By Jeffrey Loeb West of the city the river road beckoned, all soft oak-leaves and ripening corn. It struck me as a place for reflection, so on impulse I cut north off the Interstate, over the state line. I’d cross back at the Leavenworth Bridge. Cracks in the worn asphalt boomed under my tires. The curvy highway, I knew, had started as hard-packed ruts worn 150 years before by the wagons of small farmers. It had also been used furtively, at night, by runaway slaves, because it afforded them access to the Missouri River sandbars.
I was teaching circuit-rider English that year at half-a-dozen colleges and universities, so the temporary job I was headed to was familiar. What wasn’t familiar—and what I wanted to think about while I drove—was the students: federal prisoners taking courses on the inside. My actual paycheck came from St. Mary College of Leavenworth, but beyond the interview, with the first nun I’d knowingly talked to in twenty years, I’d been left pretty much on my own. While this arrangement let me evade supervision, I’d also had to invent my own curriculum.
The students—the inmates—were in the last semester or two before receiving their BA’s. Given what I was to find out about the vagaries of prison life, especially at a maximum-security facility like Leavenworth, for a prisoner to reach this level was an enormous achievement. The average sentence was eighteen years, and the only way a man arrived there was to have screwed up somewhere else in the system. On top of that, in federal prisons, convicts served their entire sentences. No parole. Yet somehow, in this utterly demoralizing situation, these students, cramped by bunkmates and open toilets, had mustered the fortitude to amass over a hundred college hours.
I’d learned most of this while going through a standard orientation for anyone with business inside, from day workers to delivery people to teachers. The process had several steps, all evolved from keeping people at close rein: blood and urine tests, done at a windowless building near the prison; followed by an interview with a doctor whose thoughts were elsewhere (stirring only briefly at spotting traces of my back medication, but quickly sinking back into lethargy and signing the necessary forms); and a lecture from a uniformed, stone-faced guard who shared the following bit of wisdom: “Every one of these men has a con, and they’re going to try it on you. Whatever you do, don’t carry any messages for them, and don’t accept any phone calls from them. They’re smart, and they’ll use you in a minute.”
The final session had been with the prison librarian (a civilian like me, bearing no resemblance to the trustee rolling his cart from cell to cell in that year’s big prison movie Shawshank Redemption), who took me through a subbasement housing books in order to design my curriculum. While we were descending into this morgue, he’d informed me that most prisoners had their tuition paid through Pell Grants since technically, however much some had profited from their crimes, they had only minimal income and had long since forfeited their locatable assets. He’d also told me there was only one rule about books: If there were enough copies of something on hand, I could teach it. I found stacks of them, loaded into dusty, deteriorating cardboard boxes, and began looking for what would consume me for the next three months. When I’d broken everything out, it was apparent I was pretty limited: an anthology for poetry and short stories, the play A Streetcar Named Desire, and a few novels. I decided on Huckleberry Finn, Light in August, and Beloved, largely because all three had been taught to me at some point. I had eighteen students, with three-hour classes meeting four evenings a week.
As I crafted my focus during May, two thoughts unsettled me: All three novels were about the debilitating effects of race in America; and, from what I knew of prisons, virtually all the inmates were going to be black or Hispanic, meaning each man was probably going to feel like he’d gotten a series of raw deals based on skin color. The closer the date grew, the more disturbing this thought became, and no matter how much preparation I did—re-reading all the books, studying critical opinions, making lengthy notes, and designing paper and test questions—visions of prison riots, with my poor, white body crumpled in a corner somewhere, wouldn’t stop haunting me. These still played over the edges of my consciousness as I marked the turns of the river road that first night.
It took about an hour. As I drove by Leavenworth’s dejected downtown and past the fort, my thoughts grew more unsettled. I’d sent word that the students should read a chunk of Huckleberry Finn for opening night. My anxieties seemed to come down to how to begin things. I’d convinced myself that the poisoned theme of race could somehow be handled if I just could put everything in context.
