With fists, with words, with kindness
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If you have never heard of a smack boat, you are not alone. I had never heard of a smack boat until the day I began working on one for seventeen dollars an hour. I was hired as a part-time deckhand based primarily on my punctual reply to a Craigslist ad. I was thirty-six years old. My wife and I lived in a small house by a big ocean. I am no longer thirty-six, and I am no longer a deckhand on a smack boat, but I do remember the ins and outs.
The smack boat is a large, smelly vessel that sleeps in a nook of the fish pier in Portland, Maine. Those familiar with the boat call it simply “the Smack.” The Smack is not a lobster boat, but it is busiest during lobster season, when each morning it must journey into Casco Bay.
The deckhand arrives first because he is punctual. The captain arrives later because he is not. The deckhand unties the Smack. The captain feeds the Smack’s engines, then swings it around. When the Smack is beneath the fish pier’s winch, the deckhand ties off the stern, followed by the bow. Now the barrels of wet fish heads can be brought on board. If you were wondering why the Smack is so smelly, wonder no more.
The fish heads will be delivered to the lobster boats, to be used to bait traps. The barrels are extremely heavy. To move them efficiently requires a deft hand, which the deckhand unequivocally lacks. He tilts and shoves the lidless barrels, whose contents slosh onto his bib and boots. The barrels must be evenly distributed between the Smack’s port and starboard sides. This involves a great deal of effort, but the deckhand doesn’t mind. He believes in the value of a well-balanced life.
I was not just a part-time deckhand. I was also a part-time therapeutic tutor at Maine’s juvenile prison. If you don’t know what a therapeutic tutor does, you are not alone. I, too, knew little about the job until I began working as one for $16.50 an hour. I was hired based primarily on my degree in education and my willingness to work with incarcerated youth. I no longer work as a therapeutic tutor in a juvenile prison, but I cannot forget the ins and outs.
The prison faculty give the therapeutic tutor a tour. In the past, the social-studies teacher explains, the prison held two hundred children. Now, in this era of restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration, there are only fifty. The children under sixteen are required to attend school. The children over sixteen are not required to attend school, but most do. The school is within the prison, a short walk down a hallway from where the children sleep. It is a school without a principal. There was a principal, but he is gone. Administrative leave, the science teacher explains.
“Administrative leave?” the therapeutic tutor asks.
“We’re not allowed to talk about it. The investigation is still pending.”
Neither does the prison school have an assistant principal. Nor a director of special education. The school does have a director of education — a wonderful man from Mississippi who moonlights as a motivational speaker — but he is always in the state capital, sweet-talking lawmakers for more funds for programming such as therapeutic tutoring. Day to day, the therapeutic tutor will have no supervisor. No captain. What is he being paid $16.50 an hour to do? He wishes he knew. Having no tasks can be worse than having too many. He is a good worker. His back aches from pushing barrels around the Smack, and he does not find the ache unpleasant.
“Well, what did the last tutor do?” he asks.
“She took BuzzFeed quizzes on an iPad,” the English teacher says.
“With the kids?”
“Pretty low bar.”
The therapeutic tutor finds this comforting. To a degree.
The Smack’s captain is a good man. He is always reminding the deckhand to watch his feet during the lowering of the barrels. He carefully pockets the filters from his cigarettes before flicking the butts overboard. If he brings a beer for lunch, he packs an extra for the deckhand. The captain is thirty-two and has worked on the ocean for half his life. He is wise in all things maritime. The deckhand is not wise, but he is punctual. He is also observant — he notices a conspicuous absence of life jackets on board as the Smack chugs away from the pier.
“What do we do in an emergency?”
“We don’t have emergencies,” the captain says. “Never have.”
The deckhand finds this comforting. To a degree.
Before the therapeutic tutor can begin tutoring, he must first learn.
He learns that the cells where the children sleep are not cells. They are “rooms.” The rooms are clustered into units, each named for a different tree. Boys awaiting trial live in Oak. Low-risk boys who have been committed live in Pine. High-risk boys who have been committed live in Cedar. All girls live in Maple. Nobody lives in Elm, except when someone is on suicide watch.
Suicide watch is not suicide watch. It is “one-on-one.”
If a boy from Pine fights a guard, he might be sent to Cedar. Only fighting is not fighting. It is “wrestling.” And guards are not guards. They are “juvenile-program workers.” Except nobody calls them that. They are “staff.”
