When I was a quite young lady, perhaps a bit too young for this experience, I volunteered to teach reading to illiterate prisoners at a state prison.
90% of the prisoners in my prison were illiterate.
One of my students, I quickly learned, had a classic dyslexic disorder, a disorder that had been treated by his schoolteachers as laziness, sullenness, and having a disruptive and disobedient personality.
I was impressed, however, by how a little focus and effort could straighten out his seeing problems. His basic reading problems.
Other problems didn’t appear to be quite so easy to address, however.
He would show up to class almost always wearing jeans that had a split near his crotch, allowing me brief, if untantalizing, glimpses of his sparkling white, cotton underwear. Eventually I asked him if he wore such dress because he thought I would like it.
Of course, he answered.
Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t like it.
He kept wearing them.
Perhaps he thought he knew better.
Or perhaps he thought he would wear me down.
I wondered whether he gained the disobedient tendency from the treatment he received from his previous teachers, or whether the teachers had managed to get something, one thing anyway, right about his character.
Months and months went by.
We did get stuck on certain letter combinations, any word beginning with wh, I remember, threw him into a wandering mind.
In Maine, quite a few men returned to prison in the winter in order to have a warm place to sleep and to be able to earn a few dollars to send home to their families.
I learned, while working there, that the Maine State Legislature had had to enact a law that prohibited the prison from feeding the men lobster more than twice a day, because the complaints from the prisoners had been so adamant.
I also learned that in Rockland (a coastal town), if you lost all your clothing in a gambling game, you had been 2 am and 4 am to get home and into other clothes before you were arrested for public indecency.
This was not your ordinary, frightening-to-your-bones kind of prison. More, it was like a day-camp for grown men. Except they spent the night.
The only tension I ever knew about was the resentment that the guards felt toward the prisoners: the prisoners made more money in the workshops making wooden boats and toys for children than the guards made.
In a lot of ways, in Maine in those days, prison was not a bad deal for some men.
Only once was I prevented from entering the prison because of a search for drugs that was going on.
The underwear-exposing prisoner had a wife. In fact, during the months that he had been locked up, he had gained a son. A new baby. He was out of his skin with joy.
Then came the day that he was no longer filled with joy.
His wife had come to see him. The winter was coming on. She had a new baby and no-one to support her. So, she informed him, she was going back to New York State, to her mother’s house, until he got out of jail.
He was livid. He was out of his mind with grief.
She wasn’t going to be there to come see him every weekend and holiday.
Well, yes, I said. But it was understandable, wasn’t it?
Try and have some compassion for her, I suggested.
He stopped his pacing. He sat down. And he looked at me.
Silent. Which was different. He was something of a chatterbox.
What did you say? he asked.
I said, try and have some compassion for your wife. She has a lot on her mind and in her hands to handle all by herself.
What do you mean, compassion?
What is compassion?
And at that point, very literally, my whole life shifted.
As I wrote above, I was very young. And his question was too profound for me.
I was completely overwhelmed with wondering whether or not having never read that word, having never been taught the meaning of that word in anything he had read, he had been denied the essence of that word.
Could people who didn’t know the word, compassion, feel compassion?
I went back and forth.
Of course literacy didn’t define how a person treated another. Did it?
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that that question haunted me for many, many, many years.
A few days ago I watched the movie, The Reader, wherein, I think anyway, the same question was raised.
A woman who cannot read, who has, for some unexplained reason, a sexual affair with a teenage boy (it makes you wonder if she well, you-know-what-ed him, because he could read to her). She loved being read to.
She leaves the area abruptly because she is promoted into a job that would require literacy on her part.
The boy, to say the least, is crushed. It’s implied that this loss really crushes him, perhaps destroying something inside him.
The boy grows into a young man. He studies law. One of his courses takes him inside a courtroom to witness an ongoing trial.
Oh, I forgot to mention. This all takes place in Germany.
And there before his eyes is his own true love. She is one of the defendants. She, and the other women, are being tried for their work at concentration camps.
And something she goes through during her testimony reveals to him her big secret: she can’t read. And she is profoundly ashamed by this.
And I watch him twist his mind, and his heart, and his soul inside out and back again putting the two things together: did she not grasp the significance of her actions as a guard for the SS because she had never learned to read?
Had she never learned compassion?
Perhaps we can learn to treat people with compassion even if we have never seen the word, or heard the word, or have discussed the word.
But can we understand forgiveness if we have not been taught it?
Can we understand the love of God if we have not been shown it?
I knew the love of God before I could read. But all around me were the words that made sense of my experiences. Every night there was the Lord’s Prayer. And every Sunday and Holy Day and even in between there were the hymns that sang about God and his strength and his love and his glory.
It was in the air that I breathed as a child.
I understood who I was by the words that blanketed me and kept me warm.
And forgive us our trespasses, was a mantra that I carried with me wherever I went, and into whatever I did.
What happens to those people who don’t have such a song in their heart? What happens to those people who don’t open their eyes every morning to the knowing that God is there for them, to love them?
I am beginning to understand the significance of missionaries. Those precious people who give these even more precious words to those who don’t have them.
Who make a gift of God’s love, and then freely distributes it.
In the beginning was the word.
I’m a bit old now to truly appreciate the significance of the word, beginning.
We can have nothing, perhaps it is saying, without the word.
And the word is, love.