I pulled into the prison, its massive stone walls two stories high and turrets at each corner, automatic weapons clearly visible; in this case, it was exactly like the movies. The process for entering was lengthy, and I’d been warned to come an hour early. Most of this time was spent just waiting, waiting for enough visitors to show up so we could be searched together and processed through to another room, waiting there to be equipped with body alarms, and yet more waiting in a third room to be escorted by guards without weapons to take us through the final locked doors into the prison itself.
In the last cold antechamber, four of us sat silently with our own musings. It was impossible not to notice the reddish skin and long, braided hair of the other three. When they leaned together for a whispered confab, I heard the name “Peltier” and was reminded what “maximum security” meant. My brooding grew as the minutes multiplied, my mind returning to the class opening; everything would be fine if I could only solve that. No matter how much I massaged the words, I came up with nothing.
Eventually, my thoughts wandered to another situation I’d experienced with jails, one from twenty years before, back in the small Kansas town I came from. It must have entered my mind’s eye with the bars and stone, or maybe because the night in Junction City I was thinking about, like my interview for this job, had involved a nun. It had been a humiliating incident, and, probably because of that, I hadn’t thought of it in years. Suddenly though the whole memory came flooding in.
It was 1974. I’d been visiting from Boston, more like fleeing because things were a disaster back East. The sense of possibility I’d grown up with had long since disappeared. The country was mired in the long, dreary Nixon recession following the Arab oil embargo. With my lofty BA in English, I could command only sporadic jobs: waiting tables, carpentering, occasional substitute teaching. Also my marriage was rapidly coming unraveled; that was probably really what I was running from, and the drugs and drinking made it all worse. Thinking back during the flight to Kansas, in fact, I could only locate failed relationships and bad decisions, starting probably from when I’d dropped out of college and gone into the Marine Corps some seven years before.
There, in Junction City, I went with some friends to a club on the fringes of town, near the edge of Fort Riley, where one could easily find other essentially directionless people, mostly soldiers trapped in the crumbling post-Viet Nam army. When, somewhere around two in the morning, my driver decided to leave, I stayed. I have no idea why, but the coke I’d greedily snorted and the deluded promise of an alcohol-ridden night-without-end certainly figured in. Of course, this left me with no ride. As it happened, I’d known the club manager at St. Xavier High School from several years before; in my freshman year—his senior one—he’d gotten kicked out and promptly joined the navy, eventually earning himself a bad-conduct discharge. Now, he had grown into a thoroughly disreputable, 300-pound behemoth sporting ribald tattoos the length of his body. His name was Steve Rathbun, so naturally he was called Ratbone. He’d also previously been married to my cousin, Sheila—twice according to some accounts. So, on the basis of these multiple, if tenuous, connections, he agreed to give me a lift after he closed, somewhere around four in the morning.
We sped through deep night down a broad, lighted boulevard, the only car in sight, on into town past shoddy trailer courts—anyone above the rank of E-5 who lived off-base had fled to nearby Manhattan, with its college and veneer of class utterly lacking in Junction. Suddenly, Ratbone, a victim of his impulses even on good days, veered off the road and onto a gravel drive. He braked to a halt in front of one of the mobile homes, dust swirling in the green mercury-vapor lights. Moving lithely for all his weight, Ratbone leaped from the still-rocking car, leaving the driver’s door swinging open, raced over to the trailer, and kicked in the door. In my stupor, I sat gaping at the square of yellow light. Shortly, I heard shouting inside and jumped out myself. Stumbling up the rickety porch steps and on into the living room, I saw two small children sitting up on a dirty vinyl couch, wide-eyed and blinking, clearly just awakened, with only a thin blanket covering them. The shouting was louder—mostly threats and profanity—but mixed with sounds of a struggle. I turned back toward the noise, which seemed to come from the right, and as I rounded the first corner, I ran head-on into none other than Sheila herself. She leapt back and shrieked, “Jeff,” as surprised as I was but with a firmer sense of purpose: “I’m calling the cops. You better get.”
