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You Owe Me

On teaching writing to children at a Houston cancer center. Featured in The Best American Essays 2012:

"The children I write with die, no matter how much I love them, no matter how creative they are, no matter how many poems they have written, or how much they want to live. They die of diseases with unpronounceable names, of rhabdomyosarcoma or pilocytic astrocytoma, of cancers rarely heard of in the world at large, of cancers that are often cured once, but then turn up again somewhere else: in their lungs, their stomachs, their sinuses, their bones, their brains. While undergoing their own treatments, my students watch one friend after another lose legs, cough up blood, and enter a hospital room they never come out of again.

"The M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where I have taught poetry and prose for nearly ten years, is a world-renowned research institution. I have met the sickest children in the world there—children who have been treated already, somewhere else, and who have come for one last experimental treatment, who have one last chance at survival. In this capacity, my students often take part in studies. The treatments they receive are often groundbreaking, innovative ones that, with time, are perfected and standardized. This means their experiences, whether their disease is successfully eradicated or not, serve to build treatment protocols that eventually cure children throughout the world. But only a small percentage of the students I work with in the center’s classrooms live. Less than half, maybe less than a third, and I think less than that: I am just one of the writers in residence there. The numbers aren’t available to me."
PUBLISHED: Nov. 25, 2012
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5637 words)

An American Seduction: Portrait of a Prison Town

The High Desert State Prison was supposed to save Susanville, CA, bringing jobs and money to the ailing town. And it did. But the costs were devastating.

It is March 1999. I've come home because the new High Desert State Prison needs teachers, and I need a job. At 8 a.m., I stop at the BP for the weekly paper: the first thing I notice is the place is full of prison guards. They're buying cigarettes and gas, stirring whitener into coffee. Each is decked out in full uniform, army green suit and parka with the California Department of Corrections gold patch, shiny black boots, belt hung with batons and pepper spray. Most are young and beefy; all have the soldier hairdo, trim mustache, crisp creases—these guys would pass any inspection. Two more walk in. I should feel safe, but I don't. These uniforms are about keeping people in line. It feels more like a Central American border crossing than a gas station convenience store in rural America. The young man with the ponytail apparently doesn't like the scene either; he walks in, then pivots coolly right back out.

PUBLISHED: Sept. 1, 2000
LENGTH: 31 minutes (7934 words)