Writing Outside the Bars: A Journey of Self-Discovery
Summary: Geraghty came to know Jackson, a convicted murderer at age sixteen, when she taught him in a juvenile detention center. Their writing exchange documents the power of writing in even the most desperate situations.
He was in the first class I taught at the juvenile detention center. I noticed his small frame and soft-spoken nature in contrast to the invincible front the other boys touted. I had decided it was best if I didn't know the crimes committed by any of my students. I didn't want to be biased, much less freaked out, so as far as I knew, this quiet kid could've been there for chronic truancy.
Most of the boys rotated in and out on a two-day to a two-week basis. But he stayed. Weeks turned into months and it became evident that he was in detention for something much graver than truancy. One day at lunch, I finally asked one of the guards about this shy and seemingly smart sixteen-year-old.
She cocked her head and licked mustard from her fingers. "Oh, Jevon. He killed that woman at Popeye's. Right in front of her daughter. He's a smartass. Don't even act like he done nothing."
Murder. You would never pick him out as a "murderer." There he was, every day raising his hand, scrolling neatly on paper, finishing every assignment with precision and ease in his wrinkled blue jumpsuit. The vision I had of "a killer" was so different from what I witnessed in this boy. There was no obvious trace of malice. He wasn't cold or sinister. Didn't flash gang signs, cuss, or wear homemade India ink tattoos. That first year of teaching, I found myself developing a sort of fascination for Jevon, a curiosity that drove me to want to know him, to understand the person he was because of and despite his actions.
On an every-day basis, I attempted to treat Jevon like all the other students in detention. Yet I noticed things like his penmanship; each letter created of precise loops and crafted angles. He devoured books, and then intently wrote about them. He participated in discussions and tutored his peers whenever possible. Because of his apparent intelligence and the severity of his situation, I knew I had to engage this boy in an education larger than school. How do you get someone facing a probable lifetime prison sentence to think, much less care about lessons? I couldn't give this boy worksheets on pronouns and prepositional phrases. This boy took a life, watched a woman die. I had to find some way to connect with him, and at the same time provide him with a means of connecting with himself. Through writing, Jevon and I discovered a way to make education hold meaning.
In order for Jevon to trust my invitation to write, I realized I had to make myself vulnerable. I needed him to see me as a person, not just another passing authority figure. One day, as class was ending, I handed him a folded piece of paper. I was nervous. I said, "This is one of my poems. Let me know what you think."
I read her poem four or five times before I was able to gain full understanding. Initially, I couldn't help but wonder if this lady was crazy or something? I couldn't figure out why anyone would have passion for a bunch of kids who had utter indifference towards her, and even more towards themselves. I was convinced that she was a little "off." But I liked her poem and it made me want to write.
When I was in detention, I felt as if my heart and soul had forsaken me. Nothing made sense. I didn't know who I was anymore. I had always thought of myself as the sweet, smart guy that my mother raised me to be, but who was I now after the unforgivable grief and misery I had created? I took a person's life. Why? How? What in the hell was I thinking? If the color red mixes itself with blue, then how could it still consider itself red? Wouldn't it have to look at itself as purple? If a sweet, smart guy mixes himself with violence and evil, would that make him a different person? Wouldn't he have to look at himself as violent and evil? Self-perception is so critical to understanding your world and to tackle this understanding I had to figure out who I was.
The only way I could express myself was through words. Streams of consciousness. Random feelings and thoughts on paper. Sometimes it rhymed and sometimes it even made sense to share with someone else. I shared a few of my written thoughts with Ms. Geraghty—she called them "poems." I was offended. I thought only brokenhearted girls and sissies wrote poems, but then she gave me works of other poets. Guys like Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Ethridge Knight, Zora Neale Hurston. Wait a second! These people had the gift of sun-born eloquence, a verbal finesse to paint vivid portraits of tragedy with the most gentle and galvanizing brushstrokes. How could someone take tragic circumstances and make them sound like slow soothing music on the page? I was captivated, not just by the poetry, but by the sudden, beautiful Universe to which I was exposed. Writing gave me a bit of insight into the last sliver of hope that I didn't know I still had at the time. After reading a bit of Langston, I wrote something to give to Ms. Geraghty.
My dream is to mingle
With the clouds that ascend up high.
Wings of faith uplift me,
The hopeless tend to wonder why.
Believers go beyond the stars
To feel the groove of the cosmic pop
Will it remain heaven bound . . .
Or will it drop?
I wrote more and more and found myself falling into an indescribable marital bliss with reading and writing. Written words were my only companion in that little hot box of a cell. Most times I wrote just for the sake of expression, never giving weight to how those words could affect someone else's beliefs or opinions. Somewhere along the experience of it all, I found my voice. The voice that wasn't holed up in a brick room all day. I found the voice I needed to keep some type of civil conversation going with the world.
