Black, white, Hispanic, the twenty young women assigned to the Writers’ Center of Indiana’s third memoir-writing workshop at the Indiana Correctional Institute for Girls file into the visiting room for the first session looking wary. They’re all dressed exactly the same: khaki pants, ugly green v-necked shirts, plastic sandals. Their hair is poorly cut, their complexions pale from being locked up inside. No makeup is allowed. Some have crudely done tattoos; in some cases, their arms are criss-crossed with small white scars, evidence of cutting. Too many look dazed by the too-high dose of whatever drug some medical bureaucrat prescribed to control them.
The volunteers—writers, teachers, college students—call the names of the girls in their group and the girls go sit down, glancing back at the others still in line. There are six marbled composition books on each table, two each: the one with the “Building a Rainbow” image pasted on front for the writing we’ll do in class, the other for the writing they’ll do between sessions, on their own.
“These are for us?” at least one girl at each table asks.
They ask it every year and, every year, are astonished when we say yes.
I talk to them about the rainbow image, a scaled down version of the huge poster that hung in my office years ago, when I began teaching. “I grew up in a poor family,” I tell them. “My dad drank. My mother was sad. I had big dreams, but I thought whether or not they’d come true was all about being lucky or not being lucky.
"I was confused about happiness, too. I thought it was about how nice your house was, how much your parents didn’t have to worry about money, how much stuff you had. I thought it was a state of being. Once happy, you stayed happy, like being in a place.
“But, in fact, you have to make dreams come true,” I say. “Look at the rainbow. It’s under construction, covered with stick people painting, hammering, working cranes to put things in place.
"And, as for happiness, it’s no more than a collection of mostly small moments, strung like beads on a necklace, throughout our lives.
"You can learn how to take the hundreds, maybe thousands of small steps you’ll need to take make your dreams come true; you can learn to recognize and cherish those small moments when you feel right with the world and to build on them until the weight of happy moments is greater than the ones that hurt you and make you sad."
They open their “Rainbow” notebooks and, as instructed, write “I remember, I remember,” dredging up all kinds of memories—happy and sad. I ask them to pick one happy memory and do the “I Remember” exercise again, dredging up details about that one thing. Willingly, they bend their heads to the task—all but one.
“I don’t have any happy memories,” she says, scowling.
I go and sit beside her. “None?” I ask.
“When you were little?”
She shakes her head.
“Toys?” I ask.
“I had a yellow ball."
I ask her to tell me about it.
“It was big. My brother busted it when I was twelve, and all the air went out of it.”
But she smiles (for the first time) when she says this. “I loved that ball,” she goes on. “I had it from when I was three and my brother was scared I was going to beat him up when I found out.”
“But you didn’t?”
“Nah,” she says. “It was funny he was so scared, though.”
I ask if she remembers when she got the ball, and she does. Her uncle bought it for her at Walmart. It was at the top of a tall bin full of balls of all colors and sizes. There were yellow balls closer to the bottom, and her mom said she should just get one of those. But she wanted that yellow ball. Her uncle tried to climb the bin, but it was too rickety. So he went to get an employee to help and, when the man got the ball and held it out to her, her uncle told her to say thank you.
“I ran up and hugged his legs,” she says. “I loved my ball so much. It looked like the sun. Yellow is my favorite color, ever since then.”
By now, she’s talking and writing. Smiling, even laughing at what she remembers. Her mom was wearing a blue dress; her uncle an orange shirt that made him look like a huge tangerine.
Near the end of the class, I ask if anyone would like to read what she's written to the group, and she raises her hand.
So there is one remembered bead for her necklace of happiness: the day she got the yellow ball.
And one, I hope, for the memory of writing about it.
There’s a bead for my necklace of happiness, too: watching her face change as writing took her back to that happier time; listening as she read her memory aloud; thinking maybe, maybe it will make a difference.