So if a boy from Pine wrestles staff, he might be sent to Cedar. If a boy from Cedar wrestles staff, he might be sent to solitary. But solitary is not solitary. It is “Special Management Unit.” Except nobody calls it Special Management Unit. It is “SMU.” And the prison is not a prison. It is a “youth-development center.” And the youth are not youth. They are “residents.”
The residents are children.
Nobody ever calls them children.
The Smack is a popular boat. Tourists wave to it from a yacht. Workers wave from a barge. Passengers wave from a cruise ship. Seagulls adore the Smack. The captain does not adore the seagulls. He orders the deckhand to cinch tarps over the barrels of fish heads. The deckhand follows orders, then leans over the side and catches his hat against the bay breeze. Long islands drift by like ribbons of granite and pine. The deckhand sucks the salt air to the bottom of his lungs, as deckhands have done since the beginning of time. He has quickly grown used to the smell of the ten thousand fish heads. Already he has stopped thinking of the ten thousand heads as having once belonged to ten thousand fish that swam one unfortunate dawn into the same nylon net.
The therapeutic tutor is proficient in the arts of differentiated lesson planning and scaffolded learning, but he has never worked in classrooms like these, where one student is planning for college while another is planning for thirty years in Maine State Prison. Where one student is factoring polynomials while another is adding on his fingers. Where students are pulled out every period for court dates, behavioral therapy, restorative justice, quarterly review. Where each morning faculty must check their phones and keys at the entrance, then pass through four remotely operated doors. Where teachers carry “man down” call buttons in case of emergencies. Where emergencies occur daily.
Still, the therapeutic tutor adjusts, the way all people adjust to new conditions. It is what we do. His adrenaline no longer spikes when he sees a shirtless student wrestling staff in the hallway. He learns not to expect much in the way of schoolwork from the new student who got arrested and brought in last night. Or the student who can’t stop smiling because her mother and baby are visiting this afternoon. Or the student who can’t stop crying because a judge has ordered her to live with her father. Or any of the boys and girls who take advantage of these precious coed minutes in class to boast and flirt. Or the student who is in a wheelchair because he got jumped over the weekend. Or the student who is in Elm because he tried to hang himself over the weekend. Or the student who announces loudly to another student in math class that he is going to murder him and cut off his hands. Or anyone in math class now, as these two students have picked up chairs and everyone is yelling — everyone except the therapeutic tutor, who is looking at the math teacher, who is pushing her “man down” button.
Learning is not impossible in the prison school. It is only almost impossible.
The Smack follows the same twelve-mile route daily. The route takes one hour and thirty minutes and ends at a floating dock in a sheltered cove.
The captain and deckhand climb aboard the floating dock, which has a shed containing a generator that must be primed, an electronic scale that must be zeroed, a booklet of order slips that must be prepped. Soon the lobster boats will arrive.
The lobster boats, as you may have guessed, come bearing lobsters. But the lobstermen do not call them lobsters. They are “bugs.” The lobstermen have pulled their final traps of the morning, and now they reach into their holding tanks to grab the bugs and toss them into sturdy plastic crates. Once a crate is filled, the deckhand will grab its rope handles and lug it to the scale. Each crate should weigh exactly ninety pounds. When a crate exceeds ninety, a few lobsters are moved to the float tank. The lobsters, of course, do not go gently. They arch their backs in protest. They thrash their tails. They scuttle from the deckhand’s reach with a speed that surprises him. If their claws were unshackled, they might have a fighting chance, but the lobstermen are thorough with their rubber bands, and their rubber bands are thick.
The deckhand, before he was a deckhand, had never touched a living lobster. He doesn’t eat shellfish. Or seafood. Or any animals. Now he is touching dozens of lobsters per minute — flinging this one into the float tank, palming that one to estimate its weight. A smaller lobster weighs about a pound. A bigger lobster that has earned its barnacles weighs close to three pounds. The deckhand must work faster, the captain says. The lobster boats’ engines are running, belching blue smoke into the sky. They are impatient to give the Smack their catch so they can go back and prepare for the next morning.
