asakiyume: (turnip lantern)
I was at an event last week, a breakfast event, and I was sitting at a table with people I didn't know, but we were all making conversation, and somehow the talk turned to animal visitors, and one woman started talking about how a squirrel had been paying them visits over the summer:
I left the window open, and there's no screen, but I didn't worry about anything getting in because we're on the second floor. But I had a bowl of nuts on the kitchen table, and it kept on going down. I kept on refilling it--I thought my husband was eating the nuts. But it was a squirrel. A squirrel was coming in and eating the nuts! But you know, squirrels are like cats. If they like you, they'll leave you something, as a present. Better than a cat's present! Well I guess the squirrel liked us, because one day I came into the kitchen and there was a doughnut on the table.

"Is this your doughnut?" I asked my husband.

"No, it's not mine. I thought it was your doughnut."

"If it was my doughnut, do you think it would be sitting here, uneaten?"

It was the squirrel. It had had so many of our nuts, it decided to leave us a doughnut.

Now maybe the squirrel just happened to be carrying a doughnut it had pilfered from somewhere else, and it set it down to much on some more of this woman's nuts and then scampered off in a panic, forgetting its doughnut. But I really like the woman's interpretation of the events.
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.
asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)

One of the women I work with at the jail is in the choir there. I got permission to go in for the performance. The jail choir group is called the Majestics, and they've been mentored by a senior-citizen choir called Young at Heart, all of whom were wearing T-shirts that said "We put the 'zen' in 'senior citizen.'" Young at Heart performed as the opening act, so to speak, and they were delightful and good, singing things like the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" and Bananarama's "Venus" and totally carrying it off.

Then the Majestics took the stage. There were six women, and they covered a great age range (three in their twenties, two in their thirties-forties, and one who was even older than me) and ethnically diverse (two Black, one Hispanic, three White). They sang well-known songs with lots of different flavors (hip-hop, pop, blues, soul), and all the choir members were featured at least once--even the older woman, who I thought would remain relegated to the background, but she came forward and did "Drift Away," and it was a huge success. The entire thing was a huge success; the audience was **so** supportive. They sang along with all the songs, even the fast rap portions of the rap songs, and clapped out the beat, and gave standing ovations.

At the end the programs director called for an encore, and there hadn't been a song laid by for that, but the Young At Heart choir sang "Forever Young," (Bob Dylan lyric; the Jay-Z song is good too though) with various choir members singing solos, and each time someone sang a solo, he or she linked arms with one of the members of the Majestics and brought them forward, and I could see tears in my student's eyes and I had tears in mine, because--as the chaplain who was present pointed out--that song is a benediction, and it was so great to hear those words of blessing and hope and expectation directed at the audience in the jail:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young

ETA: I didn't realize until [ profile] dudeshoes commented that the choir is the same one that had a documentary made about them in 2007. Also, at the group's website you can see a video about their work at a different jail. (We are a nation filled with jails...)

asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)
So I've finally started to watch this show. Some stuff I nod at vigorously--I've seen things like it during my volunteering, or my students have told me stories that support it. Other stuff, not so sure.

But the thing that really struck me, the thing the show totally misses, is CHILDREN. I've worked with about a hundred people closely over the past four years, and I'd estimate that 90 to 95 percent of them had kids. It was *very* rare for someone not to have kids. And while some of my students have just one or two kids, many of them have four or more. Thinking about kids, worrying about how they're doing, the threat of termination of parental rights, guilt over how they've been as parents--these things are just huge for my students. Getting to talk with their kids is huge. And that's totally absent from season one of Orange Is the New Black. Preppy thirty-something Piper Chapman, the main character, doesn't have kids. Her former lover, the urbane drug trafficker, doesn't have kids. But neither do 99 percent of the secondary characters. The lipstick-wearing, wedding-planning woman (Internet tells me the character's name is Lorna) doesn't have kids. Streetkid Tricia, the heroin addict, doesn't have kids. Wild-haired Nicky doesn't have kids. Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" doesn't have kids. Taystee doesn't have kids. In a very unfair case of getting stereotyping both coming and going, Tiffany-the-meth-head Born-Again type not only doesn't have kids, she's had lots of abortions. Even the older women, like Captain Kate Janeway Red, the kitchen worker, or Yoga Jones, or Miss Claudette, are childless.

