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Writing Wrongs, Mentoring Youth, Redeeming Souls

Jayne Thompson, right, and Emily DeFreitas '15, edited the anthology.

Edited by a Widener faculty member and a student, a new anthology of writing by inmates is intended to help at-risk youth find a “beautiful future.”

 

Jayne Thompson, a senior lecturer in English who has been a Widener faculty member for 18 years, and Emily DeFreitas, a senior English/creative writing major from Kendall Park, New Jersey, have collaborated to edit a new book, Letters to My Younger Self: An Anthology of Writings by Incarcerated Men at S.C.I. Graterford and a Writing Workbook. For the past three years, Thompson has been volunteering to teach creative writing to men at the prison, many of whom are serving life sentences. Published in June by Serving House Books, no profits are derived from the publication, but all proceeds go to print more copies and to distribute copies to young people who can benefit.

 

By Jayne Thompson

I head down the long hallway of Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford with my guard escort to the series of doors that will release me into the spring evening. My 20 students have finished another lesson on conflict, crisis, and resolution in narrative. I wave goodnight to a few as they pass through a metal detector and back into their cell blocks.

Many moments have converged to create this one. The year before I started teaching at Graterford, I taught one class each school day at Chester High School. Discussions of work by Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, Alice Schell, and other writers, as well as games of Scrabble, filled our time together. But we also experienced loss that year—three students from our class disappeared into the juvenile justice system. No longer were they trying to stake claim to the teacher’s chair, taking a part in August Wilson’s play Fences, or rapping Langston Hughes’s poem “America.” They were gone—gone from class, the school, the community, society.

One evening while teaching at Graterford, I told my students about a Chester High teenager who had rapped the Hughes poem and then vanished into the world of detention centers. I also told them about my experience hearing the challenging cases of juvenile offenders for a Youth Aid Panel in Chester.

Letters to My Younger SelfThese stories that haunted me now gnawed at the Graterford men.

They wanted to talk to these children.

They longed to tell them of their own mistakes.

The deep empathy they demonstrated for young people they had never met gripped me. From this empathy, Letters to My Younger Self was born.

The project began with Graterford students writing letters to their younger selves, their parents, or their children. Others wrote pieces discussing formative moments in their youth.

In assigning the Graterford men to write to and about their younger selves, I had a plan. I wanted them to use narrative to create an object, with the younger self as the subject. I hoped the men, in polishing the object, could step outside of themselves and look at the subject—finding empathy for the young men in the story, for themselves.

Along the way, my students and I agreed to turn the assignment into a book. They understood that they would get no recognition, no monetary compensation for contributing to this anthology. All profits would go toward printing copies to be given to young people at risk. The men, in essence, were doing social work from behind bars. They told their stories as acts of love. As Paul J.P., one of the men, in an opening piece entitled “Learn From Our Mistakes, Young Men and Women, You Can Have a Beautiful Future!” writes:

“We hope that you young men and women might read these stories of broken lives which have been reconstructed in words and stories and memories and that they might inspire you to explore your minds and your hearts and your dreams and make a turn away from the loss of your freedom and save yourselves for the potentially beautiful lives that are open to you.”

I recruited the invaluable help of Emily DeFreitas, a senior English/creative writing major from Kendall Park, New Jersey. She typed most of the pieces since the men in Graterford were allowed to give me only hard copies, and she assisted with design and editing. She also lent moral support as we read so many heart-wrenching pieces. “As a 19-year-old college student, I respect the contributors for their experience,” DeFreitas said. “But I also respect them for their courage to share this experience in writing.”

As we neared the end of the editing process, I learned that one of my former high school students from the Chester Summer Challenge—a youth program that borrows Widener classrooms—had been shot and killed in Chester Township.

His name was Frank Turner.

He was 17.

A moment in class with Frank immediately came to mind when I learned of his death: In class one day, Frank complimented a fellow student on the astuteness of her comment; his eyes were bright, his smile was huge. I regularly gave the students dominos for particularly intelligent comments, and I promised to take the teenagers to eat in the Widener cafeteria as a group when they earned a certain number of dominoes. 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.

My Graterford students and I dedicated the book to Frank.

At another point during my Chester Summer Challenge class, my young students and I found ourselves talking about prison. Some of the teens explained that the courts had mandated them to attend the summer program. A few had spent time in a juvenile detention center. Others had a family member or knew someone in prison. Some were afraid of prison and those in it.

One young man asked, “Do you believe that people can change?” His eyes, dark and round, begged me to say “yes.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “I have seen it happen.”

After class I thought about it. Yes, I believe people can change, but perhaps it is more a matter of people choosing to tap into what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

The good is always in us, and we choose it—or not.

My Graterford students reached out from behind the prison walls to speak to young people, but they speak to us all. They remind us all about choices, consequences, and caring for others.

Their courage is remarkable as they ask themselves and readers to make better decisions and work toward a more compassionate world, asking us to tap into our “better angels.”


 

Excerpts from Letters to My Younger Self **

 

Inspired by poet Etheridge Knight’s “Belly Song,” D. Saadiq P. Wrote this poem as a letter to his son:

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.

Take heed to my words or this
will be your destiny, because the
road you’re heading down
has already got the best of me.

So I hope you see what I didn’t see
and follow the Blue sea
and not the Black sea that has
swallowed me.

Paul J.P. wrote a letter to his mother, who committed suicide when he 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.

Michael W. wrote a short piece called “Old Times”:

While traveling through the dark on a lonely bus, I find myself thinking back to when I was a child, when my mother used to hold me in her arms and tell me she loved me. My father would come from work and tuck me into bed and tell me he loved me. Those were the happy times. Then came the abuse, the lying, and the not caring. I stopped being tucked in and told, “I love you.” My father stopped coming home and my mother stayed out late. It was like a war zone with both of them in the house together. They would fight and argue all day; I would sit in my room and play my music loud to blur them out. There’s nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do to go back into time where I knew love and happiness was there.

**Pennsylvania prison administrators require that editors not identify anthology contributors out of concern and respect for crime victims, so their last names are identified with an initial.

For more information or to buy the book, visit www.servinghousebooks.com/letters.html.