About a year ago, I wrote an essay about looking for a job and how I considered work as an English instructor in a prison. I concluded the piece by saying I could never work in a prison because the job posting I found required basic self-defense skills. Apparently they wanted a teacher who knew a particular choke hold and how to press a man to the ground with just your thumb jabbed into the upturned palm of his hand. I practiced the moves at home. I even added my own hissing warning. "Kiss the concrete, homie." Then I'd speak into my pretend shoulder mic, actually a meat tenderizer attached with a bread twisty-tie to my collar, the cord to my chicken fryer hanging off the end of it and tucked into my jeans. "This is block 13A. We've got a 914 in progress. Request immediate back-up." And then there'd be shouts and the sound of jackboots in the corridors. Buzzers would be going off and doors would be clanging shut everywhere. The CO's would all congratulate me for my quick, aggressive reflexes and they'd be impressed that one who normally never has to handle anything more severe than apostrophe misuse could handle a crisis so well. Of course, I'm in my kitchen with my cat pressed against the linoleum floor while I'm imagining all this. The meat tenderizer falls out of the bread tie knot and lands on my bare foot. The cat claws me, runs off, and poof! The dream is gone.
I should have known that if I wrote about how I could never work in a prison and blab to all my friends and family, the cosmos would hear me and make me eat my words.
I am now working in a prison.
I don't wear a mic, or a meat tenderizer for that matter, and I have never once laid a finger on any human being, inmate or CO. I am teaching a class on ancient Greek history, and the most aggressive thing I do in my classroom is count the pencils at the end of the night to be sure they have all been returned. I put numbers on each one with a special marker so I can trace them should someone try to filch a pencil. Not once has anyone attempted to keep one of my pencils.
There is the sound of doors shutting, but only one of them clangs, and that seems to be because it has a faulty track. They actually make a kind of hiss - chung sound. I do try to maintain a firm tone and early in the semester I actually said to them, "I knew when I signed on for this job that this place wasn't exactly the choir loft of the First Baptist church, and you guys ain't gonna be singing hymns." Now that's a line you've got to practice in front of a mirror if you want to say it effectively. I had tried it initially with a Clint Eastwood tone, but it's too wordy for Clint. So I gave it more of a Harvey Keitel in a bad mood sound. In truth, I'm sure I sounded like The Flying Nun trying to be a street tough. I am all of 120 pounds and I have been told I look like Sally Field. Out of politeness, they all kept straight faces when I said it. They are, among many things, unfailingly polite.
My prison attire is a collection of odd pieces of garments I gathered just for this job at thrift stores. My shirts are all either the color of a paper sack, a four day old bruise, or chewed up gum. They are boxy, have large nicked buttons, and are long enough to cover my backside. I match these with baggy dark slacks and running shoes. I have let the gray grow out in my hair and I always wear my glasses. The goal is to appear as unmemorable and shapeless as possible. When I look in the mirror I see the somewhat less attractive, shorter sister of Jane Hathaway.
I get a real kick out of telling people that I work in a prison. It's especially amusing when someone from church or my children's school asks me to do volunteer for something and I get to say in a very somber tone, "I'm sorry, but I'll be in prison that day." Trust me when I tell you that absolutely no one knows what to say in the face of a statement like that. It elicits the same response as saying, "I'm sorry, but at that time I'll be in hell's waiting room." Or, "I'd love to help with the bake sale, but I plan to shoot up a lot of heroin that morning." In my middle age I have become so macabre I can hold a completely straight face for at least five seconds, a painfully long time when your listener desperately wants to run for her car and squeal away from the scene. I do explain, eventually. "Oh, well, what I mean is that I work in prison and I'll be teaching a class that night." A look of giddy delight and relief pours over my listener's face and she starts babbling about how she could never work in a prison. She usually follows up with some comment about how scary it must be, and this is when I grab her hand and pin her to the asphalt under my thumb in three seconds flat. "I can teach you how to do that. I can actually do it much faster with my cat, but that's because she weighs only eight pounds." And this is the point when my listener jumps in her car and runs away for real. "That's right, homie. Put the pencil back in the box, and nobody gets hurt."