2011/02/12 S – Zero Percent (0%)

“For […] I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

On Thursday, I remembered to go to the editting staff meeting.  They had divided into three groups, to work on citation checking, editting, and design of their journal.  I naturally am more involved with editting, but before I could sit in with them, the cover design girl told me about her plans to find a nice-looking book in the library to photograph.  It seemed like she wasn’t exactly set on where to look for them, and, having seen lots of old- and cool-looking ones from my two short school jobs here, I thought I would try to help her.  (I also wasn’t certain that the editting kids wouldn’t try to excuse me from doing anything due to my lack of class credentials.)

We were joined by four others in the library, and had some success.  After getting something from Special Collections, the girl and they began trying some photographs, while I started talking with a guy who happened to be studying down there, whom I knew from this apartment.  The hour was soon up, and I left the others to go the SID meeting.

On my way up the stairs, Spencer, a Viet class member, and some others met me and informed me that the club was going to watch a movie in the auditorium adjacent to Special Collections.  I turned and went back down; eventually the movie started.

Titled “Zero Percent”, this documentary made by Tim Skousen (who had worked on Napoleon Dynamite) depicted a certain college-degree-awarding program now operating in three New York prisons: Sing Sing, Fishkill, and another one, Taconic, for women.  He focused on the first venue, following and interviewing family members, teachers, a politician, and current and former inmates who were enrolled in that program (in the class of 2010), named “Hudson Link“.  He said later that his mother was a teacher there…  I think those teachers were on loan from a local school, “Mercy College”.

So, in 1997 or so, that prison, which earlier had enjoyed federal support for educational and librarian programs for inmates, lost those government funds.  In response to losing their books, several of the prisoners started agitating for their return, and despite their relative isolation, they managed by letters or whatever means to start a new educational program without funds, which took root and found donors, including the moneyed Buffet family.  In the documentary, the current executive of the “Hudson Link” organisation was one of its founders, himself a graduate of the program who had later been released.

The documentary was surprisingly emotional and very human, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  I was reminded of the letters written us by our father (and his bent for poetry, shared by some in the film), while he was incarcerated for a comparatively short time here in Utah on, as I assume, illicit possession charges (the men in this film had been guilty of far more grievous crimes; many had over a decade both behind and before them, in that facility).  Differences aside, I felt that the story was very relevant to me…  As well, I was reminded of my friend Stetson, who even now, as far as I know, occupies a cell, nearly a year after that sad turn of events that, a season and a merciless trial later, sent him there.  Ultimately, he was his only victim, and I expect that his stern, matriarchal sentence will be shortened.

Strangely, I also noticed a parallel between one of the men’s experience upon his release, and the release of us missionaries from our calls, with our frequently challenging re-integration to a society that has left us behind — and as trying and strict as our own spiritual incarceration has typically been, on that frightening and exhilarating day of return, we almost prefer to stay in the calling… which has become our home.  It’s a free-fall back into the “real world”, the old world… but we enjoy many more advantages of support and acceptance than a prisoner would.

After linking to the program on Facebook, my maternal younger cousin expressed some concern on the softness to criminality and the flavour of entitlement implied by a prison educational program.  My own concern, though, had been instantly allayed by the redemptive theme of the movie: its title (zero percent) was a reference to the rate at which graduates of the Hudson Link program so far had, after their release, returned to prison on other crimes.  In another society, many of these men would not even have the privilege of waiting out those decades-to-life, not to mention a possibility of release.  But in this society, due to whatever perverted idea we have of justice that sends fairly normal but troubled people (and sometimes, regrettably, even innocents) away to rot while simultaneously putting killers right back on the street, we’re faced with the serious question that this movie also raised: if criminals of every stripe ARE typically released, sooner or later, then in what condition do we as a community want to take them back?  The same as they were before?  …Or maybe worse for the wear?

…Or, perhaps, better?  Perhaps… productive, informed people, enlightened people?  People we want for neighbours?

The question answers itself, and a religious person will admit that in the end, every man who has lived a free life has done something criminal at some time.  We can easily sense the worth of the hope that people can be helped and can be changed.

Education gave that class of 2010 hope, some of them said.  There may remain a sad use for a gallows, but there can be no other use for a prison, than to give a man trapped by earlier ignorance and circumstance a chance to hope for a new life — and not a chance only, but the means to achieve it: the expansion of mind and experience, the straightening and coalescing of priority, that naturally comes to any person who learns more about his world, and about the lives and minds of others in his world.

