Inmate missives inspire a collection of poetry

Neighbors

December 22, 2006|By Janet Gilbert

I realized I was getting older," said Ellicott City's Jean Testerman. "I wanted to leave something behind - something a little more personal," she said.

Life Lines, published last month, is the 83-year-old Testerman's intensely personal collection of 35 original poems.

"I went though boxes of poems, picked some, laid some aside - they had to have meaning for me and the reader," Testerman said. "They are my personal description of a significant experience."

Many of these experiences spring from her longtime correspondence with prison inmates - something she began more than 40 years ago when she was an English teacher at a facility where juvenile offenders were housed.

The students she met as a young teacher at Cedar Knoll in Laurel had backgrounds fraught with severe emotional pain and violence.

"Most people say, `He just wants attention,'" Testerman said about children who have gotten into trouble with the law. "After that, I learned not to judge people with a snap judgment."

Testerman's book Cry Over Me, published in 1969, is an account of her seven years of teaching experiences at Cedar Knoll with a troubled young man, one of the first inmates with whom she began corresponding.

In the book's preface, she wrote: "The exhaustion was emotional. My students knew so little guidance, love, and understanding, that when they discovered a person willing to give them these essential ingredients, they demanded their full share."

Testerman credits her ability to reach out to troubled inmates to her strong Christian faith.

"Faith is born of the union of desperation and prayer," she wrote.

Testerman stopped working at Cedar Knoll when her son was born in 1963 and stayed home to raise her son and daughter to the ages of 12 and 8. In 1975, she returned to teaching, this time in the Baltimore public school system.

"I didn't want to teach in Howard County," she said. "They didn't need me."

"I felt I had something to contribute," she added. "I felt I had some preparation for facing children with problems."

In 1985, at age 62, Testerman retired from the city schools and promptly went to work teaching English at the Maryland Penitentiary.

"We formed good friendships in the classroom," Testerman said. "These are men who think, `I want to do at least one good thing in my life - get my GED [pass the General Educational Development test].'"

After four years, Testerman retired for good but continued to send her students birthday cards.

"These began our correspondence," said Testerman, who now writes to about a dozen inmates.

Testerman set a goal of writing each inmate two times a month in reply to letters received. "It's a friendly-type conversation," she said. "I respond to whatever they tell me."

Testerman brought out a letter to share.

In it, an inmate writes: "Today I turn 50 years old behind these prison walls, and it sure did make me feel real good when I got your birthday card. ... I know for about 20 years, you haven't miss[ed] one of my birthdays, and to me that takes a very special person to do that when no one else in this world is thinking about me on my special day. God bless you!"

Testerman said she corresponds with inmates to help alleviate their depression and to help keep their hopes.

"The love in friendships is very special," she said.

A tangible example of that love came in the form of a handmade sympathy card sent by an inmate on the death of Testerman's her husband in January. The inmate had drawn a colorful spray of flowers on the card.

When Testerman was compiling her poetry collection, she realized the illustration would make a perfect cover.

"Have you seen the covers of poetry collections in bookstores?" she said. "They are so dull. I wanted color!"

Testerman wrote to the inmate to ask whether she could use his sympathy card as her cover illustration. "He told me, `It's yours,'" Testerman said.

She has sent the book to many inmates, who react strongly to her poems about prison life.

One inmate wrote: "I received Life Lines last week ... and I can't thank you enough. I smiled ("On Eating Oysters"), I cried ("How Long?"), I remembered ("Life Sentence"), but mostly, I thought. A lot. I've read this book twice. ... Thank you. It is a blessing."

Neighbors

Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it.

E-mail Janet at janetgilbertsun@verizon.net, or call 410-313-8276. Janet also has a Web site: www.janet gilbertonline.com

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