of these women locked up in here with red suits and thin slippers. She talks about pain, about “losing it” every time she sits down in her cell to write about her sister’s death. We listen. I think about how this writing class could easily be a three-hour therapy session should the lesson plan veer off track. But I realize this opportunity I have to teach at a jail is my chance to show these inmates how writing is therapy, how it can heal. I could give them excerpts from prison writers like Jimmy Santiago Baca or Ken Lamberton so they could read for themselves how writing preserves parts of our lives. Or I could give them a memoir, an essay, a poem.
We continue our circle of discussion. The woman sitting next to me raises her hand: “I’ve got a story to tell. I’ve got a story to tell. I just need someone to help me write it down,” she says gripping the pages of her notebook with clutched fingers, lifting the sheets in the air. I see words scribbled in pencil filling each page to the edge. The writing is illegible from my angle, but I know there’s something powerful in between those sheets just by the look in her eyes. They’re hazel and youthful, despite a few surrounding wrinkles, and they turn to me in the middle of class, glancing down at a poem as she slides it onto my desk. “Will you read this?” she whispers, like the plea of a child in middle school passing a note to her best friend. I read it slowly, making sure to take in every single word and space so she knows I’m really trying. The verbs have power and the images linger, but the syntax is off. And I’m eager to show her how to improve that. But the subject needs no improvement. The poem is about memories that are locked up and dusty in the cellar of a basement, grayed and forgotten in darkness, stifled by walls, and untouched by the living.
“You had a good writing week,” I whisper.