Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Whose Lives Are Quite Different"

This poem came out of the February 2016 [community profile] crowdfunding Creative Jam. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] alexseanchai. It also fills the "missing paperwork" square in my 11-3-15 card for the Disaster Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] lilliane and LJ user Ng_moonmoth. It belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning:  This poem includes some challenging content.  Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers.  Shiv is struggling with some unfamiliar social dynamics, Dr. G talks him into a reading exercise, and that requires measuring Shiv's current reading level.  Which is crap.  A great deal of emotional angst and test-taking panic ensues.  If you're sensitive about school/reading/testing issues, be careful with this one.  Present environment actually is supportive but Shiv is so messed up that he can't really feel  that.  He does get through it, though, enough to meet the goals.   If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.  It's a major plot point, though, so it'll leave a gap if you skip it.

"Whose Lives Are Quite Different"

Shiv is confused by a lot of things
these days, but most of all by the Finns.

Their soft looks and their sudden wit,
hands often busy with mysterious gifts --
it all makes him shake his head.

He doesn't know what to make of them,
these people whose lives are quite different
from the bleak muddle of his own.

"Edison asked about you again," says Dr. G.
"Would you like to send him a message?"

"Social calls are expensive," Shiv mutters.

"Well, that's one incentive for you to move
to the standard wing," Dr. G says. "It's not
exactly what I meant, though. I was offering
to tell him that you said hello, or whatever.
He keeps asking when you're going to join us
for storytime again." The older man lifts a hand.
"I know, we've explained that you're in time out,
but he's four, and yours is a lot longer than his.
That's difficult for Edison to remember."

Shiv sighs. "Tell him hi from me, I guess."
It's not that he doesn't like the kid, it's just
that Edison is a handful and sometimes
all that energy makes Shiv tired.

"I'll do that," Dr. G promises.
"Now about storytime, it occurred
to me that social calls cost a lot, but
educational activities earn you points.
How would you feel about reading
something to Edison yourself?"

Shiv's stomach drops like a rock.
He's not good at reading and writing.
He can sign his name and make
a shopping list, read labels and
maybe a flyer, but that's about it.

"I'm not much of a reader," he says.

"That's what would make this so lucrative,"
Dr. G says. "If you already knew how to read,
it wouldn't be worth much. Since you don't
read well, I imagine that the literacy teacher
will support anything that gets you reading."

"Mr. Howard hates me," Shiv grumbles,
picking at the cuff of his sleeve.

"What makes you say that?" Dr. G asks.

"He's always going on about books and
school, and maybe that crap worked for him,
but it doesn't work for me," Shiv says.
"I just wind up in trouble again."

"If you're actually offering to read something,
I bet that makes him a lot friendlier," Dr. G says.

"Oh he's friendly, all right," Shiv says,
rolling his eyes. "That's the problem.
This book and that book and why don't I
sign up for a class that he's teaching soon.
'Cause I fuckin' hate school, that's why not!"

"This isn't school," Dr. G reminds him.
"We're talking about storytime."

The memory hooks into him all at once,
bright and sharp and a little stingy,
how much Shiv had enjoyed listening
to Dr. G reading a story to Edison.

It might be ... nice to do that again,
if he didn't have to pay an arm and a leg
in points just to make it happen.
Or admit that he liked it.

"I guess," Shiv says slowly.

"Let's talk with Mr. Howard," Dr. G says,
beckoning Shiv toward the doorway.

So Shiv goes along with it,
even though he's mostly waiting
for this to blow up in his face somehow.

Mr. Vanburen chatters cheerfully
with Dr. G as he walks them to the library,
where Mr. Howard generally hangs out
between the classes that he teaches.

"Shiv!" exclaims Mr. Howard as soon
as he see them coming. He rubs
his brown hands together. "To what
do I owe this very surprising honor?"

No matter how much Shiv tells himself that
he has to keep his cool, Mr. Howard's eagerness
is alarming, and somehow here Shiv is plastered up
against Dr. G's back like the man is his damn boss
and actually going to protect him from the crazy teacher.

To Shiv's amazement, Dr. G reaches around
to pat him on the arm, almost like he means
to say, My boy, don't mess with him.

What Dr. G says aloud is, "We'd like to discuss
possible arrangements for a reading activity."

Mr. Howard lights up like a kid at Christmas.
"That's wonderful!" he says, already reaching
for Shiv. "I've tried to convince him to make
an educational plan, but he's put me off so long,
even I was about to lose hope. Let's get started!"

Dr. G clears his throat with a deep,
almost growly sound. "We don't want
to get too far ahead of ourselves," he says.
"We'll take this one step at a time."

And damn if it doesn't work.

"Of course," Mr. Howard says,
backing down like Dr. G is
someone he has to listen to.
"What did you have in mind?"

Dr. G lays out the plan, and
then he and Mr. Howard get into
some long discussion about rules
and forms and all kinds of crap
that Shiv doesn't care about.

