Not altogether different

There’s a kid in my class named Jay. He lives in H Block, technically a lower security building within San Quentin, but according to my director and the guys who live there, the guards are particularly rough on them as if they were lifers or some lower order of prison being. As an instructor, this doesn’t really effect me directly other than the fact that Jay is usually late to class because they won’t let students from H Block out at the right time or he doesn’t show up at all because of a block-wide lockdown due to a fight between inmates. (Or, as was the case one week, because an Asian inmate started a fight so all Asian inmates were locked down, unable to leave their six by eight foot cells for a week as some kind of racial group punishment.)

I gave the guys a midterm this week. (What are the Four Nobel Truths? What is the cause of dukkha? That sort of thing.) They finished early and, for the most part, did well, but Jay of course came in late and finished last. We walked out of the education building together and struck up a conversation about life in H Block. While he complained about the lackluster guards who very often ignored his requests to come to class so they can finish reading the paper or something, I noticed his uneven teeth. Not uneven in a natural way, in a born with uneven teeth or lack or teenage braces way, but uneven in a street fight sort of way. I also noticed, under his prison-issued denim shirt, the edge of tattoo that no doubt covered most of his left bicep. He was young. Probably younger than me. And full of rebellious energy. He was exactly the kind of kid I would have been friends with — good, close friends with — as little as ten years ago. I could see us drinking beer and smoking cigarettes at a bar in the Mission. And as he complained about the guards, I found myself commiserating with him. I found myself regressing to that young punk teenager that I was not too long ago that was inherently distrustful of police and authority for really no good reason.

But the truth was we weren’t at a bar in the Mission. The truth was that this kid was in San Quentin for some reason, for something he’d done, that he now regretted and wanted to undo and try to make it to class to get a better education in the outside world. And I was his teacher. And he was my student. It was an odd realization as I stood there, showing my ID to the guards and signing out.

Officer Davis had to escort me from the Education Building to the main gate. While we walked across the courtyard (with chapels to our left and the Adjustment Center where they keep guys on death row to our right), I struck up a conversation with him about how easy it was working with lifers and older guys. They kept the younger kid in check. They were more respectful of the program and made everyone’s job a little easier. And I found myself suddenly commiserating with Officer Davis. He was a stout, African American guy with a relaxed energy, the kind of energy that made me feel like I could easily sit out on someone’s deck with Davis and have a beer on a hot Sunday afternoon and talk about the game. And though I knew that Jay was at least partially justified in his anger toward the H Block guards, I knew also that Officer Davis was right. The lifers were easier to deal with, and they did keep Jay in line during class.

I was outside. I was walking to the parking lot as the late-setting summer sun made the sky shine a deep indigo. I was in my girlfriends car, sunroof open, driving across the Richmond Bridge. I was home, eating a bowl of soup with the living room window open to keep my apartment cool. I was outside. And Jay was laying on six foot long cot somewhere. And Davis was locking up the Education Building for the night.

On my bike on the way to work this morning, I felt free and alive. My muscles tingling with the adrenaline and endorphins of a long ride. And I saw Jay and Officer Davis as not altogether different from one another. Wanting nothing more than to get through another day, to be able to go to class, to go home.

Like any of us. Like all of us.