Author: Chris Malcomb
Location: Berkeley, California
Chris Malcomb's essays have appeared in over a dozen magazines and journals, including Teachers & Writers, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine,
He volunteered with the Prison University Project at San Quentin for three semesters and currently teaches Mindfulness & Creative Writing workshops in Berkeley, California. A longer version of "Kenny" first appeared in the anthology The Social Cause Diet
(Cupola Press, 2008).
I met Kenny during my second semester of teaching college-level English inside San Quentin State Prison. His eyes were like glacial ice, shimmering blue and nearly transparent. He possessed an angular, rigid body, with greased-back brown hair, a bushy mustache, and lean arms lathered in tattoos of skulls, vines, bleeding hearts, and naked women. Sometimes Kenny entered class appearing slightly over-caffeinated -- eyes darting, body twitching; sometimes he seemed sedated.
Despite possessing strong concrete thinking and recall skills, Kenny frequently struggled to formulate complex concepts. When discouraged, he slouched, exhaled forcefully, or made loud, unrelated statements in the middle of class discussions. When talking about his own work, he sometimes exhibited a curious measure of self-protection, disguising his deficiencies in a manic blur of false bravado. The nights when Kenny strutted into class announcing that he'd "nailed" an assignment were those during which I proceeded with great caution. I always began with positive feedback about obvious successes: proper spelling and grammar, clear paragraph structure, strong topic sentences. Only then could I hint at necessary revisions.
One night Kenny bounded into class grinning and waving three crumpled, smudged pages in the air. His eyes sparkled as he sat at his heavy oak desk and dropped his yellow mesh bag on the cold, cracked cement floor. "Got a good one, Chris," he said as he pushed his legs forward. The desk's metal feet screeched. He was talking about the rough draft of his essay about Charlotte Perkins-Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," a story in which a husband commits his wife to extended bed-rest to "cure" her depression. As a result of her confinement to the top floor, the wife descends into madness.
I slid into the desk next to Kenny and took his draft. He slouched slightly, gazing downward and tapping his pencil nervously as I read. When I'd finished, he pursed his lips and shifted his eyes towards me. I pictured similar scenes. Kenny's teachers. Kenny's parents. Kenny's friends. I wondered how many times he had been criticized. His anxiety seeped through his skin like sweat.
So did mine.
"It's a strong theory," I said.
"Really?" he said.
I nodded. Yes. It was one we'd discussed in class: the husband was imprisoning his wife. The theory was good, and provable. The fact that Kenny's essay didn't prove it, however, would have to wait. I nodded, tapped the draft with my finger, and told Kenny that he'd done some nice things with the draft. Clear introduction. Some good topic sentences. A thorough summary of the story, and relatively few spelling errors. And, I added with emphasis while trying to avoid patronizing, he'd demonstrated a keen eye for the details, clearly describing specifics of the woman's room and the intricacies of the yellow wallpaper.
"It's those concrete skills," I said, "that will help you make the next step."
Perhaps Kenny was in a trusting mood. Maybe he wanted the challenge that night, or thought my suggestions would be minimal. Either way, he opened a small window for constructive feedback. I slipped through carefully. His eyes remained wide and friendly as I explained how analytical thinkers learn to see between the words. "What seems a simple story about a woman locked in a bedroom may actually be much more," I said excitedly.
Suddenly his energy shifted. He slid his desk back a fraction of an inch. He squinted, and furrowed his brow. He tapped his pencil more forcefully.
Worried he might get frustrated -- or even angry -- I exhaled and quickly changed tactics. "OK. Let's talk about adjectives. Can you describe the husband?"
He buoyed slightly. "Yeah. Controlling. Possessive."
"I agree," I said. "Now, it's one thing to say he's possessive. But it's entirely different to show that." I explained that he could use the details he'd already recalled so well -- the color and texture of the wallpaper, the furniture in the house, the characters' interactions -- as evidence to support his theory. "Do any of those things show the husband's possessiveness?"
Kenny thumbed his dog-eared story, littered with stains, highlights, underlining, and scribbled marginalia. "Well ... " he said. "The windows have bars on them."
"Great. A very clear image." I pushed further. "And if you really think about it, could the bars on those windows stand for anything?"
"Uh ... " he said, stammering slightly. He shrugged his shoulders and exhaled. His breath smelled like old coffee and cigarettes. He looked stumped.
"Are those bars protecting her?"
"Yeah!" he said. "Maybe her husband's afraid that she's gonna jump out the window. He knows she's going crazy."
I kept my opinion to myself. "OK, protection. That's a possibility. Anything else?" I glanced around, noting the thick metal mesh and iron bars covering our windows. The room suddenly felt smaller, more confined.
Kenny straightened further, confidently. "Trapped? Yeah, the bars are like a cage. She's trapped in the room."
"And who's doing that?"
"She stays up there. She could get up and leave at any time."
Kenny riffled through his story again. His eyes buzzed the text. He found a page, fished a yellow highlighter from his bag, and began illuminating words. "OK, not really. It's her husband that keeps her there. He even locks the door."
