Photo by Sam Beebe.
Photo by Sam Beebe.

The classroom always has a smell. It’s because there are too many bodies for the space, grown bodies, breathing and milling, restless. Too many adult men looking like tea party guests behind children’s desks, legs spilling out from underneath.

The smell is not unpleasant. It’s the smell emitted from extremely clean bodies. All the guys are extremely clean. There aren’t many ways to spend free time in prison besides showering.

Of course there’s TV, making phone calls if you have money, reading your books if you read easily, or talking to your cellmate. Or haircuts.

This week my Student With The Unwavering Eye Contact has freed his cornrows into a ‘fro. It’s a privilege to go to the barber. In class sometimes they brag about their upcoming appointments. They ask permission to miss class for a haircut. They count down the days until it’s time again.

It’s one of the only choices about personal appearance available, besides the decision to tuck in shirts in or leave them out. Today when they walked in each one of them un-tucked their shirts, one by one. I wonder if it means something.

In the beginning it was disconcerting for me when they changed their haircuts. When the teacher doesn’t allow me to spend too much time with any one student, and when they oscillate between from competitively flirtatious to silently imploding from week to week, it’s hard to feel like I know who anyone is.

I don’t know any of their names except Money. If I know their names I won’t be able to stop myself from looking them up on the Department of Corrections website, which isn’t fair. They don’t know anything about my past. It feels cruel to hold that knowledge, another brick in the stack of power against them.

This week though, the teacher assigns me to work with a student who is new to the class. He is in his early twenties and his face is full of light. He is beautiful, and I try to take back the thought.

We plod through adding fractions. Ten minutes into the struggle I realize he does not know what “denominator” and “numerator” mean.

“Are you Chinese?” he asks.

“Yes.” He sits up.

“Can you tell me about Chinese Buddhism?” I cannot and I am devastated that I had not paid more attention on all those tours of temples on summer vacations or even read about it on Wikipedia instead of whittling away my hours on Facebook every day. This is the one thing he cares about and I have nothing to offer.

“I have trouble thinking that math is important,” he apologizes. “I am trying to educate myself about the teachings of Buddhism.” I wonder if it has to do with atonement. I wonder if he has access to vegetarian meals in the canteen.

He babbles to me about the different sects of Buddhism like a second grader who has just read his first book about dinosaurs. He doesn’t understand all the teachings, he says, which is why he hoped I knew something about it. But he reads about it every day.

I ask if he mediates and his face darkens. “It’s hard in here. It’s hard to stand the situation when you finish.”

He looks somewhere I can’t see. “Meditation gives you a warped sense of time, but so does prison. All these people,” he looks at his classmates, his eyes old, “They don’t know.”

“Why did you come here?” he asks. It’s a question I always have trouble with. It feels condescending to say, “To help you guys,” and that’s not really true. It would be truthful but inappropriate to say, “It makes me feel so good for the rest of the day that sometimes I fear I am taking your energy,” or “It makes me think,” or “I wouldn’t have met you otherwise.”

“It must be cool to come in here,” he says, “to meet people with hair like this,” picking up a dread, “tattoos. But I wouldn’t come here.”

It’s time for me to go. I have class at 11. He stays.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.