The deckhand crates the lobsters five and six deep. Those lobsters who land belly-up flail desperately, no doubt wanting more than anything they have ever wanted in their ten or twenty years of life to be upright again. To feel the soft mud beneath their legs. To nibble a fish head. To sense the sunlight drawing patterns on the ocean’s surface above them. The deckhand helps where he can. He flips a few lobsters right side up. He tucks a stray antenna away from the pinch of the crate’s hinges. The lobsters, when he holds them, emit a faint buzzing noise — sort of like a scream, if you think about it, and the deckhand does. The lobsters have their dark armor, true, but their bellies are soft, their legs brittle, their antennae delicate. The fine hairs between their plates trap tiny pearls of seawater, the way a spiderweb catches the morning dew.
When the digital display reads ninety pounds, the deckhand closes and zip-ties the crate to prevent escapes, then clears the scale for the next crate. As soon as a crate is sealed, the lobsters inside stop flailing. It could be the darkness that triggers this sudden stillness, or it could be surrender.
The deckhand understands why the lobstermen call them bugs. They are bugs, for one thing, in the taxonomical sense of the word. It’s also similar to the prison, where nobody speaks the word children: it makes the job easier.
The therapeutic tutor begins skipping classes, where learning is almost impossible. He does not begin taking BuzzFeed quizzes on his iPad. He does not have an iPad. He has an ID badge that works like magic when he waves it before the big doors to the units where the children live.
Oak, Pine, Cedar, Maple — in every unit the scene is the same: children watching daytime TV. Regulations prohibit TV during school hours, but even the strictest staff acknowledge that there are only so many games of Connect Four a human child can play. Every child watching TV has a reason to be missing class. For some class is too stressful, or too easy, or too hard. A few have free periods back-to-back. Others are confined to the unit for wrestling, or brewing hooch, or tattooing sloppy hearts on their faces, or passing flirtatious notes, or snorting lines of sugar, or shitting in a shoe and hiding it in the dayroom trash can before an all-unit meeting. Many of the children — too many — wish they were in class, but their teachers are out sick or attending a Department of Corrections training, and the prison does not have resources for substitutes. Whatever the reason, these children are bored. They have been here for months, maybe years, and they have learned that television is a powerful instrument of escape: South Park. Man vs. Wild. Jersey Shore. Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
The therapeutic tutor asks, “Who wants to do some math?”
Most children won’t look away from the TV, but one or two usually will. “I’ll do some math,” they’ll say. “Why the hell not?”
This is how the therapeutic tutor meets Seth.
He is fifteen and freshly incarcerated. The morning after Seth’s arrest, the therapeutic tutor is yelling over the TV to ask if anyone wants to go to the library and read. “Anyone?”
Seth’s hand raises.
Since starting at the prison, the therapeutic tutor has not once seen a child raise a hand. It is a gesture from another world.
Seth is a tall, skinny boy, swimming inside his new blue uniform. He has a buzzed head of hair, so blond it might as well be white. Acne that makes him appear to be permanently frowning. Cheeks dusted in blackheads. Because this is his first twenty-four hours in prison, and because he has been flagged as in danger of self-harm, a detailed log must be kept of his behavior and initialed every ten minutes. Staff explains this to the therapeutic tutor and hands him the clipboard.
Walking to library, the therapeutic tutor enters in the log.
In the library Seth shuffles up and down the rows, pulling out books, touching the spines.
“Let me take a wild guess,” says the therapeutic tutor. “You like to read?”
“Do you?” Seth asks.
“My problem is that there are too many books and not enough time.”
“What kind of books are you into? We have Harry Potter.”
“I love Harry Potter,” Seth says, his voice cracking on the word love. He smiles a radiant, unguarded smile, and his eyes mist over, just like that.
Every child in the prison has been hurt in some terrible way. The therapeutic tutor could share their stories, most of which you would wish you could unhear. But you already know the basics: There are no rich children in here. There are no children who have never been molested, abused, abandoned, addicted to some substance or to violence or to a tincture of both. These children are victims, and sometimes victims make other victims. We all know this. It’s natural to be curious about the details — the therapeutic tutor was curious at first, too — but it is never satisfying to learn them. So he does not ask how Seth ended up here, and he will never ask.
Besides, right now Seth is tearing up at the chance to safely share his love for Harry Potter, and the therapeutic tutor is reminded that he is working with a child. It is unsettling how easily the prison can make him forget.
Talking in library, he enters in Seth’s log. All good.
