A few of the prisoners had never had a cupcake baked for them. I knew this because it is where I taught writing for 8 weeks at a youth correctional facility near my home last summer. I learned that even my sub-standard cupcakes that are sometimes the last to be purchased at school bake sales can fill the world with a heavenly aroma.
I made the cupcakes as a celebration. They had learned to chant poetry with my fellow instructor, Wendy Videlock, to write stanzas and stories, and to listen carefully when someone else was reading. Half way through that last class one of the students said, “Those cupcakes sure smell good.”
While we were eating them one of the prisoners asked me why I did this. He wasn’t just asking why I brought cupcakes. He was asking why I taught the class, he wanted to know was it real…did I actually love him?
I answered, “Because I have a son who leaves his socks around the house in little balls.” Several weeks into the program one of the assignments was to tell a story about a favorite gift you’d received. This nineteen year old boy, who’d spent more than 2 years in prison, wrote about a pair of socks.
This facility is located in the heart of the desert where the sky is expansive. But people share a small cell instead of having a bedroom, and privacy is hard to find. They also share socks. All the socks, it turns out, go into a large dirty clothes hamper, get washed, and returned randomly. This boy was given a pair of socks by his cell mate and they were his very own.
The day before I heard the students’ pieces about the gifts they treasured I had posted a story about my son’s socks on my blog. I commented about the balls my son carelessly leaves around our home. I was poignantly made aware both what freedom looks like and how much we all want the same things.
When I told my prisoner-sock-friend the story of the smelly sock balls that were planted randomly around my home my eyes got a little foggy. The other students in the room got rambunctious. “Are you crying?” they all shouted, and giggled. They love to know they’ve affected me.
They were a rowdy bunch of puppies, constantly making me attend to the physical world anew. In the first class I taught I did what teachers have done for decades: I took 12 pencils and handed them to the person on my right and asked them to get passed round the circle. What I didn’t know was how long it would take for the pencils to make it around that group.
At first I could see no difference between the dozen yellow, #2 pencils. But then I noticed one was a tad longer. Another had a bulkier eraser. One pencil had teeth marks and it was the last to be chosen. It took 20 minutes for those pencils to make it around the circle of choice. When there is so little liberty, each decision must be weighed with more consequence.
My daughter and I love to choose pencils too. We adored back-to-school shopping for just this reason. We savored that moment in the pencil isle where so many colors and patterns wave at us. We also took time to linger over lunch choices.
I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my daughter almost every day she went to school. Then I asked her if she was ever bored, she shook her head violently, “No Mom. I can taste the love when I bite into that sandwich.” It’s the kind of corny thing only a really little kid will say. But I gobbled it up like any starved mother would.
I thought about my daughter when I arrived at the prison. I thought about her standing in line for lunch at school. My prisoner students lined up every time they moved about. They walked with their hands clasped behind their backs: one wrist in the palm of the other. Or, if the day had been particularly rowdy, both hands on top of their heads. They walked single file 2 feet apart.
When I arrived, at the far end of a long hallway, they could see my face brighten and I waved to them. My favorite guard looked the other way when a few of them forgot and waved back.
One girl, typically quiet and shy always waved back. I was surprised when she kept badgering me. “Are you going to eat one of the cupcakes? You need to eat one.” Then I realized why she wanted me to have one when she said, “They taste just like love.”
I’ve never tasted gratitude as profound as I did in that room of a dozen criminals. After the first class, when I left, they shook my hand over and over thanking me for coming. All I’d done was tell a few stories about my dog who had come to me the year my brother died. I was simply my raw self, and those teenagers lapped it up like thirsty camels.
As we were finishing the cupcakes, there was a rare moment of mild mayhem and my sock friend pulled me aside, extending his hand for a shake. “Thank you,” he said, “You’ve changed my life.” I patted him on the shoulder and told him he was destined for solid change. He stopped me and looked me right in the eye. “I mean it. You’ve changed my life.”
What I did in that room felt so tiny. I baked cupcakes and listened. I told a few of my own stories that originated from a real spot deep inside. But these are things I do without trying. Because he stopped me and made me accept his compliment fully I understood that accomplishing something worthwhile in my life doesn’t mean I have to try hard, it means I need to be willing to be authentic about the person I am, even when that embarrasses me because the frosting doesn’t look professional.
The photo you see above was originally me behind the camera. I stood on a chair, excited as I directed the photo opportunity. I wanted their hands. I was about to snap the photo when the dear guard who was a nearly silent presence at each of our classes told me my hand should be in the photo as well.
Sometimes I forgot. I forgot they were murderers and sex offenders. I forgot they held guns to people’s heads while they robbed people. To me they were kids I was trying to feed, first with words and then with a little dessert. But it was this man’s job to remember.
He was there to line them up and move them from our classroom back to their cells.
He was the one who said, “Your hand should be in this photo.” So he stood on a chair, higher than all of us.
There we were. The hands that murdered, petted dogs, robbed, balled up socks and made cupcakes. All of us. Together. I love this photo. I love those kids. They changed my life.
When has a story brought someone new into your circle? Has a cupcake allowed you to create an altared space? Do you linger over pencil choices too?
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