There is a moment inside Peggy Jones’ creative writing class when the class becomes a bit less about the mechanics of good writing and more about the razor wire behind which her students live.
It happens near the end of Monday night’s session, the finale of the spring semester. The students clear their throats and one after another read their final stories to the room. They use the techniques they have learned during the semester, techniques professor Jones is always scribbling on the whiteboard: Imagery; Tension; Pattern; Energy; Insight.
Jones and her students snap their fingers in appreciation when each reader finishes. They offer praise and constructive feedback. The mood is end-of-semester light: The half-dozen students poke fun at Jones’ lack of football knowledge; she grows faux-indignant and points out that she went to Notre Dame; they kid and laugh and treat each other like people who have spent the past four months learning together, because they have.
And then Tone Watkins, one of the best writers in class, stands up to read his piece. It’s a story about an older him giving advice to his former self, the teenage Tone.
The story is dense with detail and eerily surrealistic and, in my opinion, really good — maybe the most powerful thing read inside this classroom on this Monday evening.
But that power is only partly why Arthonia “Tone” Watkins’ eyes begin to water as he reads, and only partly why his watery eyes morph into full-blown tears, and not exactly why Jones excuses Watkins when he finishes reading so he can go splash some water on his face.
When you get older, your mistakes cannot be easily escaped, Tone reads aloud from his story. Sometimes they can never be erased.
Tone is wearing the beige prison uniform of the Omaha Correctional Center while he reads this. He is no freshman inside a college classroom. He’s a convicted felon taking a college creative writing course from a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who thinks she’s learned a lot herself while teaching it.
The advice the 32-year-old inmate is giving himself in this piece is advice that might have kept him from becoming a 32-year-old inmate.
“Are we always that worst thing that we did?” Jones asks, breaking the silence in the room after Watkins dries his eyes, returns and takes his seat for the critique.
The question hangs there for a second, like it could be another writing prompt in this one-of-a-kind creative writing class.
Jones first entered the Omaha Correctional Center on a frigid day in January, locking her phone and keys in a locker, taking off her shoes, passing those and her teaching materials through a metal detector, submitting to a full-body pat-down and then passing through several locked doors with an armed guard to reach her classroom.
Once there, she was a little startled by how normal it seemed, so long as you ignored the periodic crackling of an ancient intercom, the voice of a guard ordering an inmate to his cell.
She gave the students initial writing exercises to test their skills. She found some students who had rudimentary writing ability, and others who had clearly spent much time — in some cases, part of their pre-prison careers — reading and writing.
She scribbled those elements of good creative writing on the whiteboard. She had the students find examples of tension and imagery and insight in poetry she brought to class. She assigned reading from a wide array of greats, including Martin Luther King Jr.
And then she broke out a deck of cards, except instead of a number each card has a different writing prompt on it. Prompts like: Where do you like to go in the summer? What’s the best work compliment you have ever received? What’s your happy ending?
And then the students wrote. A lot. They wrote in class. They wrote in their cells. Some wrote every day.
“I always wanted to write, but she helped me structure it,” Watkins tells me. “She has given me the confidence to keep on writing ... she helped me find my voice. That’s what I’m grateful for.”
It is fascinating to watch what happens when a teacher like Jones devotes herself completely to these prison students. The gray-haired, pint-sized playwright and longtime professor pinballs around the prison classroom, practically crackling with positive energy.
And her heat seems to reactivate them, like the spring sun shining on dormant perennials.
At first they were shy about reading aloud what they had written. But by this last class period, they yearn for their turns.
An older inmate reads his short essay on loneliness. He talks about how he feels on holidays when he calls home and his family is gathered, celebrating. The loneliest moment is the moment they hang up and he stands alone at the prison pay phone, the receiver still in his hand.
“Folks have been known to die because of a lonely heart,” he says, reciting his final line.
“That had some punch,” says fellow student Klint Bitter, excited, when the reader finishes.
And it is also fascinating to watch what happens when six inmates work hard to please their professor. She wanted to teach this class, practically begged to teach it. But nothing prepared her for how fully committed many of these students are to improving, to opening their writing jugular vein and letting honest words pour onto the page, again and again.
What happens is that the beige uniforms disappear, and the squawking prison intercom fades into the background. She doesn’t often think of them as inmates. She thinks of them as students. Her students.
“I think the arts give us a chance to show our humanity,” Jones says. “It can show us how to understand things. I think I went in going to see if that was true. Would it help me see the humanity of my students? Would it help my students see themselves fully? And the answer is yes.”
Jones did one thing very deliberately: She did not Google any of these students, because she did not want to see what act put them into the Omaha Correctional Center.
I had to do that, I told Jones after class. Do you want to read it in the story, or hear it from me? Go ahead, she says.
Klint Bitter, a former youth pastor, is in prison because he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, I tell her. And Tone Watkins is in prison for assault after stabbing and badly wounding a man during a fight. Both of them will be there, at minimum, for four more years.
Jones quietly says she could have guessed the nature of their crimes from some of their papers. And then she grabs hold of the words that she has heard a friend’s father say.
“Why do we recycle bottles but not people?”
Which brings us back to Monday night, to the last creative writing class of the semester, to Peggy Jones’ question: “Are we always the worst thing we did?”
She argues to the class that no, we are not. That we can change, grow, be better.
The students believe that they can be better, but they aren’t so sure that their mistakes can be erased. They argue back. They have done things, some of them horrible things, and now they have permanent felonies on their records and no jobs and ruined relationships — not to mention the terrible pain many have caused their victims.
Look where they are!
A student stands up then, and says that if there is to be forgiveness, it has to start inside yourself. You can’t forgive anyone else, or start to move past crime and punishment, until you do that. And man, that is hard, he says. And so, too, it is hard for society to forgive them.
“Forgiveness is fickle,” he says, and the heads in Peggy Jones’ classroom nod in unison. On this, professor and students can agree.
Tone Watkins is nodding, too. He is nodding in a way that makes the writer in me wonder. I wonder if he is already outlining a story about the nature of forgiveness, one he might write the next time he takes Peggy Jones’ one-of-a-kind creative writing class.