Once a lobster boat has unloaded its last lobster, it must swing around the Smack to pick up as many fish heads as it needs. The lobster boat then leaves, and a new one arrives. The process repeats until the horizon is empty and the sun is glittering through the tops of the pines. Now the Smack will return to the pier.
The deckhand and the captain move swiftly. The float tank must be emptied, the scale unplugged, and the generator stowed. Fifty crates of lobsters must be hauled in, smashing and swinging and dripping onto the deck. The captain stacks the crates five high. The deckhand listens for the lobsters inside, but they are silent. The deckhand thinks how each silent lobster was hauled from the sea-floor this morning. Shackled and stashed. Brought to the dock. Weighed. Crated. Zip-tied. Touched by so many hands. Touched by his hands. Now they will make a final boat ride to the fish pier. By morning they will be processed and en route to China, or a Red Lobster, or possibly a Red Lobster in China.
What a wild twenty-four hours. Can you imagine? The deckhand asks the captain this.
The captain says, “If lobsters can think, man, that would pretty much ruin my life. I’d have a lot to reconsider.”
The deckhand likes that the captain’s life would be ruined if lobsters could think.
He likes that the captain still calls them lobsters.
The prison has nothing like a gifted-and-talented program, which is unfortunate, because a gifted-and-talented program is exactly where Seth belongs. The boy is wildly intelligent, intellectually thirsty, creative. He reads a book a day. He gets a kick out of learning the quadratic formula, writing flash fiction, solving systems of equations.
The therapeutic tutor shows him how to write “found poetry,” skimming through old issues of National Geographic and Better Homes & Gardens for lines that can be stitched together in unexpected ways. Seth observes carefully, then works with severe concentration, flipping pages, taking notes, crossing lines out, his brow in a knot. The therapeutic tutor, for all his hours working with the boy, knows little of Seth’s life before prison. He knows that he lived with his mother and younger sister and the mother’s boyfriend. He knows that he stopped attending high school. He knows that he has older siblings who are all in foster care because their mother “isn’t so responsible,” as Seth puts it. He knows that Seth is scheduled to stand before a judge next week. He knows that Seth is hoping the judge will not send him home.
After working for a while, Seth produces this:
Earlier this year
the magma flowed
The anger bushed and boiled,
crossing from the ruins
of my broken heart.
“Dude,” says the therapeutic tutor. “That is good.”
“It is?” Seth says, laughing.
“Yes. It is insanely good.”
The Smack starts back to shore without the barrels of fish heads but with the fifty crates of lobsters. While the captain calculates the day’s earnings, the deckhand can take a break. Most evenings this means sitting down, stripping off his gloves, eating an apple, and enjoying the sunset. The deckhand feels good about working outside. He feels good about seventeen dollars an hour. He feels good about providing for his wife, who has two slipped disks in her neck and on bad days this fall can hardly get out of bed. But he does not feel so good about the product of his labor. He does not feel so good about the fifty crates looming in the dusk. He does not feel good about the fifty children who are in the prison right now getting ready for bed.
The captain feels great. He bounds from the cabin to take a leak over the side, lights a cigarette, and shares the earnings report: fifty crates at ninety pounds each means the Smack is returning with more than twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of lobster. “Not bad for a day’s work, huh?”
The Smack plows onward. Over its lifetime it has shuttled hundreds of thousands of lobsters to be processed.
Early fall tips into late fall, trees drop their leaves, and the lobster boats don’t visit the Smack as often. To protect against boredom, the captain blasts Frank Zappa over the boat’s speakers while he and the deckhand replace rotten planks on the floating dock, reseal two busted windows in the Smack’s cabin, and break up fifty-pound bags of frozen fish heads. The deckhand practices knots, coils every loose line and extension cord, picks up every broken zip tie, organizes the shed.
The captain appreciates the deckhand’s initiative.
The deckhand appreciates being appreciated. Who doesn’t?
Which is maybe why, at the end of the day — crates stacked, scale unplugged, generator stowed — when the deckhand spots a lone lobster in the float tank, he hoists it like a trophy overhead without thinking and says: “Look who was trying to escape.”
“Good catch,” says the captain. He takes the lobster and crates it.
The deckhand instantly regrets what he has done. He feels worse about this one lobster than he does about the thousands he has weighed and crated all season. He feels sick. As in: physically sick. As in: he cannot stand in the heated cabin with the captain on the ride home. Instead he sits out back with the crates in the cold and wonders why, exactly, he feels so sick about this one bug.
