361 | Making It Christmas

December 14, 2014
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #361: Making It Christmas


Dear Family,

It’s looking a bit like the Christmas holiday season has arrived, at least in my cell, anyway. Everywhere else at the prison, you wouldn’t know it was Christmas unless you’ve been paying attention to the calendar: no shepherds, no wise men or baby Jesus in a manger here. No red and green. No Christmas light displays.

Out on the walkway, one inmate had on his usual gray beanie wool cap, with a ball on top that he’d sewn on from the toe of a sock. Yes, of course I was the inmate with the makeshift Santa hat. We’re not supposed to alter our clothing, but nobody has stopped me from wearing it. So far.

In my cell, I’ve taped a huge colorful Christmas tree my mom made for me onto the back of my door. Made of construction paper and poster board, she sent it to me in sections several years ago. When my door is open, I get comments from staff and inmates who notice it. On my wall, I put up a nativity scene made from last year’s Christmas cards that were sent to me, which complement nicely the laundry hanging opposite it.

The biggest gift that Duffy, my cellie, received this year was that he passed the GED test, so he no longer has to go to school every day. The new GED test that came out this year is much more thorough than the one I took years ago. I remember passing it in half the allotted time. To pass it, you basically had to know how to read. For the new test, Duffy really had to prepare. He studied with a tutor, used a computerized practice test, studied on his own, and still took a few tries to finally pass in every section. But he passed! I’m proud of him for making a concerted effort to finish his education.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I decided to throw a giant graduation party for Duffy and invite all the schoolteachers, support staff, other graduates, and the leadership of the prison as well. No, I didn’t do that, but the prison did it for him anyway, complete with food from a nice Mexican restaurant nearby and a huge cake too. The Community Choir was invited to participate as we have so many times in the past, but this time would be a bit different.

For one thing, it has been a year and a half since I got to take the choir to a GED graduation, due to a lack of GED graduates. We’ve performed for other graduations and celebrations, but I used to play for the GED graduations every six months. Since it had been so long, much of the choir was new to the event, making it that much more exciting for them. Even Duffy had decided to join the choir for a semester, until after the big concert, but I let him take the day off so he didn’t have to sing in front of his fellow graduates.

After a long morning of practicing and waiting and helping set up for the graduates, the ceremony began at 1:00 in the afternoon. Everyone who is anyone at the prison was there: wardens, Chief of Security, chaplains, Chief of Unit Management, and everyone from the Education Department. I played prelude music before the event, including my trademark song.

For many years now, nine actually, I’ve appreciated the beautiful simplicity of a tune I heard from a Fisher-Price toy that my niece, Michaela, had as a baby. At our annual Family Retreat that year, a few of us brothers who weren’t as married or mature played with that shape-matching oven toy like any good uncle would, and the song it played has stuck in my head ever since: “If you have a shape that you want to bake, just pop it in the oven and what’ll you make?”

I’ve played that song for church services before prison and for many occasions while in prison. I’ve played it for a funeral, a wedding reception, and many graduations. An old lady once came up and told me she was glad to hear me playing her “favorite song.” I’m not sure if she was mistaken, delusional, or if she actually had the Fisher-Price toy herself. It is a very catchy song, I must admit.

Well, some of my choir members are smart, so they recognized the tune as soon as I started playing it, with one guy even singing along quietly. You could tell that the warden really enjoyed it, and I wasn’t surprised, since the toy claimed it was for ages 18 months and up.

The graduates began filing in as I switched to “Pomp and Circumstance,” and then the choir sang the National Anthem and a couple of other songs. A few of the special speakers mentioned Duffy by name as an inspirational example and dedicated student. Not a huge fan of the spotlight, Duffy squirmed in his seat as we cheered for him from the sidelines.

Then, the ultimate surprise for all of us and Duffy too: he was announced as the new class’s Salutatorian, with the second-highest score of his graduating class. Duffy is very open about his struggles with ADD and dyslexia, so his perseverance was inspiring to all in attendance, and we all got to help him celebrate with real Mexican food and graduation cake. Duffy had a couple of pictures taken of him in his cap and gown that he sent to his daughters, his biggest fans.

So, lots of reasons for us to celebrate this month! No matter where we find ourselves, it is important to make the most of every situation and enjoy the moments God blesses us with. A little extra effort, a simple tune, or a ball on a hat can all turn into so much more as our joy spills over to bless and encourage others.

Thank you for all you who reach out to me and my family this time of year. May you find the perfect shape to bake as you make a beautiful Christmas.