Last Thursday I went to jail. I promise I’ll only make that joke once, because once you’ve been to jail, it isn’t funny. It was my first day as director of our project at the Norfolk City Jail. And it was the first day I would realize that all of the things that have happened to me — all of the things — were in preparation for this day.
I spent my early youth in an all-white suburb of Detroit. I knew there was something off about this even as a small child, and drove my parents crazy with questions. I now know some of the answers to those questions, but the smack of shame that hit me burnt fresh as I walked past the cages (and that’s what they are, cages) full of brown men. Then, the aroma of teenaged boy, which when you have teenaged sons you adore is a sweet scent of promise and loss, brought tears to my eyes. I was following in the wake of Karen Hopkins of the Sheriff’s office who greeted many of the men by name and with a smile. I slapped a smile on and took a deep breath.
Mr. Thomas, the 8th floor counselor, introduced me to my three writers. We sat at a small table in a sort of side hall and got to know each other. Turns out they already identify as writers. They’ve been writing in journals every day for Mr. Thomas, who reads and comments on their entries. Later, he would tell me that this helps him get to know them better, so that he can be his most helpful. I wanted to hug him.
My students so far: C., quiet and introspective; Q., long and lanky with a great sense of humor; and S., younger than the others with darting eyes and a soft voice.
We wrote, we shared, we talked about how grateful we are to be writers, to have that freedom to express ourselves. Each of us had that one teacher early on who called us out as writers, motivated and encouraged us. Told us we were good at something we thought until then was just for ourselves. Something to do, not something to be. The energy in the space was incredible — what happens when real connections are made between people. The time disappeared. Afterwards, I just made it the three blocks to my husband’s office before I burst into tears. I had found my gig.
Everything that’s happened to me — from Michigan to my four sons, from those teachers who called me out to the friends who got me through rejections and dismissals — was in preparation for this.
I’m heading back on Thursday, and every Thursday after that. We started Seven Cities Writers Project for a very simple reason. We have something to give to people who need it, and we are so grateful for the opportunity.