In the poetry workshop I’m teaching, the young man seated to my left leans forward. “What do you do to become an accountant? Can I start working on that here?” His facial hair is dark and fine, a barely there shadow. He writes about his girlfriend, his mother, his young son. He can’t be more than 20. In any other setting I teach in — a military hospital or middle school or college classroom — I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage him. If my son, a college freshman, wanted to be an accountant, I would happily help him navigate it.

Accounting is a stable field, an attainable goal for an intelligent person willing to work. But here, at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF), it’s not that simple. I’m not sure how easy it is for a felon to get a job in accounting. I tread carefully. “Accounting is good to know, especially if you’re running a business. But you should check the requirements to be licensed. I’m not sure." In another setting, I would pull my phone out and check online. But my phone is in my car, my keys exchanged with the officer behind the front desk for a visitor’s badge marked “escort required.”

A few months prior I emailed Claire Schwadron, who works for Artivate, an organization that brings professional artists to teach and perform in underserved spaces, to ask whether I could teach a poetry class for incarcerated women at MCCF. She told me I could teach an afternoon class for the women if I also taught a morning class for the men.

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I meet her at the jail with poems to teach for six Fridays. She brings four-inch long “flex pens,” which can’t be disassembled, and thin, eight-inch-square tape-bound notebooks for the students tucked into the requisite transparent plastic bag with black binding.

The men’s group takes place in a multipurpose room with two rectangular tables we push together to form an almost-square. Wide windows facing the hallways fill two walls, and two narrow windows facing a gravel space between wings of the building are on a third wall. Against the wall behind where Claire and I sit is a whiteboard. The men are distracted by every movement in the hallway, and we repeatedly remind them to focus on what’s in the room.

Ranging in age from 18 to 22, they are more boys than men. Sometimes they won’t listen to anything I say; sometimes they refuse to write. Sometimes they are rude to me, and I am rude in return. This shocks them, as it sometimes shocks my son. I have a rule for them and for my son: For every hard thing I say, I say two nice things.

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It is our third week, and as usual, all eight boys are black and brown. Some have beards, though most have only a fuzziness. Their faces are still soft. They are still growing, and sometimes their gray jumpsuits just graze their ankles. When I ask about their favorite foods, they name their mothers’ macaroni, their grandmothers’ pupusas. When they ask, I share my own writing, nearly always addressed to or about my own sons. “It seems like you are writing about us," they say.

During the break between our morning and afternoon classes, Claire and I split up. I get in my car and check my phone. Among the emails and messages accumulated over the past two hours is a missed call from my son. I start the car and call him back. He declines and responds via text as I navigate back onto the narrow road. “I’m in class.”

The shaded road from the jail opens into a large, two-lane traffic circle. Directly across the circle is an entrance to the outlets. I wander Banana Republic, Anne Taylor Loft. Jumpsuits are popular and versions hang in nearly every store. My son has grown two inches since starting college, and I buy him shorts at American Eagle Outfitters. In the food court I order noodles and cabbage and read a book while I eat. My mind wanders, my eyes jump to check the time.

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At the outlets, cell reception is terrible. Text messages don't go through. I miss my son’s call back, but by the time I notice, I’m pulling back into the jail lot, storing my phone and rushing in to see the women.

The women’s group takes place on the unit. There are two tiers of cells under one high ceiling. The census is low so each woman has her own cell. When we arrive, the guard presses a button, and all their rooms unlock with a buzz. There are 18 women ranging in age from 16 to 60. It will be Mother’s Day on Sunday. A social worker hands out scented soaps and lotions wrapped in paper to everyone. Two of the women are pregnant. Their bellies strain the elastic waistbands of their khaki jumpsuits.

The women are eager students. They write between classes, and when we arrive, many have poems to share. They ask specific questions about poetry, about overcoming silence. They need less and less structure to get started. I feel as though we are getting somewhere. Though, of course, they are unable to go anywhere.

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They are behind layers of metal doors that rattle and slide into pockets in the walls to let us pass and shut with a clang and click behind us. (There’s no sensor, Claire warned me on my first visit. If the door is shutting it will crush