Sam, the Prisoner – What I Say, How I Say

Ovelman_self_control Joe Ovelman, Video Still, Self-control, 2014

Thank you to everyone who answered my post from last week, very helpful! Also, thanks to ‏@LDorg for the inspiration of Miss Bathsheba in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and to Rhea A. DuMont ‏@RheaADuMont for her work in the penal system. Also, a big shout goes to author Michelle Alexander and her book, The New Jim Crow @OhioULawCenter

What I Say, How I Say

We sat at the kitchen table at their new house in Vermont, over a dinner of real Italian meatballs, not the baked kind that they’re mom usually makes, but ones that I had pan-fried in an inch and a half of olive oil. Mmmmmm, our arteries groaned. I was speaking about restorative work I’ve done in prison, specifically, a Basic Business and Ethics Workshop presented by Growing Examples at Chester County Prison Pre-release Center, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Wide-eyed, my eight-year-old, blonde-haired nephew asked, “Were the prisoners nice?” I chose to answer with a story and this disclaimer: this was the pre-release center, and the men housed there were on work release, in part because they had exhibited good behavior in the regular prison.

I replied, “Yes, for their part, they were nice. One prisoner in particular was very nice, and, fortunately for me, had excellent self-control.”

I went on to tell that the workshop consists of resume writing, identifying and articulating transferable skills, job search and interviewing. Each workshop has had at least 8, but no more than 12 men present. I am already seated in the room when they arrive and sit in folding chairs around two white plastic, pushed-together folding tables. I introduce myself, then ask everyone to line against the wall and individually introduce themselves to me as we shake hands. Just a few of the men make eye contact with me as our hands meet. I avoid comment, and ask that we all return to our chairs. The next steps of the lesson plan are supposed to go like this:

We resume our seats around the table and I do a demonstration of unacceptable body language. I sit reclined in my chair, my head lolls, and my eyes stay unfocused as I purportedly listen to an answer spoken by one of the men in the group. Men laugh, and are able to identify this as unsuccessful non-verbal communication. Next, I ask one man for help to demonstrate my next point about incongruent verbal and non-verbal communication. On this I will tell you more in a moment. Lastly, everyone once again lines against the wall, and reintroduces themselves, shaking hands, while making eye contact, even smiling. End lesson.

I have done this demonstration for middle school students a hundred times. And I always pre-conference with one student that I then ask for help demonstrating the incongruent verbal/non-verbal communication section. The first time I did a workshop in the Pre-release Center. I chose the biggest guy, the one who I noticed in just the few minutes we had already been together, that the other guys were watching, and following. We’ll call him Sam. “Sam,” I asked, “Will you please stand up and help me demonstrate this next point?” There was some laughter, and brief hesitation on Sam’s part, but eventually Sam acquiesced and joined me at the front of the small room.

I got right up in the big man’s face, having to stand on my toes, my jaw set, my hands in fists at my sides, arms rigidly extended, the vein in my temple popped, and I spit with a guttural boil, “Sam. I’m so happy that you’re here.”  Crisply, curtly, enunciated, the room freezes. All time ceases. Not one man breathes. My nose is less than four inches from Sam’s stubbled chin. In that moment, I realized that I had not pre-conferenced with Sam regarding this demonstration, and I wait. We all wait. And Sam, ah, self-controlled, muscle-armed, scarred and pouted purple-black lipped Sam, spreads slowly into a smile. His dark eyes quickly return to bright and shiny in the windowless room. And Sam, laughed. Everyone exhaled. Apologizing to Sam, and to all the men in the room, I tell them of my mistake, my omission of the pre-conference. And I thank Sam for his self-control. And I tell my blue-eyed, wide-eyed eight-year-old nephew, and his family, sitting there around the kitchen table laughing, Sam was nice. Thankfully, eh. Sam the prisoner was very nice.




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