The Season of Small Gestures of Compassion


The pandemic has made the last year extremely difficult for all of us, but conditions in our prisons have gone from terrible to intolerable.  Several Minnesota prisons have become hotspots of infection, and all programming and visitation has been halted.  Many of the incarcerated have spent most of the last 10 months in their cell. Knowing that, I reached out out to one of the students I profile in Words No Bars can Hold. Here is a bit of background about LaVon, as I described him in the book:

LaVon has become a man in prison. Arrested before he was 18 on the steps of his city high school for a gang-related gunfight, LaVon has a sentence of more than two lifetimes. LaVon was in the very first class I taught more than a decade ago and has been in every one since. He approaches learning with such seriousness of purpose, with such reverence, that he alone can make the classroom seem holy. In our first class, an introduction to literature course, he wrote an original poem to complement every academic essay. He finished his GED in prison and has been pursuing education ever since. He doesn’t care about earning a degree–his credits are scattered haphazardly across a variety of on-line institutions and disciplines. He wants to learn things, he once told me, not earn things.

LaVon views writing as a vehicle of self-improvement, of bettering himself, of trying to become the man he hopes he can someday be. He believes in transformation, even if it will only take place within the walls of the prison. His commitment to self-improvement is unshakeable, and as with his writing, he is the only audience that matters. He also sees it as a way to heal and to come to terms with the life he is living behind bars. With no discernable way out, LaVon creates a community in prison. In many ways it has become his city, his neighborhood, his world.

In many ways LaVon exemplifies what can only be described as the purity of literary pursuit in prison. Literacy is not a means to any kind of instrumental end-not vocational, not educational in the traditional sense of attaining degrees through post-secondary education. LaVon will not be leaving prison. He writes to heal himself, to map the contours of his interior landscape and in doing so to re-chart it. 

Knowing how isolated things have been in the prison I sent a simple message of greeting to LaVon.

Here’s what I received in return:

Hello, It is so good to hear from you. Thank you so much for your care and concern. I am doing better, not trying to rush anything. For the record, this helps in a very meaningful way. As far as others are concerned, we are the forgotten. Trapped inside a cell, screaming, hoping anyone would hear. Praying someone would simply glance, and see that we exist within this pandemic too. And take a moment to understand just how much we’ve been effected as well. You took that moment to glance, the time to express your concern. For me, that is everything! I am forever grateful. I pray you and your family are doing well during these times. Know that you all are within my prayers. May the most high keep you in his embrace.”  LaVon

I was deeply moved by how much such a small gesture of compassion meant to LaVon.  It is a good lesson for all of us this time of year.

Words No Bars Can Hold“Reading it, we learn so much about the power of writing, about teaching, about what education makes possible, and about the urgent human capacity to define who we are.”
– Mike Rose, author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education



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