I smiled. "What else?"
"The bed," he said. "It's nailed to the floor. And there are rings in the walls, like in a dungeon." He slapped his desk lightly and leaned back, raising his arms above his head. "Shit, it's just like in a prison. She's being held captive. By her husband!" He looked up, his eyes shining like tiny kaleidoscopes.
I told Kenny he should write his examples down. He did. Satisfied that he was on his way, I left to engage other men in similar conversations -- honing theories, finding evidence, constructing clear, authoritative paragraphs. Periodically I glanced at him. His focus was uneven: Sometimes he was writing or reading; sometimes he was laughing with a classmate or playing with his pencil. I thought about checking in, but hadn't yet reached everyone needing feedback. Plus, I'd already spent nearly a half hour with him. After a while I forgot about him entirely. I was discussing concluding paragraphs with Marius when the bell rang. The men began packing and putting on their coats.
"OK," I said to the group. "Finished drafts are due next class." I turned to say a last word to Marius when I heard a loud crash across the room.
"How the FUCK ... "
A surge of adrenaline pulsed through my body. I turned. Kenny's face was flushed. He had kicked his desk to the wall. "How the fuck are we supposed to get them done if we can't get any help?" He slammed his materials into his bag. His pencil fell to the floor. He didn't pick it up.
Several men stopped. Others packed and left as if nothing was amiss. Kenny continued mumbling under his breath. I looked around. The men that remained in the room were waiting for my reaction. I swallowed, my throat suddenly parched.
Then the images came.
I couldn't stop them. They surged into my mind with blinding force. The more I resisted, the more they pounded. In a microsecond my conditioned, fearful mind had rendered Kenny unrecognizable: a caricature, a stereotype, a frightening stranger. Suddenly I was gazing not at a student, but a criminal. I imagined Kenny's crime. Did he joyride someone's car before torching it? Did he assault an old man? Was he a rapist? The images validated my fear, widening the fracture now placing us on the opposite sides of innocence.
It got worse. In a matter of seconds, I had transformed Kenny into someone who could commit -- who had committed -- murder. I knew it. Kenny had killed someone. Someone who had made him angry. In a situation like this. I shivered at the unfair thought. I didn't even know Kenny. I hadn't seen his file, or asked him about his life before prison. Still, I couldn't escape it. Murderer! What was I doing here? What would I do now?
In the years since that moment I've realized that Kenny, like most incarcerated men, had simply never had a safe, nonjudgmental place to release his accumulated tension. Even if neither of us knew it, his outburst was much like a little boy throwing a temper tantrum. It was both a cry for attention and a test. Would I honor his feelings and give him space to be angry? Would I counter his aggression with my own? Or would I simply slip away in fear and never come back? I don't recall making a calculated decision, but deep inside I must have sensed that my response to Kenny's aggression would be equally if not more important than our conversation about "The Yellow Wallpaper." And so I walked across the room on wobbly legs, directly to where he was standing. I pulled his desk back into the circle, took a deep breath, and sat down.
"What's up Kenny?" I said, my voice cracking slightly.
He looked down at me, his eyes now lasers. "Been raisin' my freakin' hand for an hour. You told me to work on those examples. I did, and you disappeared." He squeezed his bag. His fingers were white, his body stiff like a spool of wire. He continued through clenched teeth. "Haven't had shit to do since cause I need to know if I got it right."
"Oh man," I said with a sigh, gripping the edge of the desk. It was a lie. He hadn't been trying to get my attention. He hadn't raised his hand. He hadn't said a word. Not for a whole hour. We both knew it. "I'm so sorry I missed your hand."
"Well ... it don't matter now," he said. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead.
"I guess I got too wrapped up in moving around the room," I said.
Kenny continued packing. He flexed his fists. He stared at the floor. "Ain't no time left now. Bell's rang. Don't know how you expect me to finish this paper. Can't even find out if I'm doing it right." He looked at me once more, moving closer. I felt the heat coming off his body. I arched back slightly. "Thanks a lot," he said. He threw his bag over his shoulder and stormed out of the room.
I remained seated. Shaking. Breathing in short, shallow bursts. Several of the men turned and left. Tears started to form in my eyes. I gingerly assembled my materials and reached for my jacket.
Marius approached. "Don't be trippin', Chris," he said. "Kenny's just like that. He'll cool off." He extended his hand. "Thanks for your help tonight."
I returned the handshake. Marius' grip was thick and muscular. My knuckles cracked as he squeezed. After he left, I sat perfectly still for several minutes. The classroom was empty. The lights buzzed, and voices echoed beyond the mesh-covered windows. The men were returning to their cells. As I stood up I noticed that Kenny's pencil was still on the floor. The tip was broken. I set it in the box containing our supplies, and walked upstairs to the storage locker, stopping at a pencil sharpener along the way.
The following week, I showed up for class as usual. Kenny smiled as he handed me his paper. "Got a good one, Chris," he said. His eyes were bright and happy. I gave him his pencil. Neither of us said a word about what had happened.