Derwin at the End of a Scribble
By David Daniel
He almost always came to class (maybe only because it was a place to be). He always sat in the back of the room, always with a fine-point Sharpie in hand in perpetual motion. Sometimes I would call on him:
Derwin, in the play, what is Jim’s nickname for Laura Wingfield?
Derwin, why did Thoreau go to the woods?
Derwin, how did the Ancient Greeks represent fate?
Derwin, who, what, why, when, where, how …?
He would grin, his face darkening further. But he was quick. Eyes shifting right, left, reddish with weed, tender with humor, he would produce some response, wavy as smoke, which even in its randomness had an off-beat coherence.
On occasion, as I roamed the aisles of the classroom (a windowless, interior space), caught up in my own talking, I would glimpse what he was really up to. Doodling, scribbling. And seeing me see it, he’d offer up a notebook page for inspection—he was forthright that way—and I would discern in his crabbing, circling, fine-point squiggles some design: flowers, a face, a fanciful beast, a mythic scrawl, flowing along on the shimmery currents of daydream, and I would have to marvel at its intricacy.
In his way, he possessed brilliance.
He managed to pass most of my classes by doing enough, and I always found ways to award him points for ingenuity, imagination. He graduated, just barely.
Life can be difficult for the Derwins of the world. Three years out of high school he is in lock-up, awaiting trial. Crazy stuff, he’d be first to admit, does admit; but there it is. From soft scribbles to hard scrabble.
His foster mother and I have talked on the phone because the two of them don’t, won’t. Broken promises, both ways. It’s complicated. But I want to be up front with her, so there’s no misunderstanding. I was his teacher, I explain. Same thing I say to the COs when I visit. Technically, it’s was his teacher, but keep it simple.
I’ve gone several times. He is reading books, working out, trying to improve the nick of time. We kid a bit about that—the Walden echo; a book we read excerpts of in class—I tell him about Thoreau, a couple towns away, spending his own night in jail (for his resistance to slavery). And Kerouac, in the city next door, who more than once likely talked himself into a bust, even with sympathetic cops (poor Jack; in his cups, he never could shut up).
Derwin’s easy smile is mostly gone—MCI Billerica isn’t a place of smiles. I put a little money in his canteen for incidentals. He says he isn’t allowed art supplies yet, but there are things like envelopes and stamps.
We exchange letters. The idea occurs: give an assignment—MLK wrote brilliantly from his cell in the Birmingham Jail. But no. That was stuff for the classroom, now it’d just be more weight to bear. His written diction is simple, and syntax and grammar, never great, have atrophied. As has his handwriting. Some of it I have to puzzle out. I’m struck by all the things I’ve overlooked; still, I don’t find bitterness. In fact, there’s a power to his letters, in the open wonder with which he looks at his received world, conveyed not so much in words as in the curlicue lines that squirm around the margins. Dizzying, tentative, inquiring, they seem to ramify outward . . . and across the distances, I imagine my way back to Derwin, sitting in his cell, making them.