In the last scene of the emotionally wrenching film “Antwone Fisher” dining room doors are opened to reveal a massive feast that Antwone had dreamed of earlier in his difficult life. There before him is a table laden with breads and fruits and massive roasts and an unimaginable bounty for a man who is far too familiar with hunger.
That’s what our graduation luncheon at Sterling Correctional Facility always reminds me of, as the men arrive expectantly, volunteering to set the long table and arrange the food for the book group. We are celebrating the completion of a four month session, having read eight books in their entirety, as we have traveled to war torn Sarajevo, apartheid South Africa, reconstruction era Texas and Trujillo ruled Dominican Republic. The group has sometimes been wildly enthusiastic about the books and sometimes reported finding them a painful slog. Still, as I hand out the handcrafted diplomas, I point out our successes, and the individual ways that every one of the readers has been an asset to our community and brought something valuable to the discourse.
Red checkered plastic picnic tablecloths are thrown over laminated metal tables, transformed with paper platters filled with cold cuts, rolls, seven varieties of Pringles, cheeses, fresh fruit and a heavy emphasis on dessert. We even have guacamole and pickles, honey mustard and Miracle Whip! The men take turns lining up to pile their plates. Massive sandwiches are constructed and the sturdy paper plates nearly topple with the extras the men can’t resist.
Then we begin. The rooms feel festive. A few enthusiastic teachers join us and nibble chips and observe the diploma ceremony, during which I enjoy telling stories about each of the group members, like a soccer coach handing out trophies after a last match. There’s laughter and clapping, and most important, validation. Gracious, smiling while chewing, we discuss literature with the ease and confidence of college students. Just about every one had loved our last book, Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, the only argument being what was funny and what was sad. This is an individual judgment that is fueled by their own internal triggers, which we also discuss.
I admire their strong opinions and ability to connect themes, remember plot flaws. There is a rich sense of commonality as well as a respect for differences. They grab their diplomas and pose for a photo. The prison walls fade in the background, just like those dining room doors opened in the film, and within, many painful pasts are exposed and new hope begins, on a full stomach.