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"Stay on the Wall"

sara.gladwin's picture

This is a reposting of a poem I wrote and posted to serendip in 2013, the semester we began the Book Club. It is about the way I experience being inside, and how my memories shape my understanding of my surroundings. I chose to upload it again because the original posting was private and wanted to be able to publically link this to another posting.


“Stay on the Wall”


Getting inside is always waiting

Waiting for approval, waiting for the gate to lift,

Driving in and watching the thin line fall mechanically back into its horizontal position behind us

We are surrounded by barbed wire and fencing.

We park and out of habit,

I stuff my bag under the seat.

A large mural spans the side of the building we must enter, a painted pathway up a mountain and I am wondering whether it is right to make prison seem beautiful and bearable, I recall the way my heart ached for nineteen year old Aisha; as she turned to me and said

“On the good days, I’m glad that I can catch a glimpse of the outside through the fence. On the bad days, I can’t help but think

They gave us that view of the road just so we could watch the cars speed by and remember how we can’t speed away with them”

My guilt at my own mobility soars higher than the walls that surround me.


We file in through the door with the red sign that orders me to quit smoking

In defiance I smoke just before reaching the building anyway

Again, we hand over the papers that approve our purpose there;

And put our approved materials through the metal detector

Before walking through a detector ourselves

It’s something like going through security at an airport except

There will be no plane waiting to fly us away; we have already arrived

At the our final destination.

Disinterested hands pat us down, always black hands

Which will press a stamp into the back of my hand

The ink is cool on my skin though I will see nothing until

Later, when the image is rendered visible by a black light

But we have more doors still to pass through before reaching that checkpoint

A loud buzzer sounds as the first heavy door slides open

This part of the journey feels unavoidably like

Limbo, as we wait in the first chamber before the second door opens

And again we enter, and again we wait

For the final door to pull back


For the first time,

I notice the distinct smell of high school cafeteria food and Anne

Points out the connection between the two institutions and we all seem

To collectively shake our heads at the observation

As we get patted down for the second time

And our bag gets rummaged through for the second time

I hear behind me a monk,

Who thanks the C.O. for keeping us safe.

Hayley gives me a look and just as we are about to step into the elevator,

Two of the women in our group pass by

They are excited to see us, they joke and smile at us but

We are told to wait,

We cannot ride the elevator with inmates.


We ride to the third floor, where the education rooms are;

This is our last checkpoint as the C.O. at the desk will buzz us into the room

But the waiting is not over yet

The size of our group today is still a question, always

In the back of my mind; How long will it take to start today?

who will show up today?

Who will have been in the right place, at the right time

So that when the C.O calls each unit looking for our women

They will be ready to read with us?

The two women who passed us earlier are already in our room,

Yvonne looks up as we enter, asking

“You want these chairs in a circle right?”

We set up the room together.

I sit next to Alicia so I can tell her how impressed I was last week

Struck by her perceptiveness,

Excitedly she hugs me and of course I feel the familiar vulnerability

The tug of worry as I remember the rules on touching

But then I remember also that we are lucky

To be able to hold the reading group without a C.O. in the room

My gratitude at this fact is contrary

To the concerns of my family members, the first question being not

“Do you enjoy the work you’re doing?” but usually

“Is it safe?” and always I answer that all the necessary precautions are taken

Just to reassure them but truthfully,

I’d like to answer that I feel safer and more confident sitting in that bare classroom with these women who refuse to stop being thankful for their lives and ours

Than I do sitting around the thanksgiving dinner table as my uncle makes

Thoughtless comments about the “illegal alien problem” and

My grandmother still, after all these years, cooks and serves

An entire meal, asking help only from the women of the family

(Though they stopped asking my help early on,

When they recognized my general incompetence toward domestic work)

But in choosing not to speak this answer, I know

I am part of the problem.


I feel safe here, I think as I am pulled

Back into the present

Alicia is speaking now, telling us all

That she had received a prophecy.

“Stay on the Wall,” she tells us.

We ask what she means, and Alicia explains

That it is a reference to a biblical story, in which the characters

Are instructed by God to defend the walls of the city.

“Enemies would come with battering rams, trying to tear down the wall you’ve built…”

The wall, she expands, is the work we are doing, and enemies-

All those that judge, all those who

Spend their energy challenging our purpose here inside these prison walls

She continues on and

It is as though she has read my thoughts

“Get back up on the wall,” she says

It is the most impressive speech I’ve ever been given

And I haven’t believed in God since high school but

Somebody in or outside this world

Knew I needed to be sitting in that room, listening to the good news

Delivered by Alicia and

Somebody knew I needed saving.


The class finally begins;

The discussion is alive and rich and thoughtful

And I just wish I had better adjectives to describe

What happens in a room full of women so ready to speak.

We have begun to incorporate theory into the discussions

As Jody explains the definition of “intersectionality”

I notice many hands rush to capture the meaning on paper

Hungry to hold the knowledge closer,

They devour the concept and I cannot wait until some of the women

Begin to utilize their incredible talent for introspective thinking

I cannot wait for them to begin discovering

The intersectionality in their lives, always, I am realizing

More fully, the ways in which outside classrooms

Should be learning from inside classrooms

But I find that as hard as I try I cannot take notes

I have not yet found a successful method

Of translating what occurs inside

It is an experience I cannot represent to the outside.

I have decided that it is better to take no notes at all,

Then to divide my attention, it would be

A disservice to be

Any state of being less than totally

And completely present.


We chatter as we reset the room,

And I find myself again standing with my prophet.

“You don’t have to answer this,

But what do you get from us? I mean, who do you learn the most from?”

She asks. It sounds like an unfair question but I know

She doesn’t mean that way. I know she’s just looking for

Validation, a sense of where she stands,

The same thing I can get from a grade

Or a conversation with a professor, and I wonder

If there is a better way I can give her what she needs.

I tell her I learn different things from everyone because that is the fair (and true) answer

But I also tell her that I’d be happy

To read her writing, to have a private conversation and talk further

About where she stood in the classroom. I can tell we are both

Settling into a mutual sense of satisfaction with this exchange

So I also tell her

How her words were meant for me,

How she answered my prayers

When I hadn’t even known I’d been praying


The group has been walking and talking so

I only just now notice

That in being free from the gaze of a C.O.,

we have all boarded the elevator together.

But we are not riding the elevator with inmates

Because we are riding the elevator with women,

With mothers and daughters and students and teachers,

With friends and peers and citizens, with readers, and listeners,

With storytellers and writers.

We are not riding the elevator with inmates because

We are riding the elevator with prophets.