WHEN I returned to teaching at the Maryland State Penitentiary in September, the first thing I noticed was that Gary was missing. In prison that can be good news.
Gary was a student of mine for two semesters. He was alert and positive, and exceptionally industrious. He attended to words with the energy of an obsessed poet. He listened intently to instructions about how to use a semicolon and applied what he heard carefully and usually accurately to the exercise at hand.
What he could not do was integrate that with the next instruction. When he learned the uses of the comma or the colon, he forgot the semicolon. Yet he had insight and intellectual vigor. And he desperately wanted to learn.
Earlier, when he was officially enrolled in prison education programs, Gary was unable to pass the tests that certified he had succeeded in a formal way. But he persevered. Dan Murray, a sympathetic administrator, arranged that Gary clean in the school and gave him permission to attend classes, learning what he could and as he would. Gary seemed happy with that arrangement. It freed him to learn, and it removed from him some external pressures to perform.
He was a contradiction in the classroom. I recognized that he was bright; I suspected he had a peculiar kind of learning disability that I was not equipped to address. I encouraged him to continue to come to class. Contradiction or not, he was a cheerful and creative presence. Learning made him happy. And in some way I could not name, I thought he had potential as a student.
So when I returned for the fall semester, I asked where Gary was. I had not seen him since May. One of the men in my class said, "Oh, you mean Lonesome?"
"Is that what you call him?" I asked. Yes, that was his nickname. "Where is he?" I asked again. There was silence. Finally one man said, "He died."
Then I was silent. Gently, another man added, "Lonesome was OK. He was a straight-up dude."
I leaned that in early summer Gary had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. By the end of the summer he was dead. Recently, in going through notes from my prison classes, I found a few of the paragraphs Gary had written in the spring, shortly before he died:
Love is like faith, and faith have a unseen seed that grow in the mind . . . Love can make the mind clear . . . Love can heal a broken heart . . . Love can make a fool a wise person.
A man such as i with a third grade education, I learn how to speak bad english . . . I can recall when I try to stand up to other men i couldn't bring the right word out of my mouth. I knew my words will show the person who I be standing up that i was illiterate.
My mother really inspire me; she was the one that help me to see life as it really is . . . she taught me how to look a person in the eye . . . she taught me how to make people see me as a good human being with nice behavior. Thank you mother . . .
We thank you, too, Mother. Gary was a good human being. I hope he is no longer lonesome.
Mary Ellen Dougherty, SSND, is associate professor of English at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.