Jevon Jackson creatively defines a few words that matter . . .
Revised and Redefined
Agonize /`ag uh ,niz/ 1. >verb (transitive)—to undergo the possible disruption or destruction of something loved or cared for, like mortar fire that bakes the feathers off angels—sizzled to ashen bone, until the species nudges closer to extinction. 2. To lug those troubled gallons of lachrymose deep inside them big ol' brittle bottles of the heart—wanting so badly to smash one, just one bottle, shattered carelessly against curb and urban stone, just to let it all out—to let it go and know that you've opened—but nobody (not anyone) wants a bird when it's broken.
Prisoner /`priz uhn ,er/ 1. > noun—someone who refuses to use their granny apple greens and Prussian blues, their fire engine reds and rose magentas, their lemon yellow hues and orange fluorescents—thinking that gun-metal gray is the most efficient way to paint the universe. 2. A person forever confined within the comfortable chrysalis of his mind, tragically, without a taste of dream nor a flex of wing to poke thru that old, cold stratosphere.
Rebellion /ri `bel yuhn/ 1. > noun—the act of placing jazz inside a song where it actually don't belong, with bad grammar and a militant pronunciation of words like POLITICS and CONSCIENCE and SPIRITUAL ASCENSION. 2. To gather evidence against the general consensus and hide it inside brass instruments, and platinum lyrics, and silver tweeters and big ass black speakers that bust the tympanic membrane of our deaf and stalled civility. Synonyms: (see Marley, Marvin, or Langston)
Jevon aged in detention for almost two years, waiting to be tried in adult court. During these months, he and I shared poems, recommended books, and inspired one another's writing. I watched his withdrawn and inaccessible inner self begin to crack open through his words. I encouraged him to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper so he could speak for himself rather than be the subject of someone else's critique. He accepted the challenge and wrote an articulate letter in which he apologized to the community and to the family of the woman he killed. In about two weeks, Jevon's letter was published. Upon seeing his words in print, Jevon was both shocked and thrilled. His words could get out, even though he couldn't.
Jevon's time at the detention center was nearing its end. The case received a great deal of media coverage in the days preceding his trial. As I read the various newspaper articles, I was reminded of the horrific nature of his crime. I tried to digest the newspaper's account of the murder with an objective eye. I was overcome with grief and anger for the woman and her family. At the same time, I reluctantly read the statements of the judge who sentenced Jevon to life in prison: "Apparently there was something building up in him. For reasons we don't know, he deteriorated into an animal, an animal stalking his victims on the street." For days, maybe weeks I tried to reconcile the stories of the murder with the young man writing poetry in my classroom. I wanted it to be as clear and simple as it seemed for that judge, but there was too much unexamined gray area to make picking a side possible. It appeared so easy to dismiss Jevon "for reasons we don't know" and make him less than human so we could all feel better. It was as if the judge was saying, "Don't be scared. This boy is an animal and animals belong in cages. He is not like us." The truth was that he was like us. I talked to him. I read his thoughts. I watched him grapple with all of the "reasons we don't know" and try to make sense of them, try to understand and redeem himself. He was more like us, more human than this judge and all of society was willing to see or admit.
After the third day on trial, I was found guilty on all charges. I remember walking back to my cell thinking about my suicide plan. I knew how to make a hangman's noose out of rope—I learned that in Boy Scouts. I had already torn my bed sheets the day before to form a makeshift rope. I couldn't think of anything to change my mind; I looked, I searched, but I was ready to go.
It was a few hours after I had been found guilty, and I was lying on the hard, flat bunk in my cell thinking about nothing. The judge's bailiff appeared in front of my door. Did they forget to find me guilty for something I didn't know about? It was surprising to see him standing there. He's the guy who ushered me back and forth from the courtroom to the courtroom's holding cell during the trial. He was the one who sat in the back of the courtroom to ensure I wouldn't all of a sudden shed my shy boyish demeanor and try to choke the DA or anything like that. Bailiffs are never seen in the housing part of the jail, so it shocked me when a look of concern washed over his face and he asked if I was doing okay. I don't remember how I responded or the exact words that were exchanged as we talked for the next couple of minutes. It could have been a half hour. I was so out of it at that point, all I could recall was this big burly lumberjack of a man encouraging me that everything was gonna be okay. He told me how guys sometimes get things overturned on appeal. He told me to stay positive, and with that, he was off.
After he left the unit, the unit officers let me out into the dayroom for the rest of the day. In disciplinary segregation, you're only allowed one hour a day in the dayroom, but I guess the lumberjack bailiff must've put in the good word.
