Archived Opinion

Sometimes ‘the system’ all seems so unfair

Sometimes ‘the system’ all seems so unfair

Many years ago, one of the students in my English composition course approached me after class one day as other students were filing out, hesitating for just a moment until the last couple of them trickled into the hallway, leaving just the two of us. 


“I’ve got a topic for my narrative essay,” he said. “But I don’t really want anyone to see it but you.” 

He had just recently been released from prison after serving several years for drug trafficking. He had been “in the life” for several years and was a user himself. He had a family and a legit job, but it was all slipping away and he knew it. His relationship with the drugs and the life that went with had all but consumed him. 

Prison changed his life. He got clean. He started reading — lots of time to read — and he became interested in getting a real education. He reconnected with his family. He committed to a different path. When he was released he became a part of our student body and pursued his degree with the vigor we see in our best students. 

His narrative was about the traffic stop that changed his life. I was the only person in the class to read it. I’ve never forgotten his story, and so many others like it, written by students who have endured hardships — sometimes of their own making, sometimes not — and found their way through it into a clearing, into the light. 

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Maybe you’ve read about a kid named Zachary Blake Trull. He’s 18 now, but I still think of him as a kid because he is a childhood friend of my son. How many sleepovers? How many birthday parties? In high school, they drifted into different cliques as kids often do, but they remained friends. 

I still think of Blake as a kid because when he and my son talk, their conversations are peppered with “bruhs” and “dawgs” and a blind optimism in a future each of them is trying desperately to will themselves to believe in. 

I still think of him as a kid because I remember myself when I was 18, when I thought I knew everything but a quarter-inch beneath the surface of that was not much more than doubt and impulse and a constant craving to find my place in the world. 

Eighteen is a weird age. As Alice Cooper sang in his great song, ”I’m a boy and I’m a man/I’m eighteen/I get confused every day.” 

The culture is just as confused. When you are 18, you are allowed to vote, but not to drink alcohol. You are allowed to join the military, but not to frequent bars. You tell me. We all know that 18 looks different on different people.

Blake was barely two months past his eighteenth birthday when he was charged with two counts of drug trafficking, along with various related charges. He has been in jail for nearly six months awaiting trial. He has a court-appointed attorney he has barely seen. 

He has been outside once. Think of that. In nearly six months, he has seen the sky one time. Otherwise, his days are spent inside doing one of the three things: reading, working out or sleeping.

There is nothing else, other than the occasional visit from friends or family, which is conducted via a phone and a video screen. When time is up, the screen goes blank and the phone goes dead — no warnings, no goodbyes. He is allowed two visits per week. Some weeks he has visitors, some weeks not. If he has money in his account he can call loved ones for $4 for 15 minutes. 

It turns out that prison is like a weird arcade, where everything costs money. You pay for emails. You pay for phone calls. For some people, for some families, this can be prohibitive. There have been times when Blake has gone for weeks with no outside contact at all.

Read, work out, sleep. Do it again. Then again. Try to remain hopeful. Try to believe there will be something else. Day after day. Wait for people to show up sometimes. Wait for something to happen. Wait. 

All things considered, he looks good. The haircut suits him. He seems to be eating OK. The working out is apparent in his arms and shoulders. He smiles some, jokes around a little. But it isn’t easy being in here. There have been some cellmate issues. It doesn’t always seem real to him. The uncertainty of everything. 

Spend just a short time chatting with him and it becomes hard to imagine that a long prison sentence is the answer, or that what worked for my former student would work just as well for him. Their situations are completely different. He’s in a completely different place in his life, which is only beginning, if he is given a chance to begin it. 

He wants to complete his GED when he can. Beyond that, he’s thinking about something to do with film or photography, but right now that feels more like a dream about having a dream. Right now, it is hard to see anything more than what is right in front of him from moment to moment. Right now, that means deciding what to read next, and that’s if somebody will buy it for him through Amazon, which is the only way he can receive books to read. 

He says he is open to suggestions — “I’m indecisive,” he says — although he has started the Harry Potter series and likes it. Harry Potter. 

“I’m hyped for that second book,” he says. 

Maybe it helps to live in other worlds. Maybe it helps to believe in magic.

Right now, there’s a kid sitting in jail who needs to believe in something.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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