He tells me I wouldn’t survive on the East Side. He tells me I wouldn’t survive on the West Side.

He’s talking about Detroit. I tell him back, You got it all wrong, the reason I’m not locked up is because I’m surviving out there. I point toward the classroom window, beyond the gun towers and concertina wire.

He says, “You think you’re better than me.”

I tell him, “Look, I’m one mistake away from being where you are now.”

He tells me, “You grew up privileged and never had to fight for survival.”

I tell him, “I had it rough, I almost choked on the silver spoon.”

He laughs and calls me a square, a nerd, a smart-ass, (just to mention a few of the less abrasive names).

I tell him, “Put the word ‘free‘ in front of it. Free square. Free nerd. Free smart-ass.”

He tells me, “You think you’re tough.”

I tell him, “If I were locked up, you’d be buying me store items every day.” He laughs. I laugh.

He brings me butterscotch candy. He places it on my desk as everyone files out. I tell him, “No thanks, it’s against prison policy.“ I pick up the candy and aim for the wastepaper basket. I tell him, “Everyone has a price but you can’t afford me.“

He grabs my wrist, and before I can make my pitch, he makes one of his own.

James R. Tomlinson’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Pebble Lake Review, Glass Fire Magazine, and Foliate Oak Online. He’s been making his own complicated pitch for 17 years, convincing prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections (some doing life sentences) that an education is worth pursuing. There are moments when he has his doubts.