"What do you think, Shiv?"
asks Dr. G, snapping him
back to the present with
an unpleasant awareness
that he has no frigging clue
what is going on here.

"About which part?" Shiv hedges.

"The part up front, about testing
your current reading level," Dr. G says.

"Your paperwork is more holes than paper,"
says Mr. Howard. "In order to set fair points,
we need at least an estimate of your skills."

Tests still scare the piss out of him, how pathetic is that.

"I hate tests," Shiv says, trying not
to clench his teeth. "I suck at tests.
I really, totally suck at reading tests."

"Then you'll have lots of room
for improvement," says Dr. G, like
that's somehow a good thing.

"Also, in order to demonstrate that this
is educational activity rather than just
socializing, we'll need some way for you
to show your work," Mr. Howard adds.

"I hate school," Shiv grits. He wonders
how Dr. G managed to talk him into this.

"You had lousy schools," Dr. G says.
"I believe that I can find worksheets which
will play to your strengths instead of
exploiting your weaknesses.
Give me a chance to try?"

"I'd bid pretty high for this project,"
says Mr. Howard. "How about time-for-time
in the craft room, plus extra materials?"

It's tempting, but Shiv knows
he can earn points in easier ways
than by wringing out his brain with
schoolwork, so he shakes his head.

"No? Maybe an introduction
to the shop room instead?"
Mr. Howard tries next.

"I'm not allowed in there," Shiv says.
"Too many sharp things everywhere."

"I could make a case for it," Mr. Howard says,
"especially if your psychiatrist backs me."

"I'll back you," Dr. G says instantly, and
all right, now they have Shiv's attention.

"What kind of test?" he says grudgingly.

"I'll keep it simple," says Mr. Howard.
"We have some reading worksheets
from different grade levels that make up
a pretty good comprehension test. I'll
lay them out in order, and you just
go as far as you can with them."

"I can quit any time?" Shiv asks,
looking at Dr. G for confirmation.

"Any time, but I imagine Mr. Howard
has a minimum threshold in mind
for his offer," says Dr. G.

"Finish the first set of pages, and
I'll give you a recommendation
to the shop room. Second set,
and I'll cover your first session,
which is a standard safety lecture,"
says Mr. Howard. "Beyond that,
floor time for actual projects, both
for the testing and the reading."

"What if the shop teacher says no,"
Shiv asks, "or the warden?"

"Then we'll renegotiate,"
says Dr. G. "What do you say,
Shiv, take it or leave it?"

"I'll take it," Shiv says, and
the other men grin at each other.

"We'll use a private study room,
on the house," Mr. Howard says, and
it's all Shiv can do not to open his mouth
and catch flies. Those rooms aren't cheap,
and usually the guys team up to split the cost
six or eight ways so they can afford it.

Inside, it's quiet, the concrete walls
muffling all the sound. A couch and
a couple of easy chairs surround
the coffee table. A folding metal table
with attached stools stands in a corner.
A single bookcase clings to the back wall.

"Make yourself comfortable," says Dr. G,
and Shiv settles himself on a stool, feeling
the cool smooth metal under his hands.

"Don't push your luck," Shiv says.
He can sit down, but no way in hell
is he going to get comfortable in here.
It's a library. He doesn't do libraries.

"Hmm. Dr. Bloch thought that these
might help you stay focused," Dr. G says,
offering Shiv a pair of spiky silver balls.

Shiv grabs them gladly, recognizing them
from a box of feelie toys that Dr. Bloch had
shown him. These are plain plastic, but
supposedly there are magnet ones too.

"Yeah, maybe," he says. The points
dig into his fingertips, leaving
little dents in his skin.

Soon Mr. Howard brings him a stack
of paper, all stapled into neat packets.
"Take as much time as you need," he says.
"Don't wreck the pages. Don't use the pencil
for anything but writing. Understood?"

"Yeah," Shiv says, looking at
fucking mountain of paperwork
he's landed himself in.

He pulls it closer, and notices that
it begins with First Grade on top.
That page actually has pictures on it,
and lines to fill in missing letters or
circle words to match the pictures.

Maybe this won't be a disaster after all.

Shiv gets through the first packet easily,
then moves on to the second one.

There are still pictures, but not as many,
and now he has to listen to Mr. Howard
reading words for him to write down. Still,
Shiv manages without too much trouble.

The third packet is a lot harder, with
no pictures, only some paragraphs to read,
questions to answer, and words to match up.

Shiv squeezes the spiky plastic balls
and tries not to panic as he reaches
for the fourth packet. Now there are
whole little articles like in the newspaper,
the questions are tougher, and the words
he has to put together are longer too.

He can barely make sense of it.

This is why he sucks at tests and
school and stuff teachers want.

This is why he had a job about
getting into fights instead of
getting into books and shit.

Shiv makes it to the end,
more or less, but he is
mostly guessing and also
hopes that Dr. G doesn't check
his hands because he probably
has bruises from squeezing
the spikes as hard as he has.

