Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Splash of Color in a Sea of Drab

Each morning as we would gather down at the rec yard for our daily "Men in the Morning" Bible study, if you looked out across the compound, you would be greeted with a sea of khaki and white...the official attire of the residents of this "gated community." Occasionally, you would see an inmate who was wearing a contraband khaki shirt, but those were pretty rare.

The officers, or CO's as they are called, were also clad in drab uniforms...grey trousers and grey top. It seemed we all blended in with the colorless desert that surrounded. That is everyone except Miss Davis.

Even without my glasses on, I could tell when Miss Davis walked onto the compound. She was a large woman...tall as well as a little on the heavy side, but that wasn't why she stood out. She walked with her head up, seemingly unafraid of the "dangerous felons" that populated this small, fenced enclave. But that wasn't what brought her to your attention either. It was the way she dressed.

I'm a child of the 70's, graduating from high school in 1974 and university in 1979. I remember the burnt oranges and the lime greens that seemed to dominate the fashion scene. Apparently, so did Miss Davis, only she never rid her closets of the wardrobe of the disco era. Each day, she would walk across the compound with the most unusual (and most uncoordinated) color combinations imaginable. One day it would be burnt orange pants with a flowered blouse of totally unrelated colors. The next it might be lime green pants with a polka dot blouse. There was no rhyme or reason to her choice in dress.

Though not gifted in choosing her clothes each morning, Miss Davis did have an extremely valuable gift to those who took the time and effort to get past the appearance and get to know her. She liked us! We didn't find many of "those" in this place. Most of the staff openly disdained the inmates, and didn't pull any punches about it. But Miss Davis was different. She actually cared and wanted to help us improve ourselves in any way that we could.

One of the things that we were encouraged to do while in prison was "program". As an educator I tend to laugh (or possibly cry) when I see what the institutions definition of "programming" entailed. Essentially, they wanted each inmate to be involved in some kind of activity and they would give you a nice pat on the head and an "attaboy" every six months when we met for team. But that's a different story. Miss Davis was a part of the vocational program and she taught several of the classes that counted for "programming".

Bill, my friend from the Chapel, asked me if I'd take a quilting class with him. To be truthful, I hesitated at first because that ugly "pridefulness" that I liked to keep buried began to raise its powerful head.

"What would the guys think if they knew I was quilting?" "Isn't that something old women do?"

The questions passed through my mind as quickly as they entered and I agreed to take the class with Bill. It started in January and we spent the first session learning how to thread a needle. (For me, it was just trying to see the hole in the needle...let alone try to get a little thread through it. My eyes aren't what they used to be.) She moved on to fabric types and how to match colors and patterns (I decided to do as she said, and not as she did).

Soon, we were sewing 4" squares together and showing off our handiwork to this remarkable woman. She was filled with words of praise for us...even when our work didn't deserve it. I have worked around a lot of teachers in my lifetime, and Miss Davis was definitely a "teacher". She wanted her students to be successful...and to feel successful! The number of staff in this place who could do that could be found on a leper's nearly fingerless hand.

Over the next months, Miss Davis would encourage us and push us to make larger and more difficult quilts. She would bring in her own quilting magazines and patterns. Each month, she would go to the fabric stores in the area and ask for donations of fabric for the men at TCI in her quilting class. By late spring, our creations were hanging in the main office of the institution and each day, visitors would pass by and see our handiwork. Soon, the corporation that operated the prison had an article and pictures of our quilts in their monthly magazine.

But the most heartwarming thing that Miss Davis did was to establish a relationship with the Women's shelter in Taft. Each month, she would take in the quilts that we had made and donated them to the women who were staying there. She found a way to allow each of us in her program to feel worthwhile, while the rest of the staff did their best to convince us of our worthlessness. She was such a gift in this drab and cold place...and allowed me to acquire the skills to achieve a dream of my own once I got out!

1 comment:

Deb said...

I love this! You had me from the title, and hooked me with your description Miss Davis' wardrobe. Why was she Miss Davis and not Marge? I need more of her. Is she black? What does her hair look like? Does she smile? Laugh? How does she talk to you? Does she have a fragrance? How did the other men respond to her? All things to tuck away for when this becomes a chapter in your book.

I'm so glad to have this piece of your story. It says one more time how important good teachers are, and how life changing. Which is what you are now beginning to do with your words.

The leper's hands analogy is brilliant. One that will stick with me for some time to come.

I can hardly wait to see what shows up next here. You are on a roll! I love you little bro.