The Lessons


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The Lessons

by Michael McFee
Southern Cultures, Vol. 6, No. 3: Fall 2000

". . . we were in jail, being frisked and questioned . . ."

You could see it, or it could see you, anywhere in town,
the county jail crowning the lofty granite courthouse.
I watched it as I rode into Asheville for weekly church;

it watched me as I sat in First Baptist’s Sunday School
a couple of blocks away, supposedly learning the lessons
that would save me from ending up in a place like that.

One year Mr. Creech was our teacher, a retired lawyer
so nearsighted and hard of hearing he seemed oblivious
to our brilliant adolescent jokes and caricatures.

But one day he stood up and started class by announcing,
“Boys, we’re going over to the jail to teach Sunday School,”
and led our astonished gang out of the education wing

across to the courthouse and onto a cramped elevator
whose uniformed black operator never once looked at us,
yanking the heavy doors shut, punching the last number,

lifting our cell through a dozen floors emptied of people,
jerking us to a stop. “Penthouse!” he cried, and suddenly
we were in jail, being frisked and questioned, surrounded

by guns and keys and heavy metal gates locked behind us.
Mr. Creech was mild as ever, there in the narrow cellblock.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said, and smiled, and began

teaching about Paul and Silas locked in a dismal prison,
leaving us boys to note the caged lights, and grimy iron grids,
the breathtaking stench of toilets, vomit, and body odor,

the restless shadowy movements of criminals in their cells,
squeaking on bunks, shuffling shoes, squeezing bars thick as wrists
with hands that looked almost dead in such lousy wattage:

these were the lessons that old man wanted to teach us.
“And at midnight they prayed and sang praises unto the Lord,”
he read. “We all know what singing is; but what is prayer?
Son?” he turned and asked, pulling me steadily forward,
“can you tell us what it is?” I thought I would gag or faint
if I opened my mouth, so I just stood there mute. “Oh, son,”

came a deep sarcastic echo, “can you tell us what it is?”
“Come over here and tell me what this is,” a man whispered,
and the Amens that followed unlocked something in me:

“Prayer,” I said, lifting my eyes to the low stained ceiling,
“prayer is just talking to God, that’s all.” Mr. Creech paused,
pinching my shoulder hard before he said, “just talking to God,”

then concluded our lesson with a prayer and altar call
though the prisoners never bowed their heads or responded:
they kept staring at me as I tried to hide behind my friends,

reaching for but not quite touching us as we left the jail,
boys who might never be any farther away from God
than high in that hellish heaven above that mountain town.