Read A Round-Heeled Woman Online

Authors: Jane Juska

Tags: #Fiction

A Round-Heeled Woman (10 page)

BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
13.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


San Quentin State Prison

Luck and Joy and Grief and I
Set off together into the world of existence.
Luck lay down and Joy ran off,
But Grief and I go wandering on.

—A Persian poem, author unknown

With two strikeouts under my belt, I decide to postpone actual meetings for a while, maybe even forever. I am, however, a slow learner and eventually will step up to the plate once again. In the meantime, I have a life, a rather busy life, in fact. Monday, I sing, Tuesday and Thursday, I teach. On Wednesday, I drive across the bridge to prison.

San Quentin State Prison is a formidable monument to society's failure. It is California's oldest prison and houses 6,000 men. Of these, 634 men live on Death Row. In years past, inmates were allowed to apply for Pell Grants, and with that money they paid for teachers from a nearby community college to come to the prison. In his second term President Clinton signed a bill with a rider prohibiting Pell Grants for the incarcerated. So, under the direction of Naomi, champion of lost causes, who has talked this program into being, we teach for free. We and our teaching assistants are from U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, and St. Mary's College. We will give grades even though, in the beginning, there is no apparatus in place for credits earned. In a very real way, this is a fantasy college. The instructors teach courses they are not allowed to teach in their day-to-day lives; thus, Naomi, who in her day job is director of Religious Studies at Davis, teaches Eastern philosophy; John, a professor of history at Berkeley, teaches Shakespeare; I, normally in the School of Education, teach writing; Sue, who has put aside her Ph.D. in chemistry in order to rear her children, teaches science. My class, the class I made up, the class that will combine the best elements of all the courses I have ever taught, is called English 234: Reading, Writing and Telling Stories. It turns out a winner. But, like every course I have ever taught, I will learn the most, so that, while my students learn to read stories, write stories, and tell stories, I learn about love and sex and language behind prison walls and the lives my students live there.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.


San Quentin stretches along the eastern shore of California's Marin County. It looks out onto San Francisco Bay, where, not far away, Alcatraz sits in splendid isolation on its very own island, now a federal park and a popular tourist site. San Quentin, while offering one of the world's most beautiful views of sky and sea and San Francisco itself, is a working prison; tourists need not apply.

In the winter, the wind whips in from the bay. Every night we come here the rain lashes us as we make our way along the chain-link fence from the main gate, where we have been wanded and our briefcases searched, to the second gate, where again we sign in, open our briefcases, show our brown cards, and proceed. I am cold and wet, my yellow raincoat is in my closet at home. We are forbidden to wear yellow, that being the color of the inmates' slickers, and, we are told, we might be mistaken for an inmate and shot. We are not allowed to wear blue, that being the color of the inmates' trousers and shirts. We are warned not to run.

A large sign on the wall of this second guardhouse informs us that we have entered a No-Hostage Zone, which means that if one or more of us are taken prisoner, the corrections officers (guards) will not negotiate our safe return. We have been ordered to wear whistles around our necks. We are required to display them in such a way as to be visible at all times to the corrections officers.

Once we are cleared, the guard signals another officer high up in a glass-enclosed cage to open the iron gate. We hold our brown cards high and shudder—we never get used to it—as the gate opens with a deep, resounding clang. The sound is like nothing we have ever heard: it pierces our bodies, slams our heads, a chain mail of sound. One more door—not so tall and not so wide but heavy, heavy steel—and we enter the courtyard of the prison itself.

On our left is a building marked over its door “Adjustment Center.” The corrections officer has told us that some men who enter San Quentin are not ready for life on the Row, and so spend some time here. From my students, I will learn another name for this center: the Hole. It is where some of my students, Hectare, for one, will spend some of their time. It is solitary confinement. “Don't expect him back anytime soon,” my students say of Hectare.

Behind the Adjustment Center, Death Row rises high above the rest of the prison. The lights are on all night and all day.

Everything I have ever heard about prison is true. And I haven't heard the half of it.

