Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Story Problem

Say a young woman did something really horrible--like murder four people. While she was in the county jail awaiting trial, her public defender arranged for a social worker to visit her, talk to her, help her prepare for trial, and for what might come after. Say the social worker was a friend of yours, and she told you stories about this woman--about the abuse and deprivation the prisoner had suffered all her life, and say the social worker came to understand (as you surely will too) that this abuse and deprivation were central factors in the woman's path to this horrible crime. Say that your friend the social worker becomes a kind of friend of this woman, perhaps her only friend, her only support, the only person in the world who listens to her with compassion, so that after her contract to work with this woman ends, she continues to visit, and write letters, and send gifts. Even when the woman is tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and moved from Cook County to a prison that is two-plus hours away, your friend continues to visit. Even though the drive to the prison is long and bleak, and actually entering the prison is frightening and disturbing, your friend continues to go, because she knows she is this woman's only friend and because she wants to go. Even though your friend's heart is breaking every time she sits with this woman and listens to her hopelessness (she has young children who she may never see again), she visits again.

Say that one day your friend gets a letter from this prisoner, and this is what the letter says: In the middle of one night, guards entered this woman's prison cell, handcuffed and shackled her, and put her on an airplane to a prison in Florida. No one told her why. She was not allowed to take anything with her--her books, notebooks (she writes poetry), photographs. The prisoner described the life at the new prison, which involved a kind of orientation in which she was awakened every morning at 5 am, allowed to take a two-minute shower, then returned to her cell where she had to sit on her bed with her feet on the floor, all day, until it was time to go to bed and do this all over again. This was to go on for several weeks before she would be allowed any privileges, but before she could complete her orientation, she was again handcuffed and shackled and moved to another prison in Florida.
     Why would this be, your friend asks you. She had been tried and convicted in Illinois. She committed the crime in Illinois. Why would she have been moved? You, of course, do not know the answer to this, but you wonder, and you thought it might be worth putting it out there to ask.

People can do terrible things and still be people. Recently my daughter told me about one of her college professors who was fired because 30-some students complained that he had sexually harassed them (my daughter was not one of the complainants). My daughter was appalled to learn this about her professor, but she also said that he was an inspired teacher, and that losing him would be a loss to the department. I was struck by the confusing truth that one can be a mess, even a monster, in one--but not all--aspects of one's life. This seriously undermines the concept of good and evil--especially the idea that we are either one or the other.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Every Obscenity and Hate-Filled Invective

Another day. Another walk. Another human challenge. Today it was on a corner, near the high school. A beautiful summer day. Gentle breeze. Floral scents in the air. Athletic-looking people playing vigorous tennis. Students in small groups arrayed post-summer school, convening for the next phase of the day. Me, on the other side of the street. Then, a screaming boy. Standing with a small group--three or four other boys, perhaps a girl on a bike. The boy is screaming at someone down the street who I can't see. Hurling every taunt and challenge and curse and come-on, in the most hate-drenched language you can imagine. His friends (if that is who the people near him are) stay put but don't join in. The tennis balls thwack rhythmically in the background.
     And we have I, on the opposite side (subtle Paul Revere reference for those of you who, unlike me, did not have to memorize the poem in 5th grade or so ["And I on the opposite shore will be, ready to rise and to spread the alarm, through every Middlesex village and farm"]). Transfixed. Want to keep moving. But can't. Can't imagine (or can) what might happen next. "Please stop," I yell. He doesn't.

The screamer isn't bulky like the guy in the photo. Not muscle bound. Actually kind of slight. Kind of skinny. And also white. He continues to scream. He is actually somewhat creative in his insults, which is to say non-repetitive. He keeps upping it, working the theme and variations--how his opponent looks, how he walks, what he does, who he does it with.
     Finally, the tormented one takes the bait. So here comes another slight, skinny white boy up the sidewalk, matching insult with insult. He's with two girls, but the girls hang back. The first guy's friends stay put, neither interfering nor encouraging. Oh, I wish I had my phone.
     The two boys circle each other. The second boy's friends leave. The tennis players play. I wonder if these boys know how to fight. I wonder if they've ever fought before. Finally, the second boy runs at the first boy.
     "Stop," I yell. "Hey, stop." I won't take credit for this, but they do stop and look over at me, and the second boy drags himself away, an impressive display of self-control, I think, but yelling threats as he does.
     "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," the first boy says (referring to the threats).
     "And that's the stupidest thing I ever saw," I yell.
     So the first boy looks at me and tells me to mind my own business, which is a pretty stupid thing to say, as he's made this everybody's business.
     I'm tempted to cross the street, get more involved, but decide no . . . time to move on. When I'm a few blocks away, a police car comes speeding up the street, lights flashing, siren beeping, stops at the high school, right at that corner beside the tennis courts (thank goodness; someone else called). But I'm too far past to see whether the sad, stupid, rage-filled boy is still there. Ugh. Ugh. Ugly.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I know I've been spotty about posting on this blog the past few weeks. Oh, there have been the travels. And there have been the work deadlines and pressures. And there have been a number of inquiries from book groups about Grand River, and related conversations and exchanges with book group leaders (these are quite wonderful, by the way; no complaints or ho-humness about this at all). And there has been the perhaps deeper-than-usual immersion in the new novel--the mothers and daughters (as reported in my previous post) and many other things: acrobatics and geography and crime investigation and victimology. This immersion in the new novel, too, is a very good thing. All of it, really--the preoccupation and the spottiness--flow from pretty damn good reasons.

But still, I feel a little bad about being spotty. Though have you noticed, how really attractive--and water-related--spottiness can be?

Speaking of spotty, I heard a piece on NPR the other night from a young fellow who has been unschooled--not home schooled. His mother explained it by saying that when he was a few months old, she noticed that he was by nature learning everything he needed to know at precisely the rate he was prepared to learn it, and so she thought, why couldn't he just keep doing that. And so she hadn't sent him to school at all, and all his learning is self-directed. The son, for example, didn't learn to read until he was 10, but he learned then because he wanted to play a particular kind of game that required reading. This is an intriguing idea, especially that thing the mother said about how babies learn what they need to learn.
     My favorite part of the story came, however, when the boy said that his grandfather worried about his education. How others may judge us is often a concern when one takes an unconventional path. And we heard the grandfather's voice, saying that he particularly worried that his grandson would lack the social world that school provides and that his education would be--you guessed it--spotty.

The boy admitted that his education has been spotty--for example, he never learned spelling. His mother wouldn't force it, because she believes there is a cost to forcing something. Though now, it sounded like, he might be ready to apply himself to the discipline (or whatever it is) of spelling. Spelling is an interesting thing. Some people seem naturally better at it than others. I don't like to see bad spelling, but with computer spell-checkers, this occurs far less frequently than it once did.
     As I've said before, one thing I like about blogging is that I don't need to come to any particular conclusion.