And with that she bolted past me toward the kids. I edged cautiously down the dark hall, toward the rear, the shouting growing more intense. In the back room, I nearly stumbled over a thrashing tangle of bodies. When my eyes adjusted, I made out a nude, heavily muscled man squatting on top of a squirming Ratbone pointing a military .45 at his head. Ratbone, supine body covering most of the open floor space, looked for all the world like a turtle on his back but—against all logic—was yelling: “Let me up, motherfucker. I’m gonna kill you.”
Suddenly spotting me, the naked man swung the pistol so it was pointed directly between my eyes. Ratbone continued struggling, but I caught in a glance that he was firmly pinned, a hand to his throat. What I mostly saw, though, was the maw of the pistol’s opening. It looked like a howitzer. I tried backing out of the room, but the man halted me with a shout. All three of us remained that way, Ratbone locked to the floor, wriggling and screaming profanities, until the police arrived and hauled the two of us off.
At the station, Ratbone was immediately thrown into the tank, but, thanks to Sheila’s providing the police some hurried absolution for me, my status was a bit more uncertain. I was left moldering in a locked, dusty office. Finally, after about an hour, with daylight now beginning to stream through the smudged, filmy windows, a policeman entered. I knew him, a local named Haley. He was a few years older than me. I remembered he’d gone into the Navy just out of high school, at the very beginning of Viet Nam, but had only lasted a few months. I also recalled his bragging about wetting his pants to get out.
He carefully placed his clipboard facedown on the desk, then slowly dragged a gunmetal chair over. He plopped down in it backwards and stared at me for a long time. A cop’s studied gesture, I thought, something they probably taught in their two-week training academy. Haley had always possessed an unusual combination of superiority and stupidity, something I remembered when he finally opened his mouth. Like Ratbone, he spoke unadulterated Junction City, equal parts black and Southern white, a verbal mix strewn from the leavings of impoverished enlistees stretching back to Custer: “What you doin’ here, Jeff, round bad people like that? Thought you was in college or something.”
“Just visiting, Don, just visiting.”
“Breakin’ in, though? Assault? Even a smart college boy could get his ass shot.”
“Yeah, I know, Don. I was there, remember?”
I wasn’t going to give him a thing. I had absolutely no respect for him. After all, I’d actually gone to Viet Nam. As he proceeded to lecture me about the direction of my life, basic how-did-a-nice-kid-like-you stuff, I paid scant attention to the words themselves. I knew though what he was getting at was completely true. Life had become a disaster; all my accomplishments—class president every year, Catholic Youth Organization president, co-captain of the football team, honor-roll—had come to nothing. And my sitting here watching the sun come up in a filthy holding room in Junction City, Kansas, listening to a dolt like Haley lecture me was an absolute symbol of that waste.
Of course, they had no reason to hold me, and Haley’s sense of gratification, like his attention span, was fleeting. After a suitable time I was released into the rapidly warming 6:00 a.m. air to find my way home to my parents’ house. Having no other choice, I took off walking, following approximately the same route that I’d taken to and from school years before. Fatigue was setting in, and a distinct pounding had begun in one of my temples.
Within a few blocks I passed the Catholic convent, where the nuns lived. I sat down on a small stone wall across the street and smoked the last cigarette in my crumpled pack, brooding over Haley’s comments. Suddenly, I realized Sister Mary John was probably inside. I thought about her for a while, the cigarette growing shorter. She’d been the only teacher who’d really ever gotten through to me. I’d had several who’d caused fear, mostly by the routine slapping and hitting. And I’d had my fair share of martinets who conveyed what the book said and left no room for questions.
I finished my cigarette. The throbbing was now a full-fledged headache. Then—I still don’t know why—I got up and walked across the street and knocked on the door. After a few moments, a nun answered, smallish, wizened, spectacled, just like I’d remembered nuns looking from first grade on. I asked if Sister Mary John were there. She stared at me for a moment and, apparently deciding from my disheveled appearance and the early hour that either resistance was futile or I really needed help, disappeared inside, leaving the door slightly ajar.
