Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I love to hear about Fourth of July celebrations: folks watching fireworks, boating at the lake, tanning at the coast, and eating summertime food. My husband and I celebrated this year by taking a bike ride to the dam at the lake shared by my state and the one above it. I use the term "bike" loosely. To me, it's what I received from Santa when I was nine, but my husband uses the term to refer to a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Either way, it was a ride through the country, passing beautiful scenery along the way. I wished I had brought my camera when I saw the abandoned, rusty train cars that were the backdrop to a field of Queen Anne's Lace sitting beside a creek. And I wished I had brought a plate when the smells of all the cookouts we passed were wafting in the air (note: in the South, barbecue is a noun, something we eat; you may call the event I was smelling along the way a "barbecue." If so, you "ain't from 'round here." I call it a "cookout.")

Sitting on a motorcycle for five hours gives you a great deal of time to think. It's too loud to talk, and you have to keep your mouth closed anyway unless you want to ingest whatever may be flying around in the air. So I had time to think as we rode. I thought about the scenery; there are so many memories that go along with fields of tobacco (I worked as a "hander" during the summer after my eighth grade year), lakes (swimming in them as a child, living near one as an adult when my children were first born), and yards full of every type of celebration (flags and food and people in lawn chairs.) I saw a dog eating ice cream, right off the cone being held by his master, and a dog sitting proudly on the front of a boat ("I'm the DOG of the world...")

I thought a bunch about freedom, too, and what it really means....just to be able to hop on a bike and ride to nowhere/anywhere with no time restraints. One particular piece of scenery smacked me right in the face with the word "freedom." After leaning into a curve on a rural road I saw a sign that sent me spinning: an arrow pointing in the direction of our state's youth correctional facility.

My heart jumped as I realized that this facility is where my former student D is being held. You may remember D from a previous post that involved a parole officer and a felon "at-large" conversation for me. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you'll remember my reconnection with D, who was at that time a high school sophomore that I hadn't seen since he was a goofy seventh grader.

Well, now, after spending a couple of months in our county jail, D is serving his time at a prison for youth offenders. While being held in "the county," as D calls it, he found ways to communicate with me. Any unknown number on my ringing cell phone would turn out to be D's sister, or mother, or family friend. Once a stranger called: "My boyfriend is in the county jail. D slipped me a note on a napkin because he wanted me to call you..."

Usually he would send a message saying that he wanted me to visit him. I found out that there are rules for this kind of thing: "Visitation for inmates K-P are on alternating Mondays and Thursdays at 4:30PM. Cash can be deposited into the accounts of inmates K-P on Tuesdays at 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM." Again, I was thrust into a world I didn't know or understand.

I showed up to see him on a few occasions, but my times were off so they never let me "back there." I did leave him a little bit of money a couple of times; as I understand it, they can purchase items like candy bars, stamps, etc. In return, D writes me letters. He always begins by thanking me for the money and for thinking about him. He doesn't hear from anyone else, he says. He's working on his GED, he tells me, if he can only stay out of trouble in the classroom. "They're always writing people up for nothing," he says. (This comment reminds me so much of the seventh grade version of D, who was constantly getting written up at school for "nothing.")

I always write back and try to encourage him, something that I've been trying to do for five years now, but it seems that although I try, his environment is louder in his ears than I could ever be. In his last letter, he sounded more excited than I've heard him before - his brother will be out of prison in five months; he thinks he'll have "somewhere to go" when he himself is released.

I've asked D to write about his experiences and told him that there are folks who may want to read about his life, how he ended up in this situation. He answered promptly in a return letter: "Who wants to read about another poor 'hood felon?"

So as I took in the summer air on a motorcycle and ate my obligatory hot dog and ice cream on the Fourth of July, I thought about freedom, and I thought about D. Just past the sign pointing to the youth correctional center sits a federal prison. I noticed the razor-sharp, winding barb at the top of the fence surrounding it. I saw the armed guards at their posts and wondered what different definitions the inmates inside would have about freedom. And I silently prayed that D never ends up there.

Then I turned my face toward the wind and headed back home to my life.