I think it's a big mistake. What incarceration does to families and children is huge, both on the inside and on the out. But that plotting decision seems in line with American entertainment preferences generally. For some reason the viewing public isn't interested in thinking about children unless that's the main focus of the story. So you can have child-focused shows ... or anything else.

asakiyume: (feathers on the line)
At the jail where I volunteer, there’s a small bookshelf next to the front desk that says “free books/libros gratis.” It has a varying mix of picture books through middle-grade books, and I try to drop off books there periodically.

So I was really excited to learn about An Angel for Mariqua, a middle-grade book by Zetta Elliott about a girl whose mother is in jail. Mariqua lives with her grandmother now, and she’s angry at everyone and everything, and also lonely. Then two good things happen. An old man selling carved Christmas figurines at a roadside stall gives her a beautiful wooden angel, and Valina, a high school student, takes an interest in Mariqua. Two sorts of angels.

Here’s the scene with the old man:

Even though it had been raining for most of the afternoon, the man wore no raincoat. Instead he wore a woolen poncho that had tassels along the edge. Bands of blue, red, yellow, and green ran across the man’s shoulders and met in a V near his waist. Even though it was cold and rainy outside, the stranger looked warm and dry. Mariqua thought he looked like he was wrapped up in a rainbow . . .

Suddenly one of the man’s hands appeared from underneath his rainbow shawl. His fingers were the color of caramel. He picked up one of the small wooden angels and handed it to Mariqua.

“For you.”

Mariqua held the angel in her hands. A long blue dress with golden stars had been painted on the angel’s wooden body. Two wings curled away from her narrow waist like petals on a flower. They, too, had been painted gold. The angel had thick black hair and deep brown skin. She had a tiny pink smile on her face.

Mariqua doesn’t have the money for it, but the old man insists she take it.

Mariqua’s first encounter with Valina involves Valina yanking her back onto the curb when she attempts to dash across the street. Valina’s quick move saves her from being hit by a bus—and then Valina calls her on her bullshit, as the saying goes, when Mariqua is rude in response:

“I just saved your life and you can’t even say ‘thank you’? Well, forget you, then. Your scrawny little behind can get hit by a bus, for all I care. And here--”

She thrust the wooden angel into Mariqua’s chest. “Take your stupid hunk of wood. Bad as you are, you need a guardian angel looking out for you.”

But then the next day at Sunday School, Valina encourages the teacher to let Mariqua be the angel in the nativity play, even promising to help Mariqua learn her lines.

The story follows their growing friendship, deepening as Mariqua gradually realizes the situation of Valina’s mother. By the end, Mariqua is able to offer Valina love and support when Valina needs it most. It’s a beautiful scene. And Mariqua sees her own mother in a new light, too.

I encourage anyone who’s interested in the issues of parents in prison, families disrupted by incarceration or in books by authors of color or indie books to give it a try. It’s a lovely book. I can’t wait to leave it at the jail, where hopefully someone like Mariqua can pick it up. But I may have to get myself another copy to keep. It’s a good book.

An Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott.

asakiyume: (glowing grass)

At night the katydids have taken up their song, and in the day there are cicadas. Let me tiptoe past an observation about the waning of the summer...

About those cicadas. Their sheeny noise, especially on a humid day like today, gives me an impression that they're burnishing the air the way potters can burnish bowls or weavers can burnish cloth. The air on humid days is like finest shining mist curtains, and the cicadas polish it with their song.

I missed my chance this summer to take a Spanish course through the local university's continuing ed program, so I'm trying to learn some on Duolingo. I mentioned this to one of my students at the jail, whose first language is Spanish, and yesterday she took it upon herself to teach me some things. I loved it. She taught me una sonrisa hermosa / a beautiful smile

What a beautiful word sonrisa is! So I was practicing some sentences, and the head of programs came in to fix our clock, and I got hugely embarrassed and said, "I promise I'm not exploiting my students to learn Spanish! We are doing essay work too!" (<--admitting the thing I feel guilty about), but she is so wonderful and cool that she just said, "I think it's wonderful. You go ahead."

... We did do some essay stuff too, though: honest.

asakiyume: (feathers on the line)

I got a copy of the reply Head Start sent my student. Here's most of it.

It concluded by thanking her for writing and wishing her well on her HiSET (GED) exam.

**so happy**

asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)
On Friday at the jail I was noticing how much they announce you're coming--each stage of the way. "Central control, one volunteer up to you," says the guy at the main desk, and then "One volunteer in the sally port," says the guy at central control," and then "Programs, one volunteer in the elevator," and so on. It made me feel, yesterday, like the fulfillment of a very short-term prophecy.

