We’re separated by bulletproof glass. Keith puts his large hand up to meet mine. We pick up the black plastic phones to talk; it’s humiliating to communicate this way, but we do our best. Sometimes the noise in the visitor’s room gets so loud, we press the phones tighter against our ears.
I first met Keith when I was teaching in a dilapidated Victorian posing as a halfway house for addicts. He was 28, quick-witted, well spoken and packed with confidence. Keith didn’t need to be in class, he already had his high school diploma, but he loved learning.
For a year after he left the program, I mentored Keith until he stole a car and ended up back in prison. Now he’s doing a six-year bid behind bars.
Recently, Keith’s been moved to a medium security prison, two and a half hours away. It’s been five months since our last visit.
“Hey, did I tell you I can be in the yard an hour now?” Keith says enthusiastically. What he doesn’t say, is that the other 23 hours a day, he’s locked in a cell. I tell him I’m relieved, at least he can feel the sun. “Did you get the first twenty pages of that book I sent?” I ask. Keith shakes his head. “Nah. They said they sent it back to you…copyright infringements”, he quips. We laugh at the irony of the prison system, steeped in corruption, caring about copyright laws.
After an hour, the guard walks by, taps Keith on the shoulder and tells him our time’s up. We cling tighter to the phones: pressing one more sentence through the receiver. “Can you come back soon?” he pushes down the wire. “How about two weeks?” he asks, eyes pleading. I hold up three fingers. “Three. How about three?” I say apologetically.
It hurts to negotiate; Keith doesn’t have any other visitors. His mother overdosed on heroin when he was five and his father abandoned him as a teen. To save face, he says, “OK. See ya in three!” As the guard escorts Keith out, he turns to wave one last time.
Leaving the prison, I walk down the wide granite steps. I think about how Keith would come bounding into my office to show me something he’d written or tell me about something he’d read. Now we talk over phones through bulletproof glass.
I know the crime Keith committed is serious, but I also know how hard he’s fighting to get it right. He’s still my student, and I believe he matters.
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