Every Monday and Wednesday I drive up the river from my home just north of Manhattan to Ossining, where I park my car in an upper lot and hike down 114 uneven stone steps (yes, I’ve counted them) to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison where I teach college and pre-college courses to the inmates. I check in at noon for my 1:00-3:00 class, hike back up to the lot for my two-hour break at 3:30, and then return at 5:30 for my 6:30 -8:30 class. Working with these students is a labor of love and the best part of my week.
The hardest part of teaching at Sing Sing isn’t dealing with the security guards, or those stairs, or the oppressive heat from the radiators, or the faint odor of mold that permeates the air and clings to my students’ papers. It’s figuring out where to eat between classes. Ossining is a small village on the Hudson River, and dining options are limited. It has several convenience-store delis, a couple of Chinese take-outs, a few nice restaurants that don’t open until dinnertime, a McDonald’s, and a diner. I usually opt for one of the latter two, where I can sit at a table and grade papers.
But I don’t complain. At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. Mostly they leave it, and cook their own meals from foods they purchase in the prison commissary.
As class ended on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year, the men asked what I would be doing for the holiday. Our children live in five different states and none could share the holiday with us, so we had invited several friends and their families to join us instead. I started to describe the meal I would be preparing—the turkey, the yam soufflé, my secret cranberry sauce, the homemade rolls and pies—and then I stopped myself.
“I’m sorry! This is kind of painful, isn’t it?” I sympathized. “You’ll probably get a gray slab of pressed turkey product tomorrow.” (Once I asked the men what the food is like in the mess hall, and they responded simply, “Gray.”)
But the men quickly corrected me. “We’re having a great meal!” Dan announced. “I bought a 6-pound turkey breast in the commissary.” He pointed to his buddy in the next seat. “He’s making a green bean casserole. My other buddy is bringing yams with marshmallows.”
Another classmate chimed in, “I’m bringing the dessert!”
“We got six guys coming to my cell for dinner!” Dan beamed.
Holidays can be the loneliest time inside. Family members will usually try to visit the week before or the week after, but they spend the holiday itself with family—at home, on the outside.
Nevertheless, in the gray cells of a gray prison on a gray November day, these men have learned how to bring light into their lives, simply by breaking bread –and turkey—together. As each of my guests entered my home on Thanksgiving, one bringing green beans, another bringing a salad, another bringing dessert, I thought of Blaze and Sha and Julio — and Dan, beaming over his six-pound turkey breast.
Friends are family we choose for ourselves. I’m grateful to call these special students my friends. And I’m eternally grateful for the light they bring into my life.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature for Mercy College at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. She is the author of Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ. You can purchase an autographed copy at http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/