And speaking of sally ports, did you know--I did not, until I Google-searched the word just now--that although the relevant definition in this instance is "a secure entryway (as at a prison) that consists of a series of doors or gates," the first definition is "a gate or passage in a fortified place for use by troops making a sortie," and that if you look up images you will find lots of castles? Yes indeed. Whereas, the sally port at the jail has always made me think of a space station's airlock. One heavy metal door opens, you go in, it shuts, and you're in a tiny room. Then the heavy metal door on the other side opens, and you're inside the jail proper.

(Not only was my coming foretold, but I have an invisible ultraviolet stamp on my hand. I don't know what it says because I can't see it. It's like a stamp admitting you to a club, only really it's to let you **leave** the club, because most people can't. Hotel California and all that.)

And speaking of prophecies, I was talking to one woman about a book she was reading, and as she described the action and the main character's situation, I realized it was a retelling of the Iliad from Cassandra's point of view. It was Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley. So that was really fun and cool. I have not actually ever read any Marion Zimmer Bradley, but maybe I'll read that one, because she's going to write an essay on it. It's long though, wow. Maybe I'll just dip in here and there.

asakiyume: (tea time)

One of the women I do essay tutoring with was telling me about the breakfasts her great-grandmother used to make for her and her siblings.

"She'd always make us the same thing," she said. "A cup of tea, and cinnamon toast."

She was smiling and her eyes were sparkling as she told me, and I could practically taste the cinnamon and feel the warmth of the tea. I love cinnamon toast.

What's your idea of a great breakfast? I remember my grandfather used to have an orange, cut like a grapefruit, so you can scoop out each of the triangles around the center. He'd also have an English muffin or toast, and he'd melt butter on one half of the muffin (or one piece of toast) by putting the other half of the muffin (or other piece of toast), fresh from the toaster, on top--the warmth would melt the butter.

asakiyume: (Em reading)
Through the jail volunteering I do, I got involved with a group called Voices from Inside, which runs creative writing workshops with incarcerated and previously incarcerated women. It's a small group, but wow, has it had a big impact on its participants and on the audiences who come to readings. I've been to one of those performances--the emotion and sense of shared purpose and support all the way around was intense.

Several of the women are on the board of the organization (which I love: this isn't just something that's bestowed from above; it's being championed by the people it serves), and one of them--a really incredibly inspiring woman--wrote the following letter for the end-of-year appeal for donations. In it she says

I began this journey as a hesitant writer in a jail writing workshop and VFI helped me find confidence in my voice and in my story. Next, VFI afforded me the opportunity to share my voice through performances in the community, and I felt the power of my voice to transform our audiences.

But this especially spoke to me:

I was surprised to learn that the incredible support the VFI facilitators, trainers and board members bring to these workshops were volunteers. I didn’t understand why they would give so much of their time, their resources. And then I joined with another participant from my writing group and led a workshop at the Young Parents Program. YPP is for parents 14-24 on benefits who are working on their High School Equivalency diplomas. Before our very eyes, we watched these young parents grow immeasurably. We watched their self-esteem blossom as they encouraged one another to share their writing. Now I get it. And I can’t wait to return.

It's not just about finding your voice--though it's about that. It's not just about overcoming trauma (which she also writes about eloquently)--though it's definitely about that, too. It's about seeing the power you have to make a difference, to see that your volunteering is helping people. You're not only a receiver, you're also a giver.

And this woman, she's just amazing. I wish you could hear her speak, how she galvanizes an audience. Below the cut is the complete text of the letter, if you're curious, and below that are some links to the Voices from Inside website, plus some pictures from performances.

the letter )

asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)

One of my students at the jail was talking about all the stuff she's dealing with, and how alone she feels and what hard going it is.

"I'm carrying around so much luggage with nothing in it," she said.

That hit me instantly. So much crap to lug around, and all the bags are empty.

"That's really poetic," I said. "It says a lot."

She gave me a smile and a seriously? look and said, "You know that's just a phrase, right? A thing people say when they're high: You're tripping without no luggage."

"Hah! No, I didn't know that. I thought it was totally new with you."

But a little later I realized--should have realized in the moment--that was new with her. The thing everyone says, Tripping without no luggage, is clever, but she's turned it on its head: burdened with luggage with nothing in it.

asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)
So here's the jail story that I've been meaning to tell.

The clock in the room where I do essay tutoring hadn't been changed for daylight savings time. It hadn't been changed the previous week, either. J--, one of the women I was working with, made a remark about things never getting done there, but R--, the other woman said, "Oh, but Ms. H-- changed the clock in the kitchen. I guess it's just that no one's gotten around to changing it in this room."

