Sam handed out the spiral-bound notebooks to the class. She scanned the faces before her. Most of the women were creeping toward middle age, or looked like it. The reformatory’s information packet said that the average age of its population was 35 but these women looked older, harder.
As a new volunteer, Sam didn’t know what to expect – would a fight break out? Will they ignore her? Neither, actually. They joked with each other, or kept their heads down. Forty-two women registered for the class but only 20 were accepted. The rest, Sam heard, would take the class by proxy — through their cell mates.
Sam tapped a pen against her chair to get the group’s attention, introduced herself, and talked about writing. Writing saved her life, she said. It was a passport to another land, a license to speak her mind; it was her birth certificate. She saw several inmates sit up taller, and Sam thought, “Yes, these are the ones who want to be saved.”
The first assignment was a prompt: describe a door. Any door. The door to your childhood home, your fifth grade classroom, your addiction, your heart. Write 100 words and show me what that door was like, Sam said.
Sam returned to the reformatory a week later. On the outside, the prison looked a lot like the local community college dressed up in colonial architecture, until you turned your gaze to the layers of fencing and the rough-scrabble yard where the women spent time outdoors. The sun was setting earlier each day and Sam dreaded the daylight savings change ahead when dark would come at 5:00. The woolly sky and falling leaves signaled the transition from fall to winter, through another door.
As she headed to the room, the guard assigned to her class approached Sam with a piece of paper. “Another inmate wanted you to have this. The warden said it was OK to give to you,” she said, her hand on her belt. Her voice was low and easy. “You can read it later.”
The inmates strolled in with their notebooks and sat down at the tables arranged in a large square. “OK, great. Let’s get started,” Sam smiled. She asked each woman to read her essay aloud. Denise, a 32-year-old serving time for theft and drug possession, shared first: her door was invisible and led to heaven and she thought she had been through it more than once. Cassandra, 23, convicted of assault: a barn door with hatch marks on it for the number of pigs slaughtered by her dad. Jackie, 37, drug trafficking: the inside of the bathroom door where she shot up heroin for the last time. And on they went, around the table, seeing doors, hearing knocks, shaking their heads with understanding and pity and regret. Sam thought she heard music or ocean waves between the lines.
It wasn’t until later, when she got home and lit a cigarette, that she read the piece of paper the guard handed her. She leaned into the couch and inhaled.
The guard told me about the writing class and the thing about doors. I need to write this to. I got none to give it to so I give it to you–
This doors metal and blood. Its the biggest door anybody seen. This doors the door to my daughters heart. Theres a big heavy lock and alot of other locks, each with a different and small key. She dont hear me in there with her tunes turned up loud. I want to tell her goodbye. Dont be like yur mama. Grow Go the other way. May no mans hand hit you. Learn yourself. Then open that door wide. Hold that head high.
Sam sighed. She read the name: Jeanette Hooker. She slept uneasily that night, picturing all those doors and locks and hatch marks.
The next morning, Sam turned on the news, waited for the weather report, made her coffee. The local morning anchor said something about a prison. Hearing the reformatory’s name, she turned her attention to the broadcast. “Jeanette Hooker, a 54-year-old woman convicted of murdering her husband and son, will be the first woman in a decade to be electrocuted.”
“Oh,” She breathed sharply. “All those locks.” Sam picked up Jeanette’s note from the coffee table and paced. She put the paper in the safety box, among her lease and divorce papers. Another lock, another door. Another woolly day. But Sam was never the same again.