Tune in to Radio Times on WHYY next Friday, Oct. 24, to listen to Jayne Thompson talk about her collection of prison writing Letters to My Younger Self. This collection emerged from Professor Thompson’s work with men at Graterford Prison, and was put together in collaboration with Widener student Emily DeFreitas. You can also read about her work in Widener Magazine.
Professor Thompson has written a moving, beautiful essay herself about this experience, so I’ll let her take over:
A Lone Goose and Empathy
by Jayne Thompson
Having taught 20 men a lesson on conflict, crisis, and resolution in narrative, I head down the long hallway of S.C.I. Graterford with my guard escort to the series of doors that will release me into the spring evening when Ganni, one of the students in my class, asks the guard if he can show me the nesting goose. The lone goose nests in the weight yard. Behind her, men heave hundreds of pounds. Metal hits metal. The men breathe, pause, grasp the metal; spotters stand patiently, ensuring safety. “The men in the weight yard make sure no one messes with her,” Ganni says, smiling. I have misunderstood Ganni’s name as Gandhi, and as I look at him, I think that if the Graterford men have given him the nickname “Gandhi,” that they have chosen wisely; he is small-boned, slim, and self-contained with knee-length dreadlocks. I look at the goose and her protectors for another moment before I remember the patient guard and move on, waving to Ganni and a few other men as they pass through a metal detector and into their cell blocks.
Many moments have converged to create this one. The year before I started teaching at Graterford, I taught one class at Chester High School five days a week for the school year. Richard Wright, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Alice Schell, Charles Fuller, Toni Morrison, and Scrabble filled our 55 minutes—but the year had its sad times as well. Three students disappeared in the juvenile justice system. No longer were they trying to stake claim to the teacher’s chair, taking a part in August Wilson’s Fences, or rapping Langston Hughes’s “America.” They were gone—no longer a part of the class, the school, the community, society.
One evening at Graterford, I told the men about the young man at Chester High who had rapped the Langston Hughes poem and disappeared into the world of detention centers. I also told them about hearing the cases of juvenile offenders for a Youth Aid Panel in Chester. These stories haunted me. The Graterford men wanted to talk to these children. They longed to tell them of their own mistakes and showed tremendous empathy for young people they had never met. Letters to My Younger Self was born.
The Graterford students wrote letters to their younger selves, their parents, or their children. Others wrote pieces discussing formative moments in their youth. One section of the book includes poems by Charles Simic, William Stafford, and Jared Carter, and the poets – or in the case of Stafford, his estate – have kindly granted permission to reprint their work. The men wrote in response to these poems. Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins offered to publish the book for no profit through their publishing company, Serving House Books. Kennedy’s memorable visit to Graterford is recounted in the Afterword. Artist Les Herman designed the cover and donated original artwork. People’s goodness multiplied, making the book possible.
Emily DeFrietas, a senior English/creative writing major, typed most of the pieces since the men in Graterford were only allowed to give me paper copies. Emily helped me design the sections and the suggestions for writing and provided general editing services. Emily also provided support as we read painful pieces like this from Paul J.P. in a letter to his mother who committed suicide when Paul was five:
I saw you leap out of your bedroom window that night. I think something important inside me shattered when you crashed through the glass. That window symbolized the best part of my life, broken into a thousand pieces scattered around your twisted body lying on the cold concrete in front of our house on Oriana Street. I didn’t know at the time that I would eventually become a predator roaming the streets of that very same neighborhood. Didn’t know that Daddy’s dark heart would infect me like a contagious disease, that his rage and violence would become mine.
Or this from D. Saadiq P. in a poetic letter to his son based on poet Etheridge Knight’s “Belly Song”:
Naw, son, this is the Black sea,
the deep dark place where
you don’t wanna be.
Where everyone looks and feels like me
full of pain and despair in this
sea of stale air.
. . .
So I hope you see what I didn’t see
and follow the Blue sea
and not the Black sea that has
I had another goal in assigning the Graterford men to write to and about their younger selves. I wanted them to use narrative to create an object, with the younger self as the subject. Perhaps the men, in polishing the object, could step outside of themselves and look at the subject—finding empathy for the young man in the story, for themselves. The men will get no recognition, no monetary compensation for contributing to this anthology. All profits go toward printing copies to be given to young people. The men are doing social work from behind bars. Gandhi states: “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.” They told their stories as “acts of love.”
As we neared the end the editing process, I heard that a student in a program I teach in on Widener’s campus, Chester Summer Challenge, had been shot and killed. His name was Frank Turner, and I can still recall one moment in particular: I gave the students dominos for particularly intelligent comments (an old Chester High trick that still serves me well). After the class had earned a certain number of dominos, we would eat in the Widener cafeteria as a group (at Chester High, we had a 7th Street Market cheese steak party). Frank complimented another young woman in class on the astuteness of her comment; his eyes were bright, his smile was huge. I walked over and gave the young woman her domino, then turned and slid one to Frank, saying, “That’s for being so sweet.” He was. We dedicated the book to him.
Gandhi once said, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” He also said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I think of that goose now, can still see her tucked into the weight yard corner, her head beneath a wing, safe with her muscle-bound protectors; I wonder how long she took shelter in the prison yard. I think of the men’s care of her, like the care the Graterford men have shown to those who will read the book. Sometimes we are weight lifters; other times we are the lone goose. Always we share the same basic need to be cared for and understood. Always we can be “a small body of determined sprits” finding ourselves “in the service of others.”