"I quit," he says, pushing the pile away.

"Oh, good," says Dr. G, which makes
Shiv's head jerk up. "I was starting
to worry that I'd have to pull you out."

"I thought I was supposed to go
as long as I could," Shiv says.

"That's the idea, but you look like
you're getting a headache," Dr. G says.
"Pushing yourself too far is not helpful."

The idea that someone would have
pulled him out of a test just because
he had a headache somehow makes
Shiv's head hurt even more.

"I'm fine," he says quickly,
because the last thing he needs
is Dr. Bloch fussing over him.

"Well, it's your head," Dr. G says.
"Come on, I'll take you back to your room."

"Already?" Shiv says, even though he's not
eager for more work. He really wants
to curl up with his pillow and blanket.

"Shiv, it's been over an hour
and a half," Dr. G says gently.

"Oh," Shiv says. He stands up,
and yeah, his muscles are stiff
after hunching over the paperwork
for so long. "I'm ready to go back now."

This is so much harder than street work,
and he knows that's as unfamiliar to
these two men as their world is to him,
but maybe he can muddle along somehow.

Shiv hands the silvery balls back to Dr. G,
because he's not allowed to keep the rigid ones
without supervision, only the rubbery kind.

Dr. G takes them with a nod and, thank god,
does not ask to check Shiv's hands.

"Thank you for working with us today,"
says Mr. Howard. "You did a good job.
We'll get right on the shop room recs."

Shiv thinks about the shop room and
how it's different from the craft room.
He still wants the craft room for art, but
the shop room will be better for metal.

"Worth it," he decides, and Dr. G
pats him on the shoulder as they leave.

It's strange, dealing with these people
whose lives are quite different from his own,
but yeah, he's getting as good as he gives.

* * *


Everett Howard -- He has toffee skin, black eyes, and short nappy black hair with a beard and mustache. His heritage is primarily African-American with a dab of Chinese and one Oglala ancestor. Everett gets cold easily, and prefers to dress in layers. He lives in a modest suburban house with his wife and their four children. They participate in a lot of community activities together.
Everett teaches at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. His classes include Reading, Writing (nonfiction, fiction, and poetry), Literature, and Theatre. He also helps the inmates to analyze their academic strengths and weaknesses, then develop a plan to meet their educational goals. He uses primarily black and Hispanic authors, matching the ethnic mix of this prison, to show his students that people like them can make great literature and it can deal with topics relevant to their own experiences. Everett loves literature, loves his job, and often fails to remember that not everyone else is necessarily excited about the same things he is. As a result, he tends to get along poorly with introverts.
Qualities: Master (+6) Linguistic Intelligence, Expert (+4) Optimist, Expert (+4) Prison Teacher, Good (+2) Activist, Good (+2) Roleplaying, Good (+2) Tireless
Poor (-2) Excitable

* * *

"It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations — something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own."
Katherine Patterson

Basically, children and teens hate school because most schools are prisons. This is particularly ironic for Shiv because he is far more comfortable in prison than he ever was in school, so long as people are not pestering him to take classes in prison. You can see why he's starting to freak out now.

Family reading, reading to children, and being read to all have benefits. As with food, modeling and repetition often help children acquire a taste for activities. Up to this point, Shiv has had few positive experiences with reading, so this is all very new to him. There are tips and exercises to encourage reading.

There are simple and complex analyses on the state of literacy in prisons. In general, inmates have much lower reading skills than people outside, because disadvantaged backgrounds feed into both poor learning and poor behavior; and illiteracy cripples people's ability to participate in a society that demands literacy of all citizens. Here is a general description of reading levels based on skills and tasks.

The prison library has open space with many bookcases plus some tables and chairs. It is stocked from a combination of donated materials and state-mandated educational texts, so the selection is pretty random. Due to rules restricting violent content, very little of the material actually appeals to most of the inmates -- there isn't much in there which relates to their life experiences. Some of the teachers try to compensate by choosing ethnic authors, though, which helps a little.

The library has several rooms which can be used for private study. This one contains a bookcase with books and magazines, a metal table with four attached stools, a couch, a coffee table, and two easy chairs. It can be "rented" with points for small groups of up to eight inmates. The point cost is actually the same whether it's for one person or eight, which encourages them to work together so that they can split the cost.

These hard plastic massage balls have tiny cones for stimulating pressure points.

Here are reading tests for Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, and Grade 4. Shiv is confident at Grade 1 reading, capable at Grade 2, struggling at Grade 3, and barely able to grasp Grade 4. That puts his functional literacy level somewhere between 2 and 3. Grade 4 is the high end of average for inmates: over 70% of them cannot read beyond that level.

Headaches can come from many school-related factors such as sitting at a desk, reading, thinking hard, taking tests, anxiety, and stress. Shiv routinely gets headaches from pushing his brain too hard -- which probably happened before the head injury but is almost certainly worse now. There are ways to avoid headaches, and more options besides medication for relieving them.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, education, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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