My cynical, chain-smoking superior had one of those ruined faces that many over-qualified teachers end up with. A lifelong backlog of unimparted knowledge must corrode the flesh. He seemed glad to present me with at least one morsel of wisdom: ‘The inmates and the COs in here are exactly the same people. Exactly. Switch the jumpsuits for the uniforms – you’d never notice any difference. It makes me want to puke when I hear military types or cops talk about “the bad guys”. Self-serving crap.’ In fact, the COs – don’t call them ‘guards’ if you want to get along – were much less sympathetic than the prisoners. Petty obstruction and malice were their only amusements. None ever smiled except at somebody else’s misfortune, and even then it was a brief, pinched smile, full of self-loathing.

As soon as you’ve crossed the causeway to Riker’s Island you feel the oppressive lethargy hanging over the place. It’s as thick and as isolating as the fog around Skull Island in King Kong. Only instead of the bellowing of a giant ape, you get the roar of the planes going in and out of LaGuardia. Lessons, conversations, thoughts, words of wisdom all come to a stop until the noise fades. My superior made a sarcastic grimace and stubbed his cigarette out on the yard’s immaculate concrete. He nudged the butt through a drain with his toe. ‘If you smoke, make sure you get rid of the butt or they’ll come down really hard on the poor kid who was supposed to sweep up.’

Our school was a tinny double-wide trailer. Students were issued a stub of a pencil which had to be turned in after class. If anybody got out of hand I was authorized to have them do push-ups, boot camp style. I never did, but knowing I could piqued a sadistic streak in me which I suspect all teachers have.

In the hopes of puncturing the island’s horrible somnolence, I thought I’d encourage a little salutary anger. Not riot-level anger, of course, just awareness. I gave out copies of Claude McKay’s sonnet ‘The White City’. ‘I will not toy with it nor bend an inch. / Deep in the secret chambers of my heart / I muse my life-long hate, and without flinch / I bear it nobly as I play my part.’ The students’ universal response was that the poet was an anti-white racist and a pitiable psychological wreck.

The slight alienation I felt at this was, I realized, a problem of nature and not inclination. For some reason I’ve always got along with social castoffs, not the people who nurture their marginality into some marvelous and fecund inner freedom but the people who can’t: the damaged, the uneducated, prisoners, run-of-the-mill criminals. I liked my students and they liked me. But it was best if we stuck to multiplication and division. Abstraction soothed the sore awareness that this liking would never become the perfect closeness of being alike.

Many of my students didn’t know how to add or subtract. Explaining the basics of math over and over again opened my eyes to its strange beauty, the many unexpected ways numbers and functions relate. The secret infinities. Unlike my dog-eared, refolded wad of a map of the northeastern US, math always folded and refolded itself along perfect creases. At least in my mind. But that everyday clarity could never dispel the island’s air of infinite weariness. As my superior said, ‘In your heart, you know none of them’s ever going anywhere.’

We were meant to prepare students to pass the GED. But if we let too many take the test and the vast majority of them failed, funding would be cut. It would make the programme look unsuccessful. One day, a hitherto invisible administrator, a crisply-dressed woman who didn’t like the look of me, drove home the bureaucratic truth, ‘You just make sure you don’t send anybody up unless they got a good chance of passing.’ That meant I had to say no to one kid who couldn’t subtract. He kicked the leg of a child-sized desk and tears filled his eyes. (We were alone – he would never have cried otherwise.) I told him he could take the test when he got out. There were GED programs all over the city. Like a thwarted child he pleaded, ‘You don’t understand, man. Out there I ain’t gonna do shit but hang around. Too much going on. In here’s the only real chance I got to sit down quiet and really do this motherfucka.’

When the term was over they had a kind of Stepping Up ceremony. At one end of the yard stood a huge open-sided shed. A flock of pigeons warbled among the roof struts. There was a dais and a lectern. As ordered, I’d come up with an award for every single student. ‘Most Improved’, ‘Peacemaker’, ‘Funny Man’, ‘Mr Eloquence’, ‘Fewest Words, Most Wisdom’. Sitting on the dais next to me, my superior showed me the certificates he’d laser-printed and decorated with a stick-on gold seal. He’d taken real trouble, but he sneered bashfully, ‘Hard to believe but this shit means a lot to them.’ I presented all the awards. They did mean a lot. The inmates grinned and strutted. Friends and enemies alike hollered and catcalled. A few family members had come, dressed up to the nines.

Then the most popular Corrections Officer got up and harangued them. Oddly, they loved it. They loved him. They cheered every bellowed cliché. A lot of guys on the island respond to the coach type. With a twinge of jealousy I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ Was this Yankee Stadium or a prison? Same difference. All I could see was a jailer. The island’s foggy entropy might as well have been coming straight out of his mouth.

I think my own ideas, my own unasked-for notion of freedom, was starting to corrode from the inside. The speaker asked if they were going to do the right thing from now on (‘About what?’ I thought sourly), and two hundred young baritones howled, ‘Sir! Yes, sir!’ The startled pigeons dropped from the roof struts. The flock circled the shed a few times before resettling. The inmates enjoyed their power to make the pigeons do their will, so each time the speaker asked one of his motivational questions, the responses got louder and louder. The pigeons fluttered, swirled and resettled a few times, until it dawned on them they’d get no peace, and they were off.


Image by Jeffrey Bell

Jennifer Egan | Interview