One long, unseasonably warm fall, I teach a class called “Man’s Best Friend” every af ternoon in the prison library. We read dog stories as a way to explore the relationship between humans and dogs; my hope is that it will help the inmates take the next step and think about how they connect with their own emotions. On sunny days, I open the small, barred window so we can smell the soft, autumnal air and hear the shouts and laughter of inmates in the exercise yard.
I know that some of my students would rather be out there shooting hoops, walking laps or relaxing on benches instead of clustered around library tables reading books with me. But they are here because they love dogs. Reading about them cannot substitute for being with them, but it is the best we can do. Many have left pets on the outside and pine for them. This devoted group attends what’s become known around the facility as “Dog Class.”
One day, I am sitting in the library supply closet, which I have converted into an office with just enough room for my computer, a table to put it on and a rolling chair. My phone sits on an upended box, and there is no ventilation. I’m doing some last-minute preparation when Paul, one of my students, comes to the closet door and drops a sheet of paper on the edge of my computer table. “Here, I wrote this about my dog. You can have it.” He sits down at a table in the reading area to wait for class to begin.
It is a poem about Willy, his failing old Boxer back home. In the poem, he calls him “my boy” and muses about what it will be like when Willy dies. I read it and fight the urge to cry. Paul cannot see me, but I call out in a tight voice, “Paul, this is very good. A real tearjerker. Thank you for letting me read it.”
A moment later, Larry, my new library assistant, comes over with a thick book of poems and says, “If you like sad poems, try the one on page 89.” Larry functions on the border of things, never entering into a conversation unless invited. He has only recently begun opening up by suggesting titles of books he’d like me to order. A week earlier, he asked for anything by D.H. Lawrence or Jane Austen.
The poem is “A Dog’s Death,” by John Updike. I am quickly reduced to tears. “Larry, that is really something,” I say thickly. “Show Paul; he might want to read it too.” He takes the book and sets it in front of Paul, who hunches over it intently. When I walk into the reading area, Paul is wiping tears from his face.
“Should we read this one in class sometime?” I ask. “And yours Paul, can I make copies and pass them around for the guys to read?” He nods okay, still choked up by Updike’s poem.
In this class, we read books about lost dogs, sled dogs, farm dogs and dogs of the American frontier. We scan articles about doggie issues, which I clip from newspapers. We read funny poems and letters to editors that point fingers at dog abusers, and discuss the pros and cons of leash laws. I pass out cartoons and thoughtful quotes related to canines, and invite people who work with dogs to visit our class. Each brings along a real live dog.
In a high-security prison, where touch is forbidden, a tail-wagging visitor can make even the most sullen inmate drop his war face and reach out to make contact. The stories we read in class are vehicles to explore emotional connection and compassion, but dog visitors are the carrots that reel inmates into the class. And because this is an English class, I make them think about vocabulary, too, often putting lists of tricky words from the reading on the whiteboard to discuss.
James Herriot’s short stories about being a vet in England during the 1930s and ’40s are time capsules of British rural life, a culture totally alien to these men, and many of the words are unfamiliar to them. We pick out trundle, perfunctory, vivisection and chauvinistic, and we make up sentences.
Harold was just let out of The Hole. He’d been sent there for making hooch in his cell. I ask him to use vivisection in a sentence. He stares at me from behind his dark glasses and says, “I hate vivisection.”
“Can you tell me more, Harold?” I say. “That simple sentence doesn’t give us any clue about what the word means.”