Let Freedom Wring
I didn’t know it was Banned Books Week when I attended the discussion on Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at the school library last night. Nor had I read the book, though it seemed worth supporting. Heck, anything that gets my 19-year-old welding and construction students to talk literature on their cigarette break is worth supporting. Even if it discusses the practice of masturbation with more detail than the school board members in Stockton, Missouri can appreciate.
Once I found out that we’re in the midst of the American Library Association’s big holiday, though, I felt fortified in my next undertaking: a visit to the S— County work release center (aka “Huber”) to plead for my student to have access to his course materials while he’s locked up. See, at least one of the books is thick enough to arouse suspicion. Could be a weapon, this book. So my student asked yesterday if I might write a letter to a certain Lieutenant N.
Instead, I figured I’d pay a visit to the facility on my way home, and maybe I could ask Lieutenant N to demonstrate just how our softcover math book might be used as a weapon.
What better way for me to celebrate BBW?
But my trip to the detention center reminded me that lockup keeps the outmates out just as well as it keeps the inmates in. I spent a half hour trying to find the place, which was in the middle of an industrial park outside town on some road that no one knows the name of. I drove miles out of the way, passing the park any number of times. My GPS was no help at all.
I stopped at the Hardee’s in town just before giving up. Lucky for me, it turns out all four Hardee’s employees working last night know where the Huber facility is, and their collective rerouting got me within range. Once I was sure I had the right neighborhood, though, I still had a hard time knowing where to go. It was only the hyperilluminated presence of Ol’ Glory that finally gave me the confidence to nose my pickup into one of the industrial park lots with reasonable suspicion that this particular charmless building in this soul-sucking lifeless expanse of charmless buildings was the nighttime home of some of my students and not just another shitty plastics factory (which shitty plastics factory would no doubt have been the daytime home of some of my students—or at least, it would’ve been, before the economic souring and subsequent transfer of many people into training programs or jails or both).
The search for Huber had worn me down, and it was late. I parked the truck and walked past a rack of bicycles, which made me think of winter. I was losing my own sweetness and light pretty quickly. Into that border space: the detention center lobby with its spit-clean block walls and mirrored glass, its coldly bright fluorescent glow and disinviting but easy-to-wipe, hard PVC seats. I stood alone in the room but had no illusion of privacy. A disembodied voice asked what I needed. I answered, not knowing which way to direct my words.
That voice from the ceiling, my answer, and then nothing.
I stood shifting my weight around. My face was very close to a window through which I couldn’t see, and the glass pulled at my gaze, coaxing my eyes with the empty promise that if they just kept at it long enough some light might appear, some shadow, something. The room was roundish, maybe hexagonal. When I wasn’t looking dumbly into the blank window, I turned to various unmarked, knobless doors, both hoping and (increasingly) doubting that someone would emerge with whom I could stand face-to-face. This looking and turning for maybe three minutes. But by the time some dude in a uniform ambled through one of the doors, I had all-but-forgotten who I was and why I was there.
The guard wasn’t crisp. Nor was he miserable. Just a pinkish fifty-something guy with messy white hair who said I could go ahead and write a letter to the review board, but, he assured me, my student can request to sit in a room with a guard and his math book any time he wants, and it’s only the dorms and community spaces where one can’t just go reading a thick or hardcover book willy-nilly.
“Dorms?” I said.
“Yeah, they live in dorms,” he said. “We’re not really like a jail here. It’s minimum security. Two guys to a dorm. Nice beds. Like a college.”
This from the facility’s website:
The goal of the [S— County Jail and Work Release Center] is to safely and securely confine individuals in the least restrictive environment available. This, consistent with behavior, special needs and the severity of charges. Further, the Jail Division is committed to the ultimate release of persons confined, to the community, with a better physical and psychological perspective.
My psychological perspective was not getting better, though. I thought of asking how I might arrange a tour of these “dorms” he spoke so proudly of, but I figured I better reassemble my sense of human-ness first. So I was relieved when the guard headed back to his post, leaving me alone once again. The door was closing behind him, and through the narrowing gap I glimpsed, just for a second, several figures in safety orange clothes standing around in a room with (steel?) benches that looked even less inviting than the lobby furniture. No wonder the orange guys were not sitting but milling.
The weird thing is that somehow—and I would never have expected this—in the soul-death of that place, through the closing door, I felt the life radiating from those brightly-clad guys. And, for an instant, my body (instinctively, unconsciously) moved to open the door that had closed. Before higher cognition could tell me that this was not where I belonged, I felt my muscles turn me toward the guys who were locked away in that room. Not to minister to them, but to comfort myself.
We are missing out, we are missing out. We are missing part of our human-ness.
How we destroy our own riches! Off the streets and off the shelves. Tell me how this makes sense: Our books hidden away so that we can grow stronger intellectually and morally; our brethren caged up so that they can grow stronger psychologically and physically.
A place that is like a college, he said. A dorm without books.