Tim Skousen answered questions after the film, which he said we were among the first to view in entirety, and which he may not be entirely done editting.  He seemed very thoughtful and informed about his topic.  He expressed a desire to leave his biases off the production, citing for example that he was convinced that the politician he interviewed had been mistaken about something, but that he decided to not tamper with it.  He admitted immediately that he had not intended to give the idea that education is a panacea to criminals.  Only a minority are even interested in participating (and of those, the film cited a three-year waiting list for this constrained program), and forced participation returns no comparable success with willing participation.  (–Yet, I agree that even if nine starving beggars blindly and angrily refuse a meal, the tenth who craves it should not be denied for the other nine.)

Skousen seemed a little hesitant about the future of the film.  First of all, I had snuck in a question about what his plans were for promotion; his answer was modest, almost as though, while personally sensing the power of his statement, he had not yet received enough viewer acclaim to realise its wider appeal.  The SID numbers had thinned between the movie and the question-answer session, but I hope he recognised our approval.

During and after the movie, my mind had turned to ways that I could participate in such a high and scriptural endeavour of administering to the benefit of those enshackled and hopeless.  After questions and answers, a young man from the BYU law school’s “jail outreach” program informed us of opportunities to serve.  I had seen a sign for them early last year on campus, but I hadn’t been able to pursue it.  This now, I thought, may be my chance, being my last semester here.  Unfortunately, going over their web-site later, I saw it was a little oriented toward those who had transportation.  I had preferred the prison, but there is also a place in Provo that I can check on again.

During the movie, though, I had been thinking ahead…  I’m probably qualified enough for help with high-school-level tutoring, but my emphasis is rather English-teaching.  I was thinking… “What if I get a job in Asia soon?  Do such programs exist among prisoners there?”  I quickly saw that while English-teaching is viewed as essential here, it may be an even greater boon to those in Asia, whose chances to rise in the outside world were perhaps even slimmer.

I think I would have more success in such an effort there, anyway, especially if it hasn’t been done yet.  There would surely be lengthy administrative clearances to obtain.  I assume this country is friendlier to its criminals than Asian ones are, but I don’t really know.  But these programs here seem somewhat… well-defined already, and I wonder if I would fit in.  If I went to those New York facilities, it might be harder to offer anything, since they’re accreditted programs.  I guess everywhere can use tutors, though…

I was able to talk again with Erica Sit on MSN Messenger recently.  It was quite a nice visit…  Also, last night I was favoured with Yiu Yiu’s company for several hours into the morning.  She’s back in Hong Kong for now, antsy to leave again.

Last night, I had a strange dream, in which I met some anonymous girl whom I had known and liked for several years, who had come to visit my city, and who was friendly to me.  It seems most obviously connected to Yiu.  It must be nothing.

Today, Myeong-Seon talked with me again.  She had also had a dream…  Not long ago, she had followed my referral to a song I had introduced to her once or twice, “If you could hie to Kolob”.  She prayed and cast her burdens into sleep.  In her dream, she saw a different hymn number, and, waking, found it in her book.  She enjoyed its message… but was much more surprised later to go and play the song on the piano, which she says followed the same tune as the hymn I had referred her to.  She wondered at the import, reaching a similar conclusion as what I had argued to her nearly a week ago, after reading more of her Ellen White: that truth is often found unified beneath different faces.

She also said she had been excited to have noticed two of our missionaries there in Washington…

I wouldn’t know what to do, if this part of my prayers for her were answered in such a way.  I have done my best to not pressure her with friendship or relationship.  As I no longer have any patience left to take any crap from Christians, religionists, or others who feel the devil’s itch to come lie to me about my truth, I also have very little interest left in finding their negatives, either, instead of their positives.  I have no wish to pull families apart, even to save a child from its dying parent.  If they are to die at all, let them perish together.  Only one choice and one chance do I ever wish to impart to a person, to join me willingly in my belief of the reality of the Bible, the very reincarnation of the Bible in this good little church — and only by the best-reasoned opinion that I can come up with, not by pressure or compulsion.  Let their own hearts compel them; let God and the devil compel them.

For far too long… have people controlled each other, always tilting on their see-saw toward the side of their companions, their environment; never standing at the balanced centre…  For this reason only am I grateful for the loneliness I have read again from all my journals — so that I could have chosen my own thoughts just a little more freely, without companions choosing for me.

I have tried to stand apart in many ways, in every way I could… but more and more do I believe that people are naturally good, and that they are my family.  In some way, I own them, and they own me.

And here with Myeong-Seon… I have tried to follow the golden rule, in my philosophising with her… as if, finding her a vegetarian, I have only ever tried to give her plants to eat, though some of them were foreign roots… or sego bulbs…

Well, I have surely not fully lived up to my own talk.  Only rarely do I.  But it remains my constant mentoring hope to not hurt a person as I have felt hurt.