When she came back a few minutes later, it was with Sister Mary John. She hadn’t changed, it seemed, and she didn’t appear as surprised as I would have imagined. Politely, she asked me inside, almost like an invited, late-afternoon visit rather than at six on a Saturday morning. She ushered me into a small study and gestured toward a straight wooden chair, then pulled up one like it, facing me across a small ecumenical-seeming table. I realized in all my twelve years there I’d never been inside the convent and suddenly remembered the crude stories we used to make up about nuns. I felt embarrassed—too late now to do me any good. Sister Mary John fixed me with her blue eyes, and I couldn’t help looking down. “What is it, Jeff?” she asked softly. “What’s happened to you?”
I looked up at her—she was a large woman, at least as tall and heavy as I was, a size no doubt enhanced by her billowing black-and-white habit—and I remembered her classes from the three years I’d had her: freshman English, sophomore history, and junior English. She’d been direct and purposeful, demanding that we have the reading done on time and assignments finished. While we plodded through a stultifying history text whose Imprimatur ensured that it was essentially a de facto Ministry of Truth for the Catholic Church, Sister Mary John had softened its references to Martin Luther as a heretic and added much-needed context to its descriptions of the Spanish Inquisition as a heroic undertaking.
Sitting there years later on that morning, I couldn’t recall her ever raising her voice when someone—I myself, often enough, it seemed—had fallen short. Somehow when she’d spoken in these situations, you’d felt like it was you who’d failed her, and you never wanted to again. I didn’t know how she’d created this feel without ever saying the word failure, but I knew it was her capacity to arouse both guilt and introspection that was responsible for my sitting in the Catholic convent in Junction City, Kansas, a useless and thoroughly disheveled twenty-six-year old, at six in the morning. She’d taught me how to write, I realized, and how to read for all practical purposes, two of my only accomplishments; I barely would have touched books after high school if it weren’t for her, or known what actual thinking was.
I wouldn’t until many years later, well after this meeting, have the political consciousness to understand that there was a particular type of Catholic—Sister Mary John certainly being one of them—motivated not so much by faith as by a sense of social conscience, and how the Church could help fulfill it. This instinct for justice was, of course, exemplified by JFK, whose shooting was announced in my English class by Sister Mary John herself, fighting tears as she spoke. When 5,000 Marines landed in Da Nang a bit over a year later, an initial wave that was to grow by 100 times, my football coach, an ex-Marine himself, led the cheerleading in our school, and her voice somehow receded. She would have had to experience significant distress watching Kennedy’s idealism eroded by Viet Nam, and, I suddenly realized, I knew exactly how she felt about the whole disastrous enterprise.
“I don’t know, Sister. It got away from me. I guess I want it back, and I don’t know how to get it.” I told her some specifics; I can’t remember what exactly. We talked for probably an hour; it was summer, so there was no school, but still, nuns had some things to do, I’m sure. To her credit, she didn’t offer me religion. I probably wouldn’t have been there if she’d been that type. I don’t know what, in fact, she offered me; it’s been too long ago, but what I do recall—and what I remembered suddenly sitting there in that prison holding room waiting to be led in to the prisoners I was going to teach—is what Sister Mary John told me when I left. Standing in the front doorway of the convent, full sunlight light now bearing down, looking at me straight on, she’d said this: “I always expected more from you than you did from yourself.”
Stunned, by those words, and by my own sense of failure, I’d carried them off that front porch and into the ruined day, and then the next one just like it, down all the days, until twenty years later, married, with a child, a college teacher, I found myself sitting there in that prison a few minutes away from beginning an American literature course. The other people were culled from the group, and soon a guard led me in: weighted down by the unfamiliar body alarm, brief case in hand; past the enormous-seeming prisoners walking round and round a huge indoor center turret, like pilgrims at the fountain at Mecca; all glancing momentarily at this puny alien in their territory before choosing with massive dignity to ignore me; and on into the classroom, where my students awaited me.