Obviously, I didn't carry out my plan. Sometimes I think about whether I was really serious about going through with it or not. If all it took was some strange guy to offer me a few words of encouragement to dissuade me, how serious could I have been? But then I think about what that bailiff symbolized for me at that moment—a flicker of light in the darkness. He was able to sit in that courtroom day after day and absorb all the gut-wrenching testimonies, see all the graphic pictures of the scene, watch as the DAs created this savage monster-like version of me, and after all that, still see me as someone worth lifting up. That really touched me. It made me realize that I did have people in my corner. He became an instant reminder of all the loved ones I had in my life who, regardless of my situation, truly believed in me. And more importantly, I was reminded of the responsibility I had to share something of my life with others.
ABCs of Brothahood
Exclude Ferocious Games,
Nauseous Of Pallbearers,
Warbling, Xeroxed &
Jevon eventually was given a life sentence. We continued our correspondence for the next eight years. We didn't have access to phone calls or instantaneous emails and subsequently the process of writing became a way to communicate with ourselves as much as it was to share our thoughts with one another. Through our words, we witnessed each other grow. Two years ago, Jevon and I discussed the possibility of writing something together. His eloquent and articulate perspectives could not be wasted in a cell. With each letter I received, I realized how much Jevon had to offer, and I became passionate about sharing his words and experiences. I took a creative writing workshop to encourage the process. When it was my turn to hammer out my ideas with the group, a woman interrupted. "Did you ever ask him why he killed the woman that night?" I was quiet for a moment, realizing that I had never addressed the murder. We had managed to write around it, which left a hollow space between us. When I got home from the workshop, I immediately wrote Jevon with my question: the difficult question I believed would ultimately bring us to a new level of intimacy and lead us directly into our story.
I was honored and excited at the thought of writing something with Ms. G. Yet her question was daunting and for weeks I wracked my brain for an answer. That unshakeable question of "Why?" stared at me with such a bountiful urgency that I began to methodically ignore it. I could've reached into that big bag of clichéd excuses to satisfy my nagging queries of "Why?" I could've blamed it on "the streets" or the no-good hoodlums I was hanging with. Better yet, I could've pulled the trump card and blamed it on the one-parent broken home I grew up in. But none of these excuses fit. None of those worn-out reasons for doing wrong could make my raging, wide-eyed explorations of "Why?" peacefully fall asleep. So I was launched into a mindful search of a more meaningful explanation.
During this time, I was reading some of the books Ms. G. recommended. I used to think reading fiction was about as much fun as watching golf on television until I got ahold of books like Catcher in the Rye and Native Son and I found myself feeling the exact same way as the Holden Caulfields and Bigger Thomases of the world. I was a living example of Holden's bitter sense of isolation and the grave ramifications of Bigger's crime echoed mine, with the same racial overtones. These were people I could finally relate to and the insurmountable weight of "Why?" felt lighter. I began to write more, explore the question through written self-expression. Why would a sixteen-year-old kid pick up a gun and take the life of another human being? Obviously I could never answer that question with enough sufficiency to satisfy the minds of those who wonder, but the answer that has comfortably restored the clarity within me is one that comes from an age-old story I once heard. It's the story of the grandfather who explains to his grandson the constant polarities that thrive within us:
"It is as if there are two wolves inside me: one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so and in the right way. But the other wolf, Ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger is so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit." The boy looked intently into his grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?" The grandfather smiled and said, "The one I feed."
I had fed the wrong wolf. I had sedulously fed the wolf of anger, marijuana, insecurities, greed, guns, and neighborhood rivalries. I never made the conscious decision to take someone's life; I did choose to do criminal things. And as the steadfast laws of metaphysics suggest, negativity breeds negativity. Feeding the wrong wolf eventually led me to a place where I was responsible for the loss of someone's life and it was through reading and writing that I was able to realize this. Without writing I would not know who I am today. I wouldn't have the preacher's self-esteem, the champion's confidence, or even the Zen monk's insight to keep myself balanced. Without writing, without the smoothed-out therapy of self-expression, I would still be lost. Writing is the calming introspective drug of the gods. It forces you to bare your Truths and confront your inner ugliness. Even when one makes attempts to avoid that ugliness, its absence stands out like whirling sirens, stuck between the words.
I still struggle. I can't get that woman's life back, but I can do something meaningful with mine. When it gets too much, I often think of that first poem Ms. G. shared with me, how writing allows us to re-write, to un-write and to re-construct our worlds.
Jevon has been a bright star for me during my fifteen years of teaching. Unlike an architect or a chef, a teacher doesn't have a product at the end of the day, or even at the end of the year. Teachers focus on the process, which is great, but sometimes you really want something to hold on to, some tangible thing that represents the fruit of your labors. Jevon has been that symbol to me. The symbol of the hundreds of students for whom I will never see or know any hope. I am deeply honored to continue to get to know Jevon, to participate in life education with a talented individual who could have easily been written off as another statistic in the nation's correctional system. Through writing, we have both found a place for life to hold meaning, to matter, to re-construct.