…But, if she wants to come, I will try to bid her well-come.  My only worry is that my aging heart will fracture again, and go two ways… toward her, but also… away.

I’m old…  In four days, I will be older…  I’m like a starving man sensing his end, tempted now by any food he sees, delicious or bland… and she is surely delicious.  She is admirable, and worthy…  But I retain a commanding fear of selling my birth-right to fill my own stomach… or accepting a doubtful love only to quench loneliness and sate barrenness.

My kind but weird English teacher, James Goldberg, handed back my paper the other day, regretfully faulting it for not fulfilling the assignment, and asking me to re-write it.  I tried to defend myself as having met the underlying objectives of the syllabus, but he insisted that I needed to write something in the first-person voice.  I warned him of my revulsion to writing a useless, boring, over-done paper of my gay little language experiences that would turn out sounding exactly as every-body else’s.  He excused me to go ahead and be boring, and gave me some extra time to finish it.

I had tried to appreciate it, and participate, but now I feel very unimpressed with that sillly writing class…  Somehow, he is close to my age, that teacher, I think… but he seems instead to identify with my much younger class mates.  It’s probably more of a cultural identification, treating every rule and authority, real and imagined, as scripture.  These BYU kids cling to cliche’ as to a favourite toy… and he clings to his brittle syllabus.

They do well, though, these students.  They’re apt to learn.  They seem to engage themselves well.  I’m not against them, except only some of their piggish speech patterns, and the loudness of some of them.  This teacher’s a reasonable guy, and somewhat thoughtful.  From his first criticism of my draft, I have regretted not being able to like him more.  We might have gotten along well.

Some of these classes are aching me, though… that English writing one, and the phonetics one.  All they seem to be good for is assigning strange home-work and burning up tuition money, plus two or three hours of the week in semi-productive lecture.  All I do now in that dead-early phonetics class, when I can drag myself there, is count how many stupid times that teen-age-like teacher asks whether something “makes sense”, or whether “we’re good”.  It’s a close tie between them.

I guess I should update my hate list.

Last year… last school year… I started to hate the word “awesome” above all others, but followed not distantly by its gape-mouthed counterpart, the singular and never deviating “awkward”.  “Like” was also very hateful.  Used as approbatives, I hated the evil twins of “wicked” and “sick”; their triplet brother “ill” would have been hated if I had heard it more.  There must have been others.

This school year, thankfully, “awkward” has died down somewhat as these lame kids have gotten a better grip on themselves socially and feel less embarrassed now, though its companion is still running around healthily.  “Like” has usurped the throne of linguistic tyranny, forcing a weird stutter on its hapless subjects, who, like, struggle, like, constantly to, like, talk in, like, a fluent, like, normal way, like…  Also extremely hateful, and growing out of last year, is the amputated relativizer, “which”, now reduced to a topical marker (which, it has infected even many older speakers.)  I wondered for a while if people were just starting to imply a preposition before the word… but it seems clear again that they’re losing the ability to anaphorise it.

So… also hated last year, and slightly more this, is pronoun case disorientation: because clearly if “him is going” and “me is going”, it follows that “him and me are going”.  And the one alluded to earlier is not restricted to my phonetic teacher, but has spread left and right, high and low throughout the campus: “making sense”, as if every communicated statement is a colossal battle of perception.  “Does that make sense?”  “It makes sense…”  Ah, what a hateful inflection, almost every time…

What else.  The stupid-sounding and repetitive “uh” is more hated this year, having become a popular time-buyer with the Arabic-learners for their circumlocution.  For that matter, the snotty high-falling Mandarin tone is hated, as always.

“Dude” is slightly more hated this year, but without fervour.  “Whom” is less accessible than ever, and its absence hated… but that one entirely surpasses this unsuccessfully quarantined speaking community and region… as some of the others certainly also do to a lesser degree.

Oh yeah.  “How ARE you!” and “I’m SO EXCITED (to SEE you)!!!” as girl greetings, not rarely coupled with big, stomping, flying sumo-hugs, are quite nicely hated, and were nearly as much last year.  The bedroom-appropriate whole-soul hug as a universal boy-girl greeting is somewhat less hated this year, having declined a little in frequency.

Finally, the famous “Questioning Intonation”, silencing interruption and reply, and stretching terse lines of dialogue into obnoxious, serpentine paragraphs, is very studiously hated this year, up from last year’s amusedly perturbed hatred.

I guess that’s all…  Like I said, they sound like talking pigs… but their behaviour is more human-like.

