Saturday, February 13, 2010

Finding a reflection

May I tell you a story? Not one to make you laugh this time, but a story that moved me. It would be good to share it with you.

For many years, as you know, I've been part of a team of tutors for a correspondence course. It's a pleasure and a privilege. I learn far more from my students than they ever learn from me. These students come from all over the world. Some write frequently, some rarely. Some correspond with me for up to five years, some for only a year. They are of all ages, come from all walks of life and, every so often, I get a student from one of the state prisons in the U.S.A. It would seem that the prison officials look upon this course as a means of keeping the inmates occupied, and of promoting rehabilitation. Prisoners have plenty of time on their hands, most of them write frequently . . . and at length.

One of my current prisoners will shortly complete the course, we've been corresponding for over two years. A few months ago he wrote enquiring whether I would like the gift of a folder in which to store students' material. He had been a leather craftsman before entering prison and he wanted to use these skills to make me a gift. I told him that I would be happy to accept the folder on behalf of the college.

So, last week, the folder (which he calls a book) arrived. With it came a letter explaining how he'd made it.
It's best to let him speak for himself . . .

". . . the body of the book is constructed from backs from writing tablets. The average book like this takes about sixteen of them. This is the best kind of cardboard and, as it is solid, is able to be made wet and engraved.
I first draw the designs onto this cardboard, taking into consideration the measurements to make sure they are in the right place. Once drawn, I outline them in ink so that it doesn't wash off. Then I soak the cardboard lay it on a towel with a harder surface underneath and engrave the lines with tweezers because we don't have access to regular tools. The pieces are then allowed to dry and once they do, they curl up, you must put them under a mattress and sleep on them overnight to straighten them. Pieces are cut out using a razor blade that must be broken out of a disposable razor. We don't have hobby shops or any area to do such work, so it must all be done 'on the sly' so to speak.

Once the pieces are ready, it must be glued. We don't have access to glue so it must be smuggled in. The glue used in your book is regular wood glue.
Once together, then the book must be colored. I mainly use colored pencils as we can't get colored markers or paint. When colored the book is ready to wax. The shiny surface is industrial floor wax that is typically used on prison floors. It takes seven to ten coats for a typical book.

I tried something new with your closure - magnets. These magnets come out of some old radio earphones and are not that powerful. I would recommend you finding a stronger one and replacing them.
I've placed a paper insert in the middle. You can lace the paper in or use pins but you will have to trim the paper down in order to make it fit. You do have different paper sizes in England than we do, so mayhap something may fit . . .
Do not be afraid to use the book. It's not fragile.
You will notice some flaking, especially at the creases, but this is natural and will only add character to the book over time. And it's usually only for one or two of the micro-layers of the cardboard that flakes anyway.
I do hope you enjoy the book and use if for your students. It has been a pleasure making it for you."
I can only assume that, as the wood glue was smuggled into the prison, so this 'book' was smuggled out and posted. What was my student's crime? I don't know. He has never told me and I haven't asked. He has already been in prison for several years and should be leaving in the near future. I can only hope that such tenacity and skill will enable him to re-enter the working community and earn him respect.

But, before I go, may I tell you of one more student, also a prisoner in the States. This is what he wrote to me shortly before his release . . .

"Many men succumb to the trials of prison life. Enveloped by the darkness they cast no shadow. The pillars of light generated from within the heart of this course allowed me to not only cast a shadow, but to see my reflection. Knowing that I am made everything possible."

Thank you for sharing this story . . . it needs to be shared.