Tonight the storm has made us late. Our students are supposed to be on the six o'clock movement, ticketed to Education. Sometimes they are late because, as a student explains, “Feeding was late because counting was late, and counting was late because there were too many orange men.” Orange men are new arrivals who await the classification that will determine whether they stay at San Quentin or go elsewhere; they wear orange jumpsuits. But, at least, tonight is not lockdown. Lockdown means just that: nobody goes anywhere—inmates must remain in their cells, outsiders stay out. It means that something dangerous has happened in the prison: a killing; weapons discovered. Whatever it is, lockdown means the other teachers and I will have to go back across the bay and wait for another night.

Tonight, no lockdown and our students are not late. Because they are not allowed to go into the classrooms without us, they huddle against our classroom building, heads bent against the weather, yellow slickers shiny with rain. They greet us with “Afraid you weren't going to make it,” and “Thanks for coming.” They are glad to see us. Likewise. It has been a long and arduous journey.

Most of the men in my class are housed on North Block, the unit with the highest security next to Death Row (which we have been instructed by prison officials to call Condemned Row). The men on the Row could, if I consented, take my writing class by videotape. But I do not consent; too much of what will be valuable to my students will come to them by way of interaction, live-action learning, if you will. My students are longtime inhabitants of San Quentin. Those who don't come from North Block come from the Ranch (minimum security), or H Unit (medium security). A few, a very few, will be released during my five-year tenure at the prison.

Frederick is different. There is at San Quentin a special housing unit for cross-dressers, preop transsexuals, flamboyantly gay men. It is called Dorm 5 and, I am told, is a special kind of hell. Frederick comes from there. Frederick is unlike any student, any man, any person, I have ever encountered, in or out of prison. In common parlance, he is flaming. He flaunts his gayness: he does not walk, he sashays; he does not stroll, he minces; he does not sit, he flounces. His wrists are limp, his nails are long, his hips rhumba to a rhythm heard only by him. Each week he sports a new hairstyle: marcelled, dyed blond; crew, dyed black; spikes, dyed platinum. He is African-American. He is, in this classroom, utterly alone.

When I ask the men to read their writing to a partner, Frederick doesn't have one. When I ask the men to move into their response groups, Frederick doesn't have one. When Frederick chooses a chair in which he will sit for this evening's class, men move away from him. But Frederick stays with it. He does not withdraw, as he did from his basic composition course the previous semester, claiming sexual harassment. Frederick does his work, keeps to himself, and seems content, more or less, to have me for a partner and a group. No one in the class says a word to Frederick or about him. He is an island unto himself. He bears up admirably.

Early in the semester, my mind on my day job back across the bay, I assigned for the following week's reading one of my favorite short stories, included in our text,
The Best American
Short Stories, 1994,
donated by good people at Houghton Mifflin. It is Carolyn Ferrell's “Proper Library.” The story is memorable for its gorgeous rendering of black dialect in the voice of Lorrie, a fourteen-year-old boy growing up in the projects. It is funny, sad, and full of love. To my mind, that is reason enough to assign it as reading to my students, who, as the semester continues, will reveal themselves as funny, sad, and full of love. All this is not quite clear at this point; I am certain only that the story will speak for itself to these men who have signed up for this course in an attempt to escape the boredom and the brutality of prison life if only for three hours a week. On the other side of the wall, a history class murmurs forward; on the opposite side, math with its occasional outburst of frustration. Along our wall, the radiator hisses and clanks.

And so on this night, in the few minutes before class is to begin, I scan “Proper Library.” One thing I can count on: my students have done their homework, they have read this story. Tonight, the men seem unusually reluctant to take their seats. Then I see it, there, in the second paragraph, the phrase “fucking in the butt.” I forgot: Lorrie, one of the most lovable and most loving characters in all literature, is gay. Where is Frederick?

Quietly, most of the students take their seats in what Mike has named Our Circle of Kings Plus One, the One being me. From the group of four standing near the door, D.C. says, “We think, given our environment here . . . uh . . .” He stares at the floor from his six-foot-seven-inch height. Homer continues for him: “We do not think this story is appropriate reading material for us, in . . . uh . . . these circumstances.”

