Last week at San Quentin

Next week is my last week at San Quentin. I have mixed feeling about that. One the hand, I’m sort of relieved. Teaching at times is tiring work. Coupled with my own, personal academic goals and a full-time summer job, this teaching gig is one more thing on an already pretty crowded plate. It will be nice to have one less thing to worry about.

On the other hand, there is always the tragedy of accomplishment. Which is my rather melodramatic way of saying that when one finishes a big project, there’s always a touch of sadness about it. Yes, I’m done. And I can celebrate in that feeling of completion. But the project’s over. Now what? Apart from standing back and looking at what I’ve created and giving myself a good pat on the back for a job well done, what else is there? What’s next? What’s the next big thing? So there’s the urge in me to make this next week count for something, mean something more than whatever it already means, to soak up those last moments and get a feeling — not unlike Holden Caufield as he left Pencey — of completion, of “some kind of good-bye.”

On the other hand, there is the stark knowledge that this is really only done for me. That there are sixteen guys who aren’t done. Who are still in the program. That, even if they are done with the program, aren’t anywhere near done with their larger sentences. That knowledge that these guys are still doing time. One of them told me the other day that the first five years are the hardest, when you have to get used to the idea that you’re in prison. And he said it with the knowledge of someone who’s already lived through his first five years. At the other end of the prison system was Officer Davis who told me the other day about the gang wars the “Northern California” and the “Southern California” Hispanics have with one another. That if they’re let in a room together, regardless of guards, they’ll try to kill each other. Davis tells me these stories in such a matter-of-fact way. The way I tell my friends about my day at the office, about my dissertation, about the weather. But I can’t shake the thought that maybe he’s telling me these things to remind me that I’m teaching prisoners who have a vast and complex life that I’ll never understand. Don’t let them get too close.

But I can’t help letting them get this close. I can’t help feeling like they’re just people, a bunch of guys trying to get through the day, through the week, through the years. Sure, next week is my last week. But for them, they’ll still be there, working through the reality that is prison life. Davis will be telling his stories to some other volunteer. Guys will be getting through their first five years. They’ll be fighting the system to get paroled. They’ll be working on their AA degrees through Patton College and maybe some will get out and go on to better things. Others will spend the rest of their days in San Quentin, time doling out the years of a life sentence for crimes committed that I probably don’t even want to think about. What must it be like for Mack and Mike and Vince to sit in mediation every Sunday, to listen to my lectures every Tuesday, and be with that knowledge? To be with the knowledge that they’ve done something that they’re paying for at every moment of every day for the rest of their lives?

Last night Mack told me that every day Sunday at their weekly prison sangha meetings, they chant the Heart Sutra. And now that he’s taken my course, what was just a random collection of meaningless words has some new, deeper meaning for him. There’s Bobo, of course, who’s well on his way to spreading compassionate wisdom out on the yard while playing baseball. There’s Hector and Noel using mindfulness techniques while eating their lunches and working with the system to prepare parole cases. Next week is my last night at San Quentin; they’ll all be doing what they’ve been doing regardless.

I’d like to believe that I’ve made some impact. Of course I’ll probably never know. I have to believe, I have some faith, in my own Buddhist rhetoric. That everyone is always impacting everyone else at every moment because the world is one vast, complicated and interconnected whole. Prison bars or no, those guys whom you’ve never met are having an impact on your life. And now that I’ve impacted theirs, I can only hope that their impact is equally positive.