Catching Breath

A man with a teardrop tattoo walked into the room,
and we were both holding our breath
like a bucket full of nerves,

each of us feeling like we didn’t deserve
to be the teacher or the student
sitting in the seat.

He sat down next to me,
so I could teach him enough math
for him to earn his GED.

After a few weeks of geometry,
he said he thought talking honestly
would send me running.

I told him that I believe in nonviolent fists,
that I once saw a pacifist in combat boots,
that I know most bad decisions are fueled by good intentions,

that trauma does not hurt me, but pulls me in every direction
and stretches my heart like a trampoline 
so I can catch a person’s good and bad all at once.

So he told me about his time in prison,
about when he traded his knife and last cigarette
for a notebook and a pen⁠—

his new scalpel slicing ink into the page
instead of branding his mistakes
into the flesh on his face.

His truth existed outside of him on thin prison paper,
behind steel bars and caged doors⁠—
not dying, just being birthed into written words.

This student of mine taught me a lesson⁠—
our backbones are built from book spines,
and as he spoke his truth out loud for the first time,

my trampoline heart caught his breath,
as I dropped mine.

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