Maybe it’s just the New Jersey weather or the tint of the van’s windows but it seems like it’s always foggy when I drive to Garden State, a sprawling correctional complex whose hallways I’ve walked through without ever really managing to glean the building’s external shape. We always drive towards it from the same side. Inside the hallways shoot off from rounded enclosure where the guards sit like identical grayish-beige spokes from a wheel. Sometimes it’s hard to find my way out because everything looks the same.
It’s hard to explain how it feels inside the building. The light is watery and you can feel yourself moving—the air smells thin but feels heavy, a little like being on a long, long flight. The feeling of restlessness is like being on a plane too. I don’t think many of the people here have ever been on an airplane but I’m not supposed to ask them questions about things like that. I’m not supposed to ask them questions about anything. Before I came here I signed paperwork indicating my awareness that I was entering into a dangerous place with dangerous people but mostly I just feel guilty that I can never explain why I can’t look them in the eye or that I think it’s terribly wrong that most of them are there, that they have been disappointed and betrayed by things beyond their control. It is hard not to feel this way when I am teaching a twenty-eight year old man how to read numbers written in words and turn them into numbers. Fifty-four thousand, six hundred and seventy two. He writes 50, pauses, looks at his hands. Looks up apologetically. I tell him to pay attention to where the commas fall in the words and realize in the blankness of the stare he gives me that he does not know what a comma is.
I’ve never been so aware of being female. It’s not that I’m not aware of my appearance in everyday life—not at all. It’s probably because I was ugly in middle school, but I am perennially aware of how I look, of how it could be better or worse, of who it might attract. But it’s different at Garden State. No matter how appearance-conscious I might be in the world outside, it’s nothing like being here, where I can feel stares collect on me in every space I move through. Sometimes there are catcalls but sometimes all it takes to dispel it is eye contact, like everyone is just hungry to be looked at by someone who could be looking at something or someone else.
Everyone is confused about why I am there. You getting paid? asks one inmate. This counts like a class— right? theorizes another. I bet you’ve got a community service requirement to graduate, says one teacher confidently as she administers a practice GED test. It’s probably the teachers who are most confused when I tell them that they’re all wrong, that I don’t get anything out of going to Garden State. When there is no work to do and I’m given no one to tutor I sit alone at a desk, stare into space, play with my hands. You having fun? they call out to me. You glad you came?
Then there are the questions about my life beyond the prison, which I’m not allowed to answer. One teacher asks me my last name, and I tell her Ioannou. Her eyes narrow. “Ms. E,” she says, and it doesn’t seem worthwhile to correct her. Teaching always rustles up questions about my life outside. I try to explain exponents. You studying math? You must be some kind of math genius. I think about friends that study math at college and how far below their ability level I am and almost want to laugh but I don’t, and I don’t correct them. I don’t tell them that in most places knowing how to multiply fractions at age twenty doesn’t make you a math genius, not even close.
Teaching lends itself to something much more disquieting than the stares. Sometimes there are these arresting moments of slightly fearful deference, of looking away, of apologizing for wasting my time. Moments that say: you are a white woman and that means something frightening.
“It’s hard to remember this stuff,” one man tells me when he struggles over a number and we have to get out the building blocks designed to help children visualize the difference between hundreds, tens, and ones. The hundreds come in sheets, the tens in rods, the ones in little squares, all in bright primary colors. They make an impossibly loud noise when sometimes, they clatter to the floor. “I haven’t been in school since I was fourteen,” he says by way of apology. We practice arranging the blocks to correspond with different numbers. Fifty five. Two hundred and eight. Sixteen. Six hundred and seventy four. “My daughter is four,” he says, counting out the tiny ones place blocks with a delicacy that I still remember even though I’d rather not.
We try to multiply some single digit numbers. When he needs to do multiplication, he refers to a table in his math workbook with the numbers one through ten aligned on each side and runs his finger along the column and row with the numbers he is trying to multiply until he finds the product. I grab a pen from the teacher’s desk to sketch a square and she chastens, “Remember to put it back when you’re done. They use those to make tattoos.” She says it like she’s talking to herself.
I glance across the room, look at the only white inmate I’ve ever seen at Garden State. He sits in the corner shuffling his feet under his desk. Everyone here always seems like they are moving in some small way. It’s as though they need to compensate for the loss of their ability to really go anywhere with these quick brief strokes of movement, as though a pair of feet need to move a certain distance every day or else a person just goes crazy. It’s like the woodshop room I walk past every week on my way to this classroom, where they build things just to tear them down. Every week something new and every act of making something also a movement towards its destruction. I think about building something just to take it apart; I think about Prometheus healing every day knowing that tomorrow he will be unceremoniously ripped open again.
The man looks up from the table and asks me, “You want to know why I’m here? You think I’m a bad person?”
There are many things I want to say.
I say: Let’s talk about negative numbers.