As I do every Friday I ask the women in the prison workshop I lead (a different group every week) what their first impressions are of me. Today the answers were rather...interesting:
The "lonely" part came from something I said about not having left the house in two days because it's ONE HUNDRED DEGREES ouside and that I spent the time in an air-conditioned room with my dog. I think the stereotype would have worked better if I had substitued 15 cats for the dog, but that's neither here nor there.
I had no flask, no cross and no mutliple personality pop-in during my lesson. I didn't have my diploma from Syracuse University hanging like a placard from my neck. Within less than 5 minutes, this is who they decided I was.
I shared with them that they had gotten them all wrong (except for the educated part). I told them that even though I'm not an addict that my best friend is a crystal meth addict and alcoholic so perhaps I sort of knew what it might be like. I told them that my mother was borderline schizophrenic before she ended up commiting suicide but that no, I am not schizophrenic. I told them I was Jewish. I told them that I have never been less lonely in my life surrounded by hundreds of wonderful people on a daily basis.
I always find these weekly assessments fascinating. What is it that I do, that ALL of us do, to shape these quick impressions? I looked no different than I usually do when I teach and yet the adjectives were very different. What nuances were they picking up? Yes, it's been a pretty busy week, and slightly "schizophrenic" in the variety and pace of what I've been taking on. Maybe drinking would have helped but I've always been told to avoid alcohol in weather like this.
I have nothing to go on when I look out at these women except that they are incarcerated for some reason. They are stripped of their identities in solid prison-issued garb and identical slip-on sneakers. They are black, Latino, Asian and White. Some wear the plastic beaded rosary-cross that the prison gives out to those who want them. Some cry and look out the window. Some have braces on their teeth. When today one of the women told me that she had worked for Merrill Lynch managing 401Ks, I have to admit to being taken aback based solely on her appearance.
I have yet to be insulted by what the women say (except when one said I looked like I was 52 when I'm only 47) but am always fascinated by their snap opinions. There isn't anything I would necessarily work on to dispel whatever vibe I'm giving off because I don't think I could pinpoint it. I am pretty certain, that whatever story I may concoct about a stranger sitting across from me on the train or restaurant would be based on my own projections of the image I have formed of what one-word adjectives like "alcoholic," "educated," "Catholic," "schizophrenic," "lonely," look like.