All three of us looked at the clock. It was a typical classroom clock, big and plain.

"Sometimes they have a knob in the center that you can turn to move the hands, but I don't see one on this clock," I said. It was smooth plastic on the outside.

We looked at it a minute more.

I'm pretty passive. Normally I'd just let it tell the wrong time. But R-- had said that someone changed the clock in the kitchen. So I reached up and tried to lift the clock off the wall. It came right off--it was so light! In the back was a little box for a battery, and a knob for changing the time.

"I can't do this without my glasses," I said. I passed the clock to J--. She turned the knob, and I put it back up on the wall.

"We did it!" I said. I felt really exhilarated. "We're empowered," said R--, smiling.

And even though it's a really small thing, it really *did* feel empowering. At least, it did for me, and I think maybe it did for them, too. We made a difference in our environment. It was a tiny difference, but it was a difference all the same.

asakiyume: (Em)
One of my Friday students, who's African American, told me about talking to her younger daughter on the phone. My student had wanted to have a word with her daughter about her daughter's grades (not so good), but her daughter had been too excited to let her get a word in edgewise:

"Mommy mommy, guess what!"


"We went to see Annie!"

"That's great--"

"And guess what!"


"Annie's a Black girl! And guess what!"


"She's the star!"

I didn't get to hear the daughter say all this, but from her mother's retelling of it, I could **feel** how happy she was. Three cheers for Quvenzhané Wallis and the new Annie

asakiyume: (Iowa Girl)
Anyone who drives the Massachusetts Turnpike between Westfield and Blandford enjoys the Cthulhu-esque ice that cascades down the rock face every winter. There are shades of blue, green, and gold in it, as well as white. I suppose you get similar in any cold place with rock faces? I always want to get a photo, but it's hard because it's not a place you can really walk to (being on an interstate and all), and if you're traveling in a car, you're speeding on by.

And yet! I got this shot the other day:

I was coming back from visiting my father for his birthday, and, simultaneously, volunteering for WAMC's fund drive. Here is pledge central! On the walls are framed doodles done by Pete Seeger.

will only mean anything to listeners of WAMC )

While I was there, for every pledge of $100, Charlesbridge Press was donating three books to the Reach Out and Read program. This program gives books to doctors' offices, and the doctor then "prescribes" books to families with small children to encourage families to read together. This holistic approach to a person's well being (recognizing that family time and education are important to health) is popular right now--this article by Deborah Youngblood of the Crittendon Women's Union is about getting public services to work together (and getting them accessible at one point of contact) to help people climb out of poverty. Anyone who's ever suffered from a long bout of very low income knows that you spend your time moving from crisis to crisis, and on top of that, dealing with seventeen zillion different social services uses up *tons* of time, especially if you don't have reliable transportation. Having things accessible at one point, and interacting with each other, could make a huge difference. ... But I digress.

I'm off to jail later today. One woman and I were talking about "a" and "an"--how the rule that you use "an" with words beginning with a vowel is *mainly* true, but that there are exceptions, like "unique," that depend on the *sound* of what you're saying.

"You wouldn't write 'an unique book,'" I said.

"An-unique," she murmured. "That would make a pretty name."

"Yeah it would!" I said, imagining it. "It sounds like a ballet dancer's name."

Take care all. See you later this weekend.

asakiyume: (miroku)
Last week I engaged in *three* cultural experiences, which is three more than I usually do--and *all* of them I want to share about. . . but somehow I suspect that won't happen, or it may be some time in coming. So here's a Cliff Notes version. If you read this, you will probably pass the pop quiz.

Lois Ahrens on the real cost of prisons

Lois Ahrens is a long-time activist against the prison industrial complex, who spoke a little about her experience documenting the cost of prisons. Her talk about bail reform particularly galvanized me; I'm actually going to write up a nonfiction piece on alternatives to bail to try to get these ideas in front of new eyes. Two relevant websites: The Real Cost of Prisons Project and The Pretrial Working Group.

Gerald Vizenor: Native American poet, novelist, and scholar

I heard him speak about researching his most recent novel, Blue Ravens, about young men from the White Earth nation in Minnesota who fought in World War I.

He dropped poems right into the talk, and even his ordinary speech was alive--he talked about troubled words, enthusiastic silences. He said, "It's difficult, always, to make poetry out of horror, but it must be done."

