When I was 19 years old and a junior at BYU, I took a volunteer opportunity teaching a semester-long “life skills” class at the Utah State Prison.
Maybe it’s not apparent from that one sentence how absurd it was for a sheltered Mormon girl from rural Canada to be teaching “life skills” to a bunch of inmates, but trust me, it was pretty absurd. The closest I had ever been to criminal behavior at that point in my life was sneaking out of my house without telling my parents once to go get a Subway sandwich. I knew, however, that in order to get into a counseling graduate program one day, I had to bulk up my resume with some relevant volunteer experience so when I heard about the opportunity to teach at the prison, I applied to the program and was accepted. After a background check and an unnerving hour-long orientation—wherein I was asked to sign forms acknowledging that the government doesn’t negotiate with hostage-takers, so if that happened to me, I was on my own—I was given a packet of lesson materials and told to show up at the prison next Wednesday.
When I arrived, I was shown by a prison guard to a classroom (with a piano, strangely enough—I’m assuming that was a Utah thing) that had a bunch of chairs set up in rows, and then left alone with my “students.” The class itself consisted of about 30-40 men, ranging in ages from about 20 to 65, and from a wide range of backgrounds, criminal and otherwise. I recognize now that most of them were probably there simply to break up the monotony of the day, but at the time, idealistic young me was pretty convinced that these guys were genuinely interested in learning life skills from a still-teenage BYU student. I’m fairly convinced that I learned a lot more than they did, but we had some great and genuine conversations and the experience remains one that I have reflected on again and again in the nearly two decades since. I have several stories I could tell, but have been thinking about one in particular over the past week.
So, during the semester, the guys in my class had discovered that I played the piano and were constantly asking me to play something for them. I kept telling them I didn’t have any music and had nothing memorized, but they were persistent. On the last day of class, I gave in. I went over to the piano in the corner of the classroom and lifted the piano bench to see if there was any random music in there and lo and behold, there was one (very tattered) LDS hymnbook.
I should note at this point that religion had never come up to this point in the class. I assumed (in all of my sheltered, teenage wisdom, and falsely I might add) that jail wasn’t exactly fertile ground for things of the spirit, and that the last thing these guys would want to do for our last class was sing hymns together.
But I held up the hymnbook and said doubtfully, “Guys, this is the only music I can find–“
And immediately I was interrupted by hands shooting up in the air and men shouting out requests.
“How Great Thou Art!”
“The Spirit of God!”
“Can we please sing ‘How Firm a Foundation’?”
“How about ‘Be Still My Soul’?”
And thus commenced about 90 minutes of the most horrendously tone-deaf, yet remarkably beautiful hymn-singing by those inmates. I would barely finish accompanying one song before hands would go up and requests would start again. One guy offered to be the chorister, and stood in front, waving his arms in no particular pattern. The ones who didn’t know the words just hummed along. I remember glancing up from the piano at one point and seeing this one guy at the back—I can’t even remember his name, or anything else about him, but I remember his face—with his eyes closed, hands clasped together in his lap, softly singing “Be Still My Soul.” It was clear he knew the words by heart.
There were a lot of different topics I considered posting about today, and I’m not sure why this is the one that got written. I suppose after a weekend of feeling bombarded by online ugliness (well, more than a weekend really), I just wanted to give the internet something beautiful, like the image of one prison inmate, in the back of a sparse classroom 20 years ago, with his eyes closed, singing “Be Still, My Soul” like his life or his soul depended on it, because maybe it did. So there you go, internet.