I still need to try to see if Smith’s is still open, since I’ve been eating stored goods for several days…  I thought I once heard that it was an all-night place…

-Steve Foster

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5 Responses to 2011/02/12 S – Zero Percent (0%)

  1. agkcrbs says:

    Becoming drowsy, I gave up on that store trip last night…

    Today was a nice day at the Asian Ward for a change. My visit to the Mongolian class was ineffective, but later at the sacrament meeting, I saw who looked like a white guy stand up and be sustained to a calling, and wondered if the bishop had reversed his anti-white racism. (After the meeting, I tried to catch that young man to ask whether or not he were white. I lost track of him, but then saw somebody like him talking with the sub-bishop. Seeing him from the front, with his nose, I could easily assume that despite his name, he might well have been half Asian.) Any way, after that, I decided to try to ask the bishop about it one more time before leaving this school.

    During that meeting, I got to hear Julie Chung talk. If I have the right person, Julie is a Korean who teaches at the ELC, a TESOL graduate student. She seemed rather sobre at the ELC, and if she had ever smiled or talked or any such thing, I think I would have liked to have tried to get to know her. She had been very adept while supervising the Koreans at the study buddy orientation… and her talk today was extremely forthright; she admitted her social quietude and non-smiling tendency. She has just been called as one of the ward’s two relief-society presidents, right after she had started considering moving out to a white (“local”) ward so she could concentrate on her studies.

    She practically beamed from the podium, with her soft and un-intoned manner, and I thought how rare it would be to ever have a chance to share acquaintance with her… She seems a little special… probably owing above all to what I think is her continued single status despite beginning to advance in age.

    Well, it’s folly. She still won’t show awareness of me; and as soon as she hits the magic number, she’ll get married out of nowhere, as such classy Asians do. It was nice to hear her give that talk, any way.

    Today was a renewing one, after a somewhat draining week…

    Better even than admiring Julie Chung was what happened a couple hours ago, here at the apartment. Old Kim Hyunjoo came on-line, and finally talked again, after some months of silence…

    She’s a short thing. I reviewed her few pictures on Facebook after we talked…

    Short, but so happy-looking… So nice…

    We seem quite different. I don’t know if she would understand my humour, and I probably wouldn’t quickly adjust to her Korean expectations of social formality.

    Any way……………….. she said she was a little sad today…………… because she “just turned to a single”…

    Last year, I talked a lot about my past with Myeong-Seon. She once got confused over one point, asking whether I had ever kissed Kim Hyunjoo. Of course such a thing was impossible; I answered that if I had done so, I would have flown to the moon. She very funnily mocked me for it, later…

    …But, as with each of the times KHJ has told me of her singlehood, I did seem to float up off my chair tonight, just a little… What happy news for me…

    I can think of several things I would really like to hear, on-line: Myeong-Seon getting baptised; Communists realising the need of promoting Cantonese and other dialects; Mitt Romney getting elected; my former friend Bomie saying hello again; and, of course, Kim Hyunjoo being single…

    What a perfectly happy thought… I’m glad she told me that…

    She perhaps will never consider me. I think she may feel a little sorry for me because I’m old and still entirely single, and she has empathy, or something… She mentioned a friend of hers in Utah. Probably she was leaning toward making some comment about introducing me to her, as she did last year about a former school-mate of ours… Ji-eun, I think.

    KHJ is the same age as I am… which, yes, is a little old by our terms.

    Any way, it was a very nice, brief talk with her — not too brief, thankfully, as is usual with Asians I like, always suddenly uninterested and needing to leave. Because she delayed this time, I made an effort to be the first one to break off the chat, then went off-line.

    She had mentioned the unlikelihood (but the possibility) of visiting Utah again some day, which is how the topic of her friend was brought up.

    After talking, as you may expect, I remembered my dream of two nights ago… Besides Yiu, the only other one I was able to interpret it as was Kim Hyunjoo… but I hadn’t wanted to tie her in to that entry…

    Well… she is as boy-friend-prone as any body else; she apparently can’t be alone for very long like I can. Some one new, or old, will come by and grab her again; she may reconcile with the current one. I won’t think further of our talk; but, like with the actual one two nights ago, I will enjoy it for the happy dream it was…

    So… part-way through that sacrament meeting, my former Korean-class teacher’s helper came in, Heidi, and sat by me since I was right there by the door, alone. She said she had friends there. She’s Catholic. I seem to remember that last autumn she had been engaged to marry, or at least seriously connected with some young man, but I didn’t ask about it. Her interesting point is that she went to high school in Hong Kong, and knows a small handful of Cantonese. She’s a nice person, I guess.

    This week will be better…

    -Steve

  2. Heidi says:

    I know James Goldberg. He has a Korean wife.

  3. Heidi says:

    You are not talking about me, aren’t you? I only went to primary school in HK and I am quite fluent in Cantonese

  4. Pingback: 2011/01/17 M – New Site | Steve's journal

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