The Magna Carta . . . and some other documents

One of four extant copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta was visiting a [not quite] nearby museum, so we went off to see it. So that there would be some other things to look at, the museum had also gotten first printings of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of the Rights of Women, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as a draft copy of the Constitution, complete with copyediting insertions and critiques.

The Magna Carta was written in what was described as a tiny but legible script . . . and boy, was it tiny! Except for the first line, which tall, lean capital letters before each word.

As for the other documents, one thing that impressed me was the IMPRESSION of TYPE on PAPER--if we could have reached under the glass and touched them, we could have felt the depressions where that hot lead was pressed into the fibers of the paper. So tactile. Not like now, when words are just photostatically stuck to paper, or laser jetted onto it.

More in dribs and drabs, if I get a chance. And now, back to work. . .

asakiyume: (black crow on a red ground)

On August 30, Em's family got a letter from Clear Springs Prison, telling them that Em's brother was in the infirmary.

So, today might be a good day to remember that although the United States is home to only 5 percent of the world's population, 25 percent of the world's prisoners are here.1 Yes, one in every four prisoners in the world is in a US prison. Hence the term "prison industrial complex."

And a sizable percentage of those serving time in state prisons are doing so for nonviolent drug offenses: In 2012, the breakdown looked like this:2

violent crimes: 53%
property crimes (includes theft and fraud): 18.3%
drug related (includes trafficking and possession): 16.8%
public order (includes drunk driving, prostitution, etc.): 10:6%
other (includes juvenile offenses): 1.4%

Guess what state has the highest percentage of people in prison. Answer at footnote 3.

In more cheerful news, one of the women I work with at the jail shared a poem she'd made up. It was *awesome* and would make a great song. I told her so and asked her if she would ever consider trying to produce it as a song, when she got out, and she said her husband is a DJ. If her poem ever hits it big, I am going to brag so hard about the day I got to see it.

1Joshua Holland, "Land of the Free? US Has 25 Percent of the World’s Prisoners," Moyers & Company, December 16, 2013.
2E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012: Advance Counts (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2013), 10.
3If you guessed Louisiana, you are right. If you guessed Mississippi or Alabama, you're nearly right. They're the next two. Source is Carson and Golinelli, 10.
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)
A lot of the inmates at the jail have amazing tattoos on their necks or arms, often swirling words that I mainly can't read because of the loops and flourishes of the design. This past Friday, though, it was one of the corrections officers, one I hadn't met before, who had a really fabulous tattoo.

At first I saw only that it was a lot of words, in different fonts, some of them quite cool (like the font of seventeenth-century books, for instance). Then I saw that it was a series of quotes--I recognized first "I'm nobody! Who are you?" from Emily Dickinson.

tattoo quotes

"Hey, you have Emily Dickinson on your arm!" I said.

"Yeah," she said with a grin.

"And 'Spiritus Mundi,' from . . . not Shakespeare, it's TS Eliot--no! Yeats," I said, and she nodded.

"But I've got Shakespeare too," she said, and sure enough, she had "All the world's a stage." She also had "Nevermore," and "It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper," which she confirmed came, indeed, from "The Yellow Wallpaper." She told me some of the others, but I forgot them.

"They look really excellent, too," I said, thinking of the spacing, and of the different fonts. "Did you design it yourself?"

She said she did.

Pretty cool. It's not every day you meet a corrections officer with literature embedded in her skin.

Oh yeah, I nearly forgot. Here's what the jail looks like.

P.S. Later in the day, a guy behind the counter had a tattoo of the state of Massachusetts on his arm, with a star slightly left of center. "You are here," it said under the map. I guess he doesn't travel much?


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.

asakiyume: (miroku)
The problem with the five paragraph essay is that it is BORING. Here are two essays from the pre-GED book. First, the "ineffective" one, then the "effective" one.1 See what you think:

the 'ineffective' one )

the 'effective' one )

You can see what they're trying to show: the first is disorganized and wanders off topic, whereas the second sticks to the topic. But the first is much more fun, right? You get a sense of this fed-up person, ready to leave winter behind and flee to someplace warm. You get a real sense of personality.

It pains me to have to be teaching people a bloodless, boring form of writing when writing--even essay writing--just doesn't have to be that way. I'm hoping maybe, after I understand what I'm doing more, I can add in some *fun* writing. Eyes on the prize, though. It's most important that they be able to pass the test. There are other people coming in who do journaling and creative writing.

1Excerpts from Contemporary's Pre-GED: Language Arts, Writing (McGraw Hill, 2002)


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April 2019

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