© Emma Esser
Seth’s poems have been destroyed. The poetry is still there, but it’s all bled together, a mess of pulp and ink.
“What happened?” asks the therapeutic tutor.
He and Seth are sitting in the library.
“The sprinkler system went off. My room flooded.”
It’s a shame. The therapeutic tutor was hoping to submit the poems for publication. He has a plan for Seth: He has nominated the boy for Student of the Month. He has spoken to the college teacher about allowing Seth to take her creative-writing class. Some college credit, some academic accolades, some published poetry — it isn’t hard to imagine Maine’s universities fighting over the boy, offering scholarships. But just because the therapeutic tutor has a plan for Seth does not mean that Seth shares his plan.
“Was there a fire?”
“No. I set it off with a pen.”
“Yeah. Some guys showed me how. You just stab the glass. It’s easy.”
The reason that Seth set off the sprinkler is because a Portland judge is threatening to send him home. Seth doesn’t want to go home. He needs a charge on his record to keep him here. He could have earned a more serious charge by hitting another child or staff, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone, he says.
“Sounds like you’ve thought this through,” says the therapeutic tutor.
“I have,” says Seth. “It’s better here. Less stressful. I need a break.”
Every adult in Seth’s life — lawyer, social worker, mother, judge — has told him that staying in prison is a terrible idea. Instinctively the therapeutic tutor agrees. There is a reason many children hurt themselves in here. There is a reason that criminal-justice advocates have been fighting to shutter this institution. There is a reason the therapeutic tutor believes they are 99 percent right to do so. The 1 percent the therapeutic tutor isn’t sure about has to do with children like Seth, who have felt the magma flow inside them, who have known the anger to bush and boil, who see prison as their escape.
“I’m sorry about the poems,” Seth says. “I remembered them too late.”
The therapeutic tutor says not to worry. He harvests some blank paper from the library printer, grabs a stack of National Geographics, fishes in his pockets for a pencil.
“We’ll just start over. We can think of this as your first revision.”
Lobsters grow by shedding their old shells, molting. When their armor becomes too tight, too stiff, too cumbersome, too battle-scarred with injuries from life in the deep, they retreat inward, regenerate lost limbs and snapped antennae and blinded eyes. Then they break free of their shells and emerge as fresh as the day they were born.
If this is something you wish you could try, the deckhand is right there with you.
But there is a price to pay for starting over. There always is. A lobster that has just molted has no hard shell. It could not be more defenseless. It must hide, but it also must eat. A fish head in a lobster trap is impossible to resist. Which is how two such lobsters end up on the floating dock one afternoon, as shocked and exhausted as you might expect after being born again.
The lobstermen call these lobsters “jellies,” because they are mushy to the touch, so soft that the deckhand must handle them the way you might a hummingbird’s nest, a butterfly, a model bridge forged from toothpicks and glue. The jellies are too weak to arch their backs in protest. They cannot thrash their tails. The lobstermen don’t even bother shackling their claws. They aren’t worth the rubber bands.
But there is some good news for the jellies. Because they would be crushed in a crate with their kinfolk, there is no economical way for them to travel the long route to market and live. There is nothing for the lobstermen to do with them except offer them as gifts to the captain. The captain generously offers them in turn to the deckhand. Then he remembers the deckhand does not eat lobster.
“What about your wife? Would she cook them up?”
The deckhand’s wife detests lobster. But if the deckhand does not take the jellies, the captain will.
“She loves lobster,” the deckhand says. “Thanks.”
Children have tried to escape in the past. The therapeutic tutor hears the stories from the child historians, those boys and girls who have lived in prison for years. They tell him about the boy who escaped SMU through a ceiling panel, pulled himself into the guts of the prison, broke conduits and sprinklers as he scrambled for an exit. When the ceiling finally collapsed under him, he fell into medical. Directly next to SMU. He’d crawled in a big circle.
Then there was the camping trip — a rare outing for only the best-behaved children. The best-behaved children waited for staff to fall asleep, then snuck out of their tents and found a car to steal, a liquor store to rob, a cop to chase them. The chase ended in a crash less than a mile from the prison, almost as if they, too, were circling back. There have been no camping trips since.