They were who I thought and feared they’d be: only one was white, all of them clearly worked out daily, and they looked at me as if I were some kind of functionary, barely tolerable but somehow temporarily necessary. Also, though I wouldn’t start finding this out for awhile, they had their little cliques and ways of establishing rank, and each of them was a type of con man, though, of course, not one of them was guilty. And I was nervous; I would have been foolish not to be—the guard left the room after depositing me, an opaque-glass wall providing scant comfort. I hurriedly wrote my name on the board. Small talk didn’t seem to be the kind of thing they’d particularly respect, and the thought of introductions was absurd; we didn’t have that much in common.
I turned to face them. They were seated at lunch tables in a long, narrow room, four men to a row all the way back. I took a breath, pronounced my name, and started mumbling something about the structure of the course and the requirements—just the kind of thing that you’d tell a college class on the first day, but which I recognized with a sinking feeling carried absolutely no credence with this one. After I’d limped through most of my introduction, the realization creeping up on me that exactly what I’d feared about first impressions was happening, Sister Mary John’s words suddenly from somewhere leapt to mind. I located a bit of courage and stopped my frenzied chattering, paused for a second or two looking from man to man, and then repeated an approximation of those same words: “I expect more from you than you do from yourselves.”
Shocked at the sudden realization of my utter arrogance, I must have cringed visibly. They didn’t know me. And I had absolutely no idea how they regarded themselves. I could instantly tell some were taken aback, looking at me differently. But the thing was I’d meant it, and I guess they intuited this because within minutes we’d launched into the novel, and when, within a short time, I began reading aloud from the raft scene where Huck apologizes to Jim, I paused momentarily at the word “nigger,” one of them sensed my discomfiture and rescued me, the most impressive-looking one of all—huge arms, sculptured body in a tight blue t-shirt, wearing a stocking cap that rimmed a perpetual scowl, and apparently having only one eye left. His name was Galyn Harris, and I later found later he could write like an angel; I still have his papers. He said, “Don’t worry, Doc, we know that word.” General laughter followed, and with it a sudden sense of drained tension.
It was a contentious class; they argued and disputed, night after night, all the way through Huckleberry Finn, and they suffered alongside Faulkner’s half-white Joe Christmas in Light in August, and eventually beheld Toni Morrison’s profound and transcendent reveries in Beloved, together perhaps the most damning trilogy possible of the racial inadequacies this country suffers from. And, despite the heatedness of their arguments and the depth of their feelings, never once did I feel threatened—and never once did I get a late paper, nor one of them fail a reading quiz.
I detected in many the beginnings of some insight that evaluation, rather than reaction, was a valid means of addressing problems. The most perceptive of them, I saw through their papers, actually looked within and discovered how the inevitable anger they had often felt (and most certainly acted on) turned into unremitting self-destruction.
Several years later, I got a postcard from one of them, Robert Harris. It read only, “You are missed.” Overcome with flattery, I googled his name and found he’d written his own appeal brief to the Supreme Court, where it was denied for exceeding the statute of limitations. Harris’s crime had been rape, classified as federal because he’d taken his victim across state lines. So much for romanticizing convicts; I guessed the guards, after their fashion, had been right.
Still, curiosity, or something, moved me to call St. Mary College, which, I noted, was now a university, whatever that meant. After a couple of barren conversations, I got passed by chance to the guy who’d been in charge of books all those years before. He actually remembered me, he said, but the program was caput: Congress had taken Pell Grants from prisoners. No telling where my students were, probably all still inside somewhere. He himself wasn’t at the prison anymore; the college had transferred him to records. So much for that, I thought, hanging up. I didn’t actually know why I was even looking for them.
A couple weeks later, I got a letter on St. Mary stationery—one line, no signature: Every single prisoner had graduated.
Even though they knew they’d never see the outside again.
Transferred to records. It rang in my soul like a mantra. About the Author:Jeff Loeb is a writer who lives in New York City. In prior lives, he enjoyed long careers as, in roughly this order: US Marine, bartender, construction worker, waiter, truck driver, furniture mover, college teacher, radio reporter (WBAI – D.C. Bureau), assistant city manager, cable television company manager, photography studio owner, farmer/rancher, academic writer, and high-school teacher. He has a PhD in English from the University of Kansas.