asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)

Last week, both with my high school tutees and with my students at the jail, I asked them to pick one of four pictures from Humans of New York to write about. The assignment was to tell me about the person in the photo, then to ask that person some questions, and then, in that person's voice, to answer the questions.

from the photo essay book Humans of New York

I got two deeply contrasting stories about this man from my students at the jail. One saw him as an "intelligent graduate, following his big New York dream ... which is to play in the Apollo" to become a musician--but with a safety job as a lawyer. The other--an older woman, who's been homeless herself--saw him as homeless. The questions she wanted to ask him were very practical: would you like a home-cooked meal; would you like a hot shower and a place to sleep; can I give you ten dollars "for something positive not negative."

Her answers almost undid me. She imagined him saying [paraphrasing], yes, I would love a home-cooked meal, as long as you let me do the dishes; yes I would love a hot shower, but only if you let me clean up after myself; a place to sleep on a couch or the floor would be great, and any amount of money would be appreciated. She finished with "I just wanted to thank you for being kind and offering all that to me."

asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)
A couple of weeks ago at the jail, there was a new-to-me CO, B--, at the programs desk. I was heading into the room I've been using for my tutoring when he said, "You know there's a ghost up here, right?"

Usually when people tell me things like this--in any circumstance, not just at the jail--I just go along with it amiably until I can get my bearings and figure out how I'm expected to react, but this time, I couldn't help it: I said, "This jail is only ten years old, and you're telling me there's a ghost?" (I could also have said, "I've been volunteering here for more than five years, and I'm only just now hearing about a ghost?")

"They think it's maybe a child, looking for love," he said.

Even at the time, and more so now as I'm writing this down, it struck me that if you didn't think of a ghost as the spirit of someone dead but rather as a coalescing of intense feelings connected with longed-for people, that sure: there could very well be something like that hanging about. Wakanomori suggested that it could be like Lady Rokujo, whose spirit leaves her body while she sleeps and haunts Genji's lovers, only in this case, children deprived of their parents, haunting the locus of their deprivation.

Anyway, I think I said something noncommittal like "Thanks for the heads up" or "I'll keep my eyes open."

Then this past Friday B-- was there again, along with M--, one of the first COs I ever talked to, a woman I like a lot. I mentioned to her that B-- had told me about the ghost, and he said, "Oh, M-- knows all about the ghost; she's had an encounter with it."

M-- nodded emphatically.

"What was it like?" I asked.

"Well, I had just had a drink of water from my bottle," she said, nodding toward her largish clear plastic water bottle, which was on the desk, "and I felt something really cold right at my waist. I thought maybe I'd spilled some of the water on myself, but when I touched the area, it was dry. Then it started tingling. I jumped away from the desk--I just had to walk away from there. It was like a little icy arm around my waist."

"It probably knew you were a mother," said B--. "It was probably looking for comfort."

I thought about how my imagination runs in different directions: If that had happened to me, I would have been as freaked out, but it would have been because I imagined I'd gotten sudden-onset neuropathy, or worse.

Or maybe not. I'm only there for one afternoon a week. The COs are there for 40 hours a week, and the inmates are there 24-7. Ten years is young for a building, but it's a long time to collect misery. Even I've seen a thing or two, in the slivers of time I'm there. Maybe if I was in M--'s shoes, I would have intuited it the way she did.


Jul. 17th, 2013 12:46 pm
asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)
When I was in first grade, they gave us all big, round blue pencils with no erasers on them. I liked the blue pencils; I liked them especially when they were sharpened. They made nice, dark lines.

This one is not sharpened. Picture taken from

What I really liked, though, were the slim, hexagonal yellow pencils that grown-ups used. They said competence and maturity to me. I liked these ones, because of the bright red stripe on the little metal cap that holds the eraser:

Image from

Best of all, though, were the copyediting pencils my mother used. They were red, and better than that, they wrote red. (I did not yet know you could get colored pencils and color with them the way you did with crayons.)

Image from

At some point, my mother gave me one, and I was so proud of it. Then I somehow lost it in the classroom and made a big fuss. I probably cried, though I don't remember for sure. A boy kindly offered me a pencil, painted red, but with an ordinary black graphite lead in it. NOT GOOD ENOUGH! NOT THE REAL THING! The teacher scolded me for being an ungrateful brat. Which I was totally being. I wish I could go back and get a good look at that boy who was nice enough to offer me a red pencil.

... This comes to mind for two reasons. One, I'm thinking of bringing pencils and pens to East Timor when I go, and I was thinking of all the ways in which they can be special. Two, I'm remembering an incident at the jail the other day. At the end of a GED session, one of the women asked if she could hold onto the pencil. Usually I use just ordinary Ticonderoga pencils (yes, I've switched allegiance from Mirado classic to Dixon Ticonderoga--brand consciousness!), but I also have a couple of foil pencils in the mix. They're pretty:


I said, no, I couldn't, because that wouldn't be fair, because I don't have very many of those (which was the wrong reason to give: more importantly, I'm not supposed to give anything to anyone ever).

"Aw, no one will notice," she said.

"Oh yes they will," said the other woman, and then it transpired in discussion that those foil pencils were known and remembered in the units.

Small things have value for all kinds of reasons.

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