And there was the boy who braided his bedsheets into a rope and turned a water bottle into a grappling hook — a contraption that got him over the inner-perimeter fence and halfway over the outer. Staff found him up there, straddling the fence, one leg incarcerated, the other free.
Why didn’t he make the jump?
He was only doing it to prove that he could, the child historians say.
He was bored, they say.
He wanted to get sent to County, they say.
Each theory probably holds some truth. But the therapeutic tutor suspects that the boy straddling the fence felt what Seth and so many other children in the prison feel: that even if the doors were left wide open, there is no safe haven waiting for them. There is nowhere to escape to.
The deckhand lays a perforated hose near the two jellies, to be sure they stay wet during the ride to the mainland. The captain pushes the Smack’s engines, making good time back. When they arrive, the deckhand works quickly, tying off the stern, the bow. He winches crates up to the pier, where a refrigerated truck waits to whisk the lobsters away. The two jellies go last. They are so weak. The captain says they will probably die before the deckhand gets home, but they will still be good eating as long as the deckhand’s wife cooks them tonight.
The deckhand gently transfers the jellies to a shopping bag in the back of his car. He helps the captain tuck the Smack into its berth for the night, then punches out and calls his wife to say he’ll be home in thirty minutes; if her neck is not hurting too much, she should meet him at the end of the road. He tells her why. He takes the on-ramp to the highway as softly as possible, apologizing to the jellies for each hard turn and bump. It is stupid, he knows, but it doesn’t feel stupid. He passes the airport. He passes the prison. He tells the jellies to hang on.
Seth has a black eye. He has a black eye because he threw his urine on another child, who hit him in return. He is ashamed — the therapeutic tutor can tell — but he feels he didn’t have a choice. The Portland judge wanted to send him home this Saturday. Seth needed a more serious charge. Throwing urine seemed like the best of many bad options.
The therapeutic tutor does not disagree. He is walking Seth down the long central hallway so Seth can stretch his legs. The therapeutic tutor is angry on Seth’s behalf. The boy has been forced to make decisions that no fifteen-year-old should have to make. The therapeutic tutor tells Seth he will have to work ten times harder than most kids to have a fulfilling, happy life. It’s not fair. But Seth is the brightest kid in here. If he takes his education into his own hands, he could emerge stronger. It won’t be easy, but there is a chance.
As he says this, the therapeutic tutor feels like he is auditioning for the role of the father he hopes someday soon to be: honest, calm, forthright, encouraging. The therapeutic tutor and his wife want to start a family. They are considering adoption. They would be lucky to have a boy like Seth.
Seth and the therapeutic tutor stop at the end of the hallway. A window looks out over the fields, the perimeter fence, the woods, the highway. The therapeutic tutor would hug Seth here, if hugs were allowed.
Walking back to the library, they see a crowd gathered by another window and hear shouts of excitement. Seth and the therapeutic tutor hurry over. Outside, a fox is curled up against a sunny wall within the fence. Because the glass is thick prison glass, the fox cannot hear the growing numbers of children and staff and faculty shouting. The fox is sleeping. Its coat is turning with the season, fading from rust to salt. The therapeutic tutor can see the individual hairs. He can see the thin rib cage rise and fall. More children crowd the window. The rules for movement within the prison are incredibly strict: Children must always walk on the outside of adults. Children are not allowed to talk. Children are not allowed to stop whenever they feel like stopping. But now, faced with a sleepy fox in a patch of early-winter sun, all rules collapse. Children jostle staff for a better view. It’s not hard for the therapeutic tutor to imagine they are kids at a zoo. He reaches for his phone to take a picture of the fox for his wife, forgetting that his phone is locked up at the entrance. Forgetting that this is a prison.
The thirty-minute drive home from the fish pier feels like thirty hours. The deckhand pushes the speed limit and slows down only when he passes the Citgo station where cops love to lie in wait. The jellies in the back are dying. The deckhand estimates, judging by their size, that the jellies are between ten and twenty years old. Perhaps they are fifteen, the same age as Seth. The therapeutic tutor accelerates as soon as the Citgo station is behind him. He thinks that we are each given such a small window — a few decades, if we’re lucky — to complete the best of our labor. A precious few chances to aid and abet those who are not so lucky, to assist in their escape.
Good news: Seth wins Student of the Month.
Bad news: Seth cannot accept his award in person.
