Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Sharp Insight, Unbidden

I meant to write about this a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still thinking about it, and in light of the upcoming holiday it seems somehow apropos.

There are certain odd moments that are for whatever reason permanently seared into my memory. I'm not talking about the important Kodak moments--birthdays and graduations and getting married. Those are supposed to be there. But others just remain, and remain forever associated with certain triggers. For instance, whenever I'm driving around a curve on the highway at enough speed, I always think about my aunt Y telling me when I was about 11 and she was driving me around a winding road to Camp Tanako that she'd finally figured out the secret to those curves was to slow down a little bit on entering them, then speed up at the end. Now, Y has told me many a memorable thing in my life, but I can't go around a curve without remembering her voice saying that. Every time, it comes unbidden, even though I long ago figured curves out myself. It's a little irritating, but at least that particular memory is fairly useful. They aren't all.

The first time I remember noticing this phenomenon I was about seven and sitting on the front step of our house in Little Rock, kind of picking at the grass and mulling over life. Ironically, I don't remember what I was remembering at the time, but I thought to myself, "OK, if something doesn't have to be important for me to remember always, can just be anything, I'm going to test it by trying to remember the most boring thing possible for the rest of my life." I then tested my theory by staring at a nondescript section of my blue corduroy pants for about 30 seconds until my eyes glazed over. Of course it worked. That diagonal pattern of fuzzy cornflower blue is what first springs into my mind whenever I think about these random memories and associations. I'm pretty tired of that particular image after thinking about it regularly for the past 27 years, but it's here to stay.

I've been thinking about these because of a small thing that happened a couple of weeks ago when I was tutoring the girls down at the jail (I still really love the tutoring, even if me teaching math is scary for all involved). I had two students that day, and we were working out geometry problems when one of the girls broke her pencil lead in the middle of something I was explaining. She looked startled and said, "Oh, my pencil lead broke! Am I in trouble?"

I said, "Of course not, we'll just get you a new one," and proceeded to try and finish explaining the volume of a cylinder formula to Girl #2, but she was no longer paying attention. She was staring at Girl #1 in horror. 

"Where did it go? We have to find it!" she cried, and got on her hands and knees, searching the ground.

"What's going on?" I asked, as Girl #1 joined her on the floor and looked like she was about to cry.

Girl #2, who had been incarcerated longer, explained that a sharp pencil point could be used as a weapon, so if you broke a pencil and didn't find the lead, the guards would have to strip search you to make sure you weren't concealing it. Then they would have to search your cell from top to bottom as you sat naked on the bed and another guard watched over you.

"Just me, or all of us?" said Girl #1, tears suddenly streaming down her face as she stopped the search for a moment to ask.

"Both of us!" her friend said, in a hushed, urgent whisper, "but not her, of course," indicating me.

I spent about five seconds looking for the stray pencil lead on the speckled concrete floor, then told them to just call the guards and it would probably be fine. The guilty girl got a guard's attention through the glass that looks into the control room, and a female guard came to see what we needed. 

Before I could explain, the girl said, her voice shaking, "I broke my pencil, and we can't find the lead, but we've been looking for it really hard and can't find it anywhere and I didn't mean to get in trouble."

The guard, a nice woman who had let me in earlier, looked at me and at the terrified girls, shook her head and said,"What was it, just a pencil lead? That's OK this time. Do you need me to get you a new pencil?"

And that was that. The girls said they were lucky, that they were OK because I was in there supervising them. Maybe there would never have been a strip search for something as tiny and un-weaponlike as a pencil lead, but the girls fully believed there would be, a consequence of being incarcerated in a place where security is necessarily top priority and likely of a life's worth of getting in disproportionate amounts of trouble for anything they did wrong.

I realized how little I understood about their daily lives, both before they came here and while they served out their sentences. To me, a broken pencil lead has never been more than a nuisance. To them, it was terrifying.

And thus, I know that I will remember that incident every single time I break a pencil lead, or perhaps even look at one. I take my freedom for granted, I know, and my privacy, too. It's not something that--despite my teenage complaints to my parents--has ever been an issue in my life. For many, though, a life without freedoms is the reality, perhaps all they know.  

Thinking about tomorrow, Thanksgiving, it gives me one more thing for which to be thankful. And it's one thing I'll not be sorry to remember, time and again.


Laura said...

Ridge Rd. House. Back den. With the checkered floor. I was about 9 or 10 and was sitting on my knees in front of a blue recliner, with my head in the seat of the recliner. arms at my side - rocking myself from the floor. I thought "I will always remember this moment for the rest of my life" I have others, but that was the first. Too bad it never quite worked the same way with my school work.

That being said - I like your story. It's a good one.

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