Praying Mantis

At night, from my window, there isn't a single nook, corridor, vestibule, doorway, stairwell, or square patch of lawn that isn't illuminated by the saucer-shaped lamps that hover above the compound. They hang in the sky like UFO's, suspended only by the heavy, swamp-like air.

The light they cast is a perverse orange which many inmates shut out by stuffing extra blankets or coats in their windows. Some, like my cellmate, fashion shutters out of pieces of old cardboard, but I don't mind the light. It's a warm, comforting glow that reminds me of the city lights that once seeped into my downtown apartment - my personal night light.

Beneath the UFO outside my window, in its orange tractor beam, I see a flurry of fur and wings. Bats on an insect feeding frenzy.

From my window in the daytime, I see inmates poking around in the rain gutters along the grassy perimeter of the unity. I suspected they might be hunting for stashed weapons, but their real motive, as it turns out, is perfectly innocuous: they're looking for bugs.

For some, bug collecting is a sport much like fishing - bragging rights go to those who can snag the biggest moths, beetles, and other six-legged creatures. For others, bugs make for friendly cell companions.

The most popular pet in prison is the praying mantis.

When I was in elementary school, our third grade teacher Mrs. Coyle collected hoards of praying mantes and allowed them free reign over the classroom. They were everywhere and so were the eggs. They clung to the walls, the overhead projector, the insides of our desks; small colonies occupied the continents of a world map that hung from the ceiling (which could never be rolled up without crushing its green, twig-like inhabitants).

Whenever she'd spot two mantes copulating, Mrs. Coyle would have the class gather around whichever student's desk had been christened the love nest, and we'd watch with wide eyes, snickers, and squeals. Then, after consummation, we'd scream in horror at seeing the female mantis bite the head off her mate.

Incidentally, in addition to teaching English and reading, Mrs. Coyle also taught sex education. Looking back, I'm surprised at how progressive my elementary school was, especially for a small town in the Texas panhandle. As I recall, students had to have parental consent to participate in the class. Once a week, we'd sit in a circle around Mrs. Coyle's feet on the rug she had designated for reading, but instead of pulling out a book, Asop's Fables was replaced with glossy diagrams of the human reproductive system.

Abstinence was never mentioned, neither were religious doctrines or marriage. It was a frank, honest discussion about sex, pregnancy, and protection - exactly what sex education should be. It was, now that I think about it, the first and only sex talk I ever received and my first encounter with sex.