The Doors We Walk Through
by Jill Kandel
Once a week I walk through doors that click and lock behind me and head to a program’s room. I rearrange the straight-in-line tables into a circle and wait for my students to be released to come to class. Doors click and beep and the women walk in. They are dressed in orange.
Today there are twenty women in class. I introduce myself, pass a signup sheet around, and begin with a short introduction to journaling.
“Journaling is a way to take thoughts out of your mind. When your mind is looping and going in circles over a certain topic, writing is a way to face it and begin to understand.”
The women nod.
“You write with words,” I say. “And you think with words. So when you write, you are really thinking.”
I pass out journal books (soft-cover, no wire bindings) and pencils. The women choose a book, write their name on the cover, and look up at me expectantly.
I come here each week to teach minimum and medium security female inmates. It isn’t work I ever thought I’d be doing. I’d never done volunteer work before. But being a journalist brought me into places I hadn’t noticed or cared about and when I wrote a story about a former inmate, met the Chaplain and the program’s officer, I was intrigued. Later, the program’s director— who worked at that local county jail—called to ask if I’d teach a writing class; I said no. It took about a year of that incessant little voice whispering to me before I called him back and said yes. That was three years ago.
One of the difficult things about working in a jail is that it’s such a transient place. Women can be incarcerated in a jail for anywhere from one day up to one year. They can choose to come to class or skip. They might be out at court or have a visitor. I get what I get. Some weeks I have four students, some weeks twenty-four. Some weeks they are all new, some weeks I see women who’ve been coming to almost every class for six months. I work with women of all ages. My students might be eighteen years old. Or seventy. The challenge is to relate to the new women, explain journaling to them, and not bore the women who have been to class many times already.
The women have come to journal class with preconceived ideas on what is right and wrong with their writing, grammar, and sentence structure. They worry about their spelling. Some are not native English speakers. Being in a writing class can be intimidating. I want to jump start the writing so I begin the class with having the inmates write a list. Lists are not scary.
“Today we are going to discuss doors,” I say.
The women look at me confused. “Doors?” they ask.
“Yes, doors,” I respond. “Make a list of doors you’ve walked through in your life.”
I give them three minutes to write and then we go around the circle. Each woman can read or she can pass.
These are the words I hear: Treatment doors, casino, bar, work. Jail, prison, home. The door to temptation, divorce, motherhood. The door to drugs. YMCA shelter, foster care, safe house, church. Detention, therapy, psychiatric hospital. Mall, courthouse, coffee shop. Halfway house, movie hall, zoo, airport. Emergency room, rehab, burn unit, hospital, funeral home.
The women nod as they listen to each other. They add additional doors to their own lists. They have warmed up to the subject.
“There are many styles of doors,” I say. “What are some types of doors you can think of?” Wooden doors, metal, glass. French doors, accordion doors, locked, automatic.
The women laugh when someone says, “Revolving.”
“No shit. That’s me and jail. In and out and back in again.”
I pass out a slip of paper with a quotation written on it. Each woman takes a slip and puts it on the desk in front of her.
The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live. ~ Flora Whittemore
I ask the women to write about the quotation. They can agree or disagree with it. They can write about doors they’ve opened or doors they’ve closed. I tell them to write off the top of their heads. Not to worry about it too much.
“Write the first thing that comes to mind,” I say as I pass around the bananas I’ve brought in for a snack.
When the women start to close their journals and look restless, we go around the circle and they read what they’ve written.
When I opened the liquor store door, it opened the jail door, too.
The door to my past has a window in it. I want to look through it. I
want to learn from my past. But it’s time to open new doors.
In my past, when I heard a knock, I’d open up to anybody.
I always put one foot in the door, so it won’t close completely.
I opened that drug door, and a robber came in. Drugs stole my life.
Reading out loud is a difficult thing for some women. But the majority of them read. As they sit and listen to each other’s stories, the atmosphere in the room warms up. There is less tension, less caution. This is my favorite part of the class. Listening to the women reading. I love listening to them because I believe in writing. I believe that taking the time to write touches something deep within a person’s soul. That we often access things with writing that are otherwise barred and closed off, even to ourselves.
After all of the women have read, I pass another slip of paper out with several quotations on it. They can choose which quotation to write from. We circle around the theme of doors for the entire class and end up with this: A small key can open a large door. ~ Turkish Proverb
The women write and then read.
For me, a small needle was the small key that opened up the big door. God, I wish I’d never found that little key.
Over the years, I’ve used themes ranging from courage, to hope, to shame, to sand. I’ve brought in quotations from Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Ben Franklin, the Bible. I’ve read poetry, the Psalms, Aesop’s Fables, and fairy tales. Over the years I’ve had women tell me that being in jail is the best thing that ever happened to them, that and taking this class.
As they share parts of their life stories, I think about some of the doors that I’ve walked through in my life. Sometimes I tell the women a piece of my story.
“I used to live in a small village in Zambia,” I tell the women. “When I moved there I was twenty-six years old, a bride of six weeks, married to a man from another country. We lived on the outer edge of the Kalahari Desert and it was a ten hour canoe ride to our nearest neighbors. My first two children were born in that village. I lived there six years.” The women are astonished and paying attention.
“When I came back from Zambia I had nightmares all the time. There were six years of my life that I didn’t understand and wanted to forget. But I had to face those years. I started writing about them, and it was hard. I’d sit at the computer and bawl. I wrote about Africa for years. And then one day, when I got up to write, I didn’t have anything to say. I’d written it all out. That day my nightmares stopped. I’ve never dreamed about Africa since.” The women nod and smile.
“Writing is a tangible way of taking things out of your mind,” I tell the women. “When you write the words out, they are OUT. You can shut the journal. You can throw it away. You can come to understand your past and that will change your future.”
I tell the women these things because I believe they are true. Writing changed my life. I have seen lights go on in the minds of women in jail. I have seen them cry through their stories, laugh through them, work their way through them and out into the light.
I believe in the power of words and the power of writing. It’s what keeps me going back. Everybody has a story. These women are not any different. They may have made a host of poor choices, but they are women with children, with grandchildren, with dreams and hopes and fears.
One of the women said to me, “If you can do Africa, I can do jail. Your story gave me courage.”
I think about those words she offered me. Words. Such small echoes strumming on our eardrums. Such baffling, tiny black scratches on paper. It makes no sense. And yet I chase them. And love them. And believe in them. I want to teach these women how to harness words and use them well.
And even though some days I walk out of jail wilted and tired of desperate stories and needy women, I go back each week. Because words matter. And so do the doors we choose to walk through.