Today was a fantastic beginning of our workshop, and I’m always nervous before meeting a new group of people. No matter how much I plan and prepare, I always have butterflies before I walk into the room (and for a few minutes after). Meg seems to remain much calmer than me – all that yoga training must pay off!
We are in a large classroom in the administration/education building at Travis County Correctional Complex. To enter, we walk into the main visitation building, get our volunteer badges, run our bags through the scanner and walk through the metal detector into the visitation area. We walk along an outside corridor before entering the education building. Once in there, we go to our large classroom. It has rows of desks (which we rearrange) and large windows which let in the sun. It was a beautiful day and a little of it filtered in through the windows.
The women, about sixteen of them, filed into the classroom. We began with five minutes of freewriting, then I handed out the folders. In the last workshop Meg and I taught, I was surprised by the strong reaction to the folders. I had gone to Wal-Mart and bought the cheapest folders I could find, which were brightly striped or polka dotted. The jail, meanwhile, is concrete and the floors in our building white linoleum. The walls are beige or white, and the inmates wear black and white horizontally striped shirts and pants. This time around, I made certain to buy vividly colored folders again and noticed what a splash they made against the many shades of beige. The women exclaimed over them and thanked us for bringing color in their lives.
Meg led us in a lovely stretch and we played several games. There was plenty of good-natured laughter and a bit of teasing as the games encouraged them to look and act silly, and to move their bodies in ways they wouldn’t normally. We came up with a list of agreements for how we will behave in the space with each other and another list of expectations of what the women want to learn and experience in the workshop. Meg and I introduced image work (creating still pictures with the body) by demonstrating on ourselves how the body can be used to show ideas like ‘curiosity’ or ‘anger’.
They split into groups and made group images of what some of the agreements might look like. One group pulled me in and we set up Respect. Three of us faced the fourth women with open bodies, attentive expressions and hands cupped against our ears to show we were listening. The fourth women faced us and made the sign language gesture for respect. It was lovely and now I know how to say ‘respect’ in sign language. We also did the opposite of respect – we all faced away from the fourth woman, cocked our hips and looked away from her. The rest of the class laughed at our attitude.
‘Love’ is the theme of the this workshop, so we brainstormed different kinds of love and words that we associate with love. This led into a discussion (which will continue later) about what constitutes love. Is stalking a form of love? Why does love inspire such extremes in us? We named titles of love songs and a line or two from several songs burst into the discussion.
I brought the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly” and passed them out. As I sang the chorus alone, to give everyone a chance to remember the tune, I heard, “One time… two times…” which is the background beat in the Lauryn Hill version of the song.
“Okay,” I said, “I can tell we all know the Lauryn Hill version, so let’s sing that one.” One woman, a musician and actor, offered to give us a beat and she knocked out a beat on the desk as we all sang:
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song,
Killing me softly with his song.
If you’re familiar with the Lauryn Hill version, you know that there’s a great vocal break at the end of the song where she just goes for it. So did we.
Oooooooh, wooooooahhhhhh, aaah aahhh, la la laaaa la la laaaa, oh ooooh, lalaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
When I see these women in their uniforms in the jail, it’s easy to forget that we could have shared experiences, but singing this song together that we all know reminded me. We are all women, we could love the same music and movies, we could have strong opinions on the same subject – they are not the Other. They are people, same as us and at some point they will be on the outside again. How will we help them? How do we remember each other’s humanity?
As Meg said, it’s all about making the space. These are eager, creative women and they don’t need cajoling or forcing to express themselves. They just need a space and some support. They are excited to learn and I am excited to teach and to learn from them as well.(I have gained permission from the women involved in this workshop to write in a general way about the work that we’re doing. Several women have expressed interest in posting poems or stories – their work will be added as they write it.)