“This is home,” says Mr. Sophocles.
“You just have to accept it, man. The more you think about the outside the harder it gets,” says Mr. Ulysses.
“I go to accept it and then, just when I’m there, something happens that pisses me off and I’m back to square one!” says Mr. Icarus.
I never know how class will begin—usually, because it begins regardless of my presence and preparation. By the time someone lets us into the room, a heated debate about Sophocles’ predictions for the World Cup, or not doing the reading for class, or each man’s children at home is well underway. Today, it was about home.
“Well, Mr. Icarus, let me ask you a question: what is home? What defines or makes home?” Nathan asks.
“Home is where your roots are, where your relations is.” Mr. Levi says.
“Where my cat is.” Mr. Icarus avoids the question.
“Where my lady is.” Mr. Mars sneers. They laugh in a way that makes me think the cat and the lady are synonymous.
“Where I am is home.”
“Wherever you are, you’re there.”
“Is there a way to make a place home?” Nathan is trying to build the conversation. It’s something he’s good at, something I’ve started to learn from watching him.
“I bring things of meaning to me. A picture of Mrs. Sophocles, my cat, my horses. Things of sentimental value.”
“But I’ve also lost so many things, things of sentimental value. Because what’s here today is gone tomorrow. Fttt.”
“It’s all temporary. People are temporary. Everything is temporary. Jail is temporary.”
“Besides things, is there any other way to make a space home?” Sometimes you just need to ask again.
“It’s been hard, coming from a collegiate environment like U.Va.,” from where Mr. Icarus holds a bachelor’s degree, “to this place. It’s been a shock.”
“Relationships can make home. That’s not, you know, about making a space home. But it’s about relationships—even with the space that is home.” Mr. Ulysses. “But you miss a lot of that in here, you know? I found out my best friend died in here, in the obituaries. Found out in the paper.”
They fall silent and they all look like they’re reading obituaries. The room feels momentarily colder. At this point I feel I have a choice of what to say next.
As they’ve been speaking, I’ve begun to reflect on what I think makes home. Moving from dorm to dorm each year, home becomes movable in a small array of objects: my copies of Barth’s Dogmatics and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; my broken pocket watch from Heidelberg; my teddy bear Aloysius; a Jerusalem cross pinned to the wall. And so I begin to think that maybe home is about control in self-expression, or about familiarity, or about repetition. I could share those thoughts but that seems out of place. As much as that sort of sharing has helped me learn over my lengthening education—the facilitating voice—it does not seem to be quite as helpful in the jail. So I choose to talk about something else.
Over the course of the summer, the students never once turned down an opportunity to learn more about me and about where I come from. Lt. Virgil would probably advise me not to give up a single autobiographical inch. But, at various times I have, and without fail the students reacted with a remarkable openness and receptivity. More than any concept, theory or written story that we have shared in class, our own stories—Nathan’s and mine—have woken them up from that classroom stupor. So I read a paragraph.
“So, we didn’t plan on talking about any of this for the lesson today,” I chuckle awkwardly. “But, I brought the autobiography that I wrote when I took this class. And I didn’t plan on reading this or anything, but there’s a section here about home, or what my home was like. So I thought I could read a section from mine and then we could move onto paragraphs from what you all wrote?” Sure seems the best way to characterize my impression of the group. I read a little.
My father, a Pentecostal minister, believed in centering his family around the Christ as best he could. It really was not as bad as most people assume—most misguided by images of fire-breathing televangelists. I would like to dispel the myth that being the son of a minister is like living under the Ayatolla Khomeini. My parents were truly no more or less protective than any others; I saw the Harry Potter movies, went to parties where kids drank and danced at prom with real live girls.
But on the other hand, the factor of Christianity most definitely made my parents different; they never swore or drank—expect for my mother’s annual glass of wine. Mom ate lunch weekly with women who had fallen on hard times and Dad rose early Thursday morning, not for golf, but to lead a men’s Bible study for skeptics at a local ice cream shop. It was hard for many of my friends to understand; even our devout Sunday morning attendance often struck them as inconvenient or rather old fashioned, like having a black and white TV. But the very fabric of our family was centered around religion; Jesus was an everyday and every-night occurrence.
“Come pray for me!” the same call ritualistically echoed down the hallway of our family home as every evening the heavy, familiar drumming of my parents bare feet would rumble through the floor boards in the hallway. With a soft knock on the door, my father would let a creak of light into my bedroom to navigate across the cluttered floor to my bedside and without so much as opening my eyes—if I were already so tired—I would thrust my hand from beneath my covers. “Dear Lord…” he would begin.
Very rarely had my parents not been beckoned like that to stand at my bedside, take my hand and say a short prayer. Having nightly gone through our quick ritual for as long as I can truly remember, any attempt to recollect all those times takes me to a period in my life that I would be tempted to call primordial. I am sure that when I was a baby my parents prayed over me, even as I slept in the white wooden crib, which now gathers dust in my basement.
I’m not sure that I had looked at that autobiography again since I finished Dr. Warren’s class. So reading it aloud to the inmates felt one step short of sharing my middle school diary—mostly because I did not recall exactly what I wrote. And, of course, I am diseased by the virus that infects all students: a fear of sharing my writing. Because people often react in totally unexpected ways.
When I finished the students were just staring. That really did not help my self-esteem. I finished reading and their faces said nothing and said it very loudly. Free of quality and terribly severe, I could not tell if they were expressions of pity or marvel. Blank and amazed.
“That’s remarkable.” Mr. Sophocles broke the silence.
“What does that mean? I honestly can’t tell from your face. Is that like a look of pity or…” I asked.
“I can’t imagine that kind of structure. You had stability.” Mr. Ulysses.
“I’d pay for that kind of life!” Mr. Sophocles said it with a sort of gasp.
I felt that the class had inverted there, that I was now the object of attention, the subject of study. And to me, there seemed to be a spark of truth in it. That their reception of my story overhauled our position towards the barriers that separated us—the prison line, the class line, the race line, the sacred barrier of individuals—was a shift I suspect I alone could feel. A dialogue appeared that I had never before seen.
At first there was the story as I wrote it four years ago; at that time, the writing was an attempt to draw out of my muddled childhood memories both a sense of order and a coherent aesthetic, a vision that redeemed and organized my fretted recollections of my childhood. Since that time, I have never told the story any other way. Even as I read to the inmates, I saw my childhood by the old glow of tradition, by the wood toned beauty of clergy life, and the liturgical pulse of Christian time.
But I had never considered it as story worth gawking at. It had never occurred to me that my fifteen year-old retelling of my childhood deserved the sort of attention and reception that the students offered in hearing. I never thought it was the kind of story “I’d pay for.” Though I considered it a beautiful story, especially in the forgotteness of religion, I had never considered it amazing. The students empower me to do just that. In academic terms, the class offered me an alternate reading of my own story—which is, of course, to say myself.
I am not sure I was able to communicate my gratefulness. I did not understand it until now, until writing this post. But, in my defense, I was not given much time to think then.
“I’d pay for that kind of life!” Mr. Sophocles said it with a sort of gasp. And then he leaned forward in his plastic chair. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“It’s the last day.” I shrugged.
“When did you lose your virginity?”
Purple Woman/Kitchen/Second View
(American, born 1949)