Essays 2

Fridays are reserved for essay writing. It surprises me how many of the inmates vehemently hate writing. Whenever I put an essay topic on the board, the protest never fails: "Shit! What the fuck we be writing another essay for? Fuck that shit!" or many times, I'll hear, "I ain't got nothing worth saying.

"I know this isn't true. Everyone has something to say, a story to tell, a perspective to share. But it's hard convincing the students of their ability and the value of their words.

A few months ago, I departed from the usual essay and assigned a creative writing assignment which I pulled from Bernice Mennis' Breaking Out of Prison. I asked the class to write about their non-dominate hand - the hand opposite of the one they write with - in as much detail as possible. The exercise is meant to force students to actively analyze the world around them and take notice of life's details that are often overlooked.

The results were interesting. In the beginning, the students all seemed intent on describing their hands, solely on their physicality. Each held their hand open, palm up, squinting. Some students described the color variations they saw. Others commented on the length of their finger nails. One student actually took the time to count and record the number of lines on his palm - 35 total.

but after five minutes into writing, I noticed that many of the students were no longer looking at their hands; instead, their heads were down, their pencils scribbling away. And that's when the stories came out - the stories nobody thought they had.

One student wrote about his hand and its ability to help himself and others: "My hand is the most important thing on my body because it takes care of my body. It feeds me. It even helps others, and it even makes others feel good.

"Another student described his hand as a family tree: "The skinny fingers come from my grandfather. He gave them to my father, my father gave them to me and I gave them to my son.

"Another's had was a timeline of past relationships: "I have a tattoo on the married finger that means I'm married for life to my wife. I have a tattoo of an old love on my hand that I still care about, but I will never love her again….

"What was most interesting were the stories and memories students associated with their hands, as if they were story books wherein each scar and crease were a passage.

When I look at my hand, I see skinny fingers, short nails, a tattoo and a scar that I got when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Me and my sister was playing with an old air conditioner. She bet me that I would stick my hand in it and stop the blade as she turned it.

The same student continued:

Me and my friend was at school in art class. We saw a tube of ink so we decide to take the ink because we heard that it was tattoo ink. So we took it and went to another friend's house who thought he could tattoo. I guess you know I was the guinea pig to let him tattoo my hand. I got a money dollar sign on my left hand between my index finger and thumb.

Later, he showed me the tattoo - a faded dollar sign barely darker than his own skin.

My favorite essay was written by a quiet man who sits in the back of the classroom. His paper demonstrates an immense capacity for creativity that had seemingly gone unnoticed.

To be honest, now that I'm just staring at my hand, I see all kinds of things that I never realized that was there. With all of the lines and wrinkles that my hand have, I can connect lines and make a road way. It may sound funny, but it's true. I can really see road ways and trees and maybe I can even see a car or two.