The school has assembled in the gymnasium for the ceremony, but Seth’s unit — Oak — is late. Suddenly all the walkie-talkies squawk, and staff bolt from the bleachers and sprint across the gym. Oak is in lockdown. A brawl. Seth will miss the award ceremony.
The director of education announces Seth’s name anyway, followed by a moving motivational speech. Everyone claps. The therapeutic tutor tears up. Exactly one banner hangs from the gymnasium’s rafters: Good Sportsmanship Award — 1982. Every adult in the prison school is trying. The therapeutic tutor believes this. Still, it is not enough.
The car’s headlights wash over the deckhand’s wife at the end of the road. She is wearing muddy hiking boots and a headlamp like a tiara. The deckhand pulls onto the shoulder and hurries to open the hatchback. The jellies are still alive. The deckhand’s wife takes one, cradling it with two hands as if it were an infant. The deckhand grabs the other. They hustle down a trail through the dune grass to the beach. They kick off their boots, peel off their socks. It’s low tide. The ocean is calm. Wading out is easy.
The deckhand hopes the jellies will scuttle away the moment their legs recognize the sand, but they remain limp. The deckhand could have dropped the jellies into the ocean at the pier, but he didn’t want the captain to see him do it. He could have pulled over on his drive home, but there were no good places near the water, nowhere near as gentle as this beach. And yet the waves, gentle as they are, still knock the exhausted creatures around. This has probably been the strangest, worst day of their lives. The deckhand and his wife rock the jellies patiently in the water until, finally, a wiggling leg. An antenna extending to taste the salt.
The deckhand and his wife let go and watch the jellies crawl off, passing from the cone of the headlamp’s brightness into the vast darkness they call home. They could be smashed tonight by a wave or eaten at dawn by a gull. They might crawl into a trap and find themselves back on the Smack tomorrow, or next season, or ten seasons from now.
But, then again, they might not.
The therapeutic tutor does a double take Monday morning when he swipes his ID badge and enters Cedar.
“Hi!” Seth says, jumping up from the rows of boys watching TV.
The therapeutic tutor has known Seth only to be in Oak, where boys are awaiting trial and wear blue. Now Seth is wearing gray, the color of high-risk boys who have been sentenced. The Portland judge has committed Seth to a year and a half. He will be eligible for release a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday. Until then he will be exactly where he says he wants to be. The therapeutic tutor tries to feel happy for him. He tries to match his smile.
“Congratulations. How does it feel?”
“Different,” Seth says after a pause.
He feels bad only about his younger sister, he says, who was crying so hard during his court hearing. Seth feels sorry for her. Otherwise he is happy. He really is. He asks the therapeutic tutor to take him to the library. He wants to check out a new book. He wants to share a new poem. He wants to start a new story. When can they go? Can they leave right now?
Nick Fuller Googins
Nick Fuller Googins’s essay “Maine Escapes” [December 2020] reminded me of the time I cut loose some turtles that were tethered to a fishing pier at a resort in Mexico. The helpless animals were waiting to be sold to restaurants. They barely moved after I cut the ropes, too dazed and exhausted from their efforts to swim free. I had to push them away from the dock. It seemed futile, but I told myself maybe I could save one.
Like Googins, I also worked with at-risk youth. Some of those teens were amazing, others barely likeable, but they were all children who had been hurt. Occasionally I would meet truly gifted kids, and I would try to think of interesting books or creative assignments to inspire and challenge them. Though these efforts also seemed futile, I would think, Maybe I can make a difference for just one child.
Because I live in Maine, I was eager to read Nick Fuller Googins’s essay “Maine Escapes” [December 2020], but I stopped on the first page: I didn’t want to read a paean to the rugged life of a lobsterman. Though I love many people who earn their livelihoods through the death of sea life, all the killing makes me sad. The lobster buoys that many find charming are, to me, gaudy polystyrene trash polluting our bays — and evidence of suffering.
But I always read every word of The Sun, so I started the essay again and discovered that Googins elegantly brought us a story of imprisonment, freedom, cruelty, kindness, transformation, and hope. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read in The Sun.
By cleverly juxtaposing Nick Fuller Googins’s seemingly disparate jobs, “Maine Escapes” offers insight into the troubling issues of harvesting sea life for human consumption and our failure to combat social issues that can make prison feel safer than the outside world. Googins exposed difficult truths here, but his sensitive writing made the piece a pleasure to read.