From my seat in the circle, one eye on the door should Frederick come in late, and because I have no idea on earth what ought to be said, I repeat the title “Proper Library” and open my book. Outside the floor-to-ceiling window of our classroom the wind howls in from San Francisco Bay and slaps the winter rain against the bulletproof glass. Inside is not very cozy either. I say to the reluctant learners at the door, “Are you saying we can't talk about it?”

From his seat, Barney says, “We can talk about it, analyze it, we just can't allow ourselves to feel about it.” With this, everybody, finally, is sitting in the circle and nobody, absolutely nobody, likes this story.

Marcellus takes us through: “I'm reading along about all this food in this paragraph and I get to . . .”—he won't say “fucking in the butt” but continues—“and I say, Whoa! What's that doing there?” A few chuckles. Marcellus reads from the story: “ ‘Boston cream pie and pancakes, roast turkey'—and I'm loving this story and then . . . that.” More laughter. “And then, a couple more pages and his mother says, ‘If that boy puts his thing on you, cut it off.' And I got it! This kid's a faggot!”

Cameron jumps in: “Yeah! Up to then I'm right with the story, but no way, no how, am I going to get with this boy.” All heads nod in agreement. Barney will write in his Reader Response that he is “unable to identify emotionally with the subject.”

The chair outside the circle, the one in the back corner, the one Frederick would sit in were he here, is empty. I breathe a bit easier. “Turn to page one hundred fourteen,” I say. I read aloud a paragraph in which this boy, Lorrie, this “faggot,” is thinking about his biology teacher, on whom he has a crush:
“Love is a pie
and I am lucky enough to have almost every flavor in mine. . . . And Mr.
D'Angelo, do you know . . . I would give anything if you ask me to sit on
your lap and ask me to bite into your ear so that it tingles like the bell that
rips me in and out of your class. I would give anything. Love is a pie. Didn't you know that? Mr. D'Angelo, I am in silent love in a loud body. So
don't turn away. Sweat.”
I look around the circle at my murderers and rapists and thieves and addicts, some all of the above, and repeat,
“I am in silent love in a loud body.”
And then I say to the students, “If I could write language like that, I would consider myself a most fortunate writer.”

David bursts out with, “But that's just plain everyday language!”

“That's the beauty of it,” says Fatim.

“What's this kid doing under the bridge anyway?” Homer wants to know.

“He's meeting with this Rakeem dude,” answers D.C.

I read aloud:
“He traveled me to a quiet place where his hands were
the oars and I drifted off to sleep.”

“But he don't stay there,” says Marcellus. “He goes back to study his words for that big citywide test.”

“So he got a choice,” says Fatim. “He don't have to be no faggot.”

Now we're talking. I say, “From what I know and from what I read in this story, this boy is by his very nature homosexual, gay from birth.”

“I don't know about that,” says David, “being born gay.” Others nod in agreement.

Later, on the drive home, it will come to me that these men must be desperate to hang on to their heterosexuality, their manhood, no matter if in their present circumstances they are somebody's “wife” or “gal boy” or “old lady.” They need to believe that prison has forced them to behave in ways they would never choose, that they are not faggots by birth, no matter what. They must believe that Lorrie has a choice and that if they, here in this prison, could get out from under this bridge, they would return easily and naturally to their essential straightness. “That Lorrie,” says Marcellus, “he don't have to go to that bridge.”

I will not argue. I am a happy teacher. Our talk, our language, and the language of Carolyn Ferrell has tempered the anger, the depression so integral to prison life. For now anyway.

And Frederick? Frederick did his homework. He stayed home.

BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
13.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Tete-a-Tete by Hazel Rowley
The Heavenly Baker by J J Monroe
Your Worst Nightmare by P.J. Night
Live to See Tomorrow by Iris Johansen
Mission by Patrick Tilley
Flutter by Linko, Gina
Asylum by Kristen Selleck
The Demon Signet by Shawn Hopkins