The poets had come before. We listened to their poems politely, wondering how it must seem to them, being bused out of prison to visit a bunch of high school students to tell them about poetry. Except it wasn't like that. You never heard any of these guys discussing nuance or meter or any of those terms our English teachers try to make us remember even though they're boring and useless.
The prisoners never talked about poetry at all. They talked about prison. They talked about how it felt once you heard all the doors locking behind you, how it no longer mattered who you were or what you'd done or whether your lawyer was some big shot. They said fuck. They said shit and asshole and butt-fucked. It was like all the rules were suspended when the poets came. Our headmaster, Duncan Farley, stood at the side of the stage and smiled. Smiled and smiled in his white duck pants, brown deck shoes, and paisley bow ties. His face was the same face he had when the little boys from the American Boys Choir came at Christmas and sang "Ave Maria," their voices so high and sweet they made your teeth hurt. He scanned the auditorium searching for kids who weren't paying attention. As soon as he caught their eyes he'd gesture toward the poets and wink. Duncan Farley was a major winker.
The poets said stuff like "Listen, you spoiled motherfuckers -- don't do anything stupid. You'll end up like us -- locked up, fucked up, somebody's bitch with nothin'to look forward to but your momma comin' to visit and you sittin' there crying till you can't take it anymore and you cut your throat." They paced back and forth like the fake wrestlers on the WWF, trying to convince us we were about to lose everything.
But kids like us didn't end up in jail. There was rehab, loony bins, and special schools for anyone who might get violent. We were tutored, braced, immunized, counseled, and medicated. Our counselors would write notes for us describing our symptoms in the most glowing terms, convincing everyone that our lack of direction and respect for authority and our general laziness were the result of adolescent angst and unrecognized brilliance. If we performed poorly on standardized tests, special academic support was just a phone call away. Many of my friends had personal trainers and their own private therapists. We took SAT prep classes, we consulted nutritionists, we gave ourselves Myers-Briggs personality quizzes and told our teachers the reason we couldn't meet deadlines was that we were wired in a unique way. The stuff the prisoners told us didn't register. We were spoiled rotten and didn't have a clue.
And then they read their poems. Poems about sunsets, rainy days, and kittens. Bad poems our teachers would have marked up with "cliché," "mixed metaphor," "stale image," "???.".
Really corny rhymes about their mothers. But mainly it was food. Endless stanzas about food: mangoes, grapes, fatback, steak, peas, corn, cucumbers, lemons, spaghetti, ham, apple pie, turkey. There weren't even metaphors in these poems, just point-blank descriptions of favorite meals. They could have published a cookbook.
Some of the poets seemed proud of how they ended up in jail. One guy read a poem about cutting someone's throat, and then he looked up at us and said: "I did that.".
Since I'd started high school, I had seen these poets five times. Christmas vacation was over and the poets were back. Some of the parents decided the poets were a bad thing. A petition to stop their program was circulated that had the following statement attached:
Prison poets would be a wonderful asset to a nonprivate, less selective institution than Millstone Country Day. The life experiences these individuals describe, while inspiring, are irrelevant to the experiences of MCD's population. The school would be far better served by a series of lectures given by CEOs, successful entrepreneurs, and famous artists, all of whom exist in the current alumni pool.
My mother found the petition hilarious. "What about Leopold and Loeb?" she asked my father. "What about Graham Steadforth's son being arrested for running a gambling and prostitution club? And Lizzie Macklin's daughter who sold drugs?"
My father looked over his bifocals and frowned. "You can't argue that students from Millstone frequently end up in the slammer."
My mother looked disgusted. "Of course they don't," she said. "Their parents hire famous criminal lawyers to dispute speeding tickets and pay off judges. It's black and Hispanic children that end up doing time."
This was their normal routine. Mom was "down with the people" and Dad pretended to be a snob
"Nevertheless," my father said, removing his glasses slowly. "While Leopold and Loeb introduced the concept of Ivy League psychopaths, most senseless murders are committed by southern drifters. Mainly men in their twenties who hail from Texas."
Sometimes I wonder whether people realize how stupid their habits are. Take the glasses thing. My father had twenty different ways to take them off
"And live in trailer parks," I added
"And have three names," my father said, winking at me. "Joe Bob Billy."
"Danny Lou Ray," I shouted
"Bobby Will Paul."
"Tammy Sue Louise," Mom said. "They can be girls, too."
She leaned over to push my bangs off my forehead, staring at that part of me as if it contained the answer to world peace
"What?" I asked
"Nothing," she said, sighing. "You have such a wonderful forehead."
This was her habit. Forehead worshiping
The petition didn't work and the poets kept coming
Matthew Swan was still missing. The police at the Texas border were no longer searching for him, and the private detective told the Swans to give up ...
Excerpted from STONE GARDEN © Copyright 2003 by Molly Moynahan. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow & Co.. All rights reserved.