Elijah* sits with the question, rolling the possibilities in his head.
“Are you a pen or a pencil?”
At 4-foot-10, he teeters on the edge of his chair before writing. He’s 37, African-American, a father of six and serving a 13-year prison sentence at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution for two counts of kidnapping and two counts of felonious assault.
Nine other men, wearing identical dark blue jump suits, sit in a circle with him. Ric, a 50-year-old musician with a knock-em-back bouncer’s build, sits to his right. He’s got two kids and a four-year lockup for kidnapping and felonious assault. But with hopes for early release, he may have only five more of these meetings remaining.
There’s Karl. He’s 61 and in a wheelchair. With pockets stuffed full of uncooked ramen packets, he’s serving five years on a fourth degree felony for operating a motor vehicle while impaired, his fifth such offense.
Some of the others around the circle are facing far worse sentences. But at the moment, they’re all wrestling with the same quandary: “Are you a pen or a pencil?”
The prompt comes from Kent State University professor Christopher Dum. Sporting green hair and a black polo, he doesn’t look like your traditional college professor — and perhaps that’s the point.
In the prison’s one-room library, it’s easy to forget electrified razor wire fences surround every inch of the facility.
A mural painted by a former inmate dominates the wall above black metal bookcases. Colorful superheroes Batman and Wonder Woman mingle with Darth Vader and other familiar characters, giving the allusion that we’re somehow transported to a 30-year-old middle school classroom.
Dum stares at his watch patiently, waiting for his students to finish. The ID13 Prison Literacy Project, as it’s known, works to get these men to think about themselves differently, to see themselves not as convicts but as writers with something meaningful to say to the world outside prison. For the past two years, the program has been publishing their works online and presenting their poetry at public readings.
When it’s time, Franklin is among the first to share. Bald with silver glasses, he’s spent most of the exercise thumbing through a new rhyming dictionary. Franklin had been requesting one for weeks, and Dum brought him a copy this morning.
“I’m more of a pen person. There’s less of a smearing effect. It only stands to reason, a pen I will select,” he says, sounding a bit like a Dr. Seuss character.
Everyone snaps their fingers.
Austin, who’s new to the class, goes next.
“My understanding is that a pencil stands for impermanence and erasure,” he says.
A baby-faced 27-year-old serving a life sentence for murder, he chooses to be a pen too. Erasing any part of his past, he contends, would alter the understanding of his present. “So, good or bad, I continue to add to the story,” Austin says, “because you can’t have a good story if you go back and erase the shitty parts.”
Everyone snaps their fingers.
“My whole life has been constructed like a pencil,” says Karl, a former chef. His white hair stands electric, exploding from his head in every direction like a modern Einstein.
“The point may be at once sharp and clean, but every time it gets worn down, it can re-create itself and be whatever it wants to,” he reads. “Its makeup is always constant, just like myself, but it can always sharpen itself to fit into whatever situation it needs to be in.”
The snapping of fingers.
“I felt immediately that I am the pencil, but due to that eraser, that cannot be true,” says Elijah, who writes every day from his bunk. He has nearly 30 pieces published on the ID13 website and sends his work to Dum every week.
“I try constantly to remove my imprint on the world, but the more I trust or the more I try, the more prominent it stands out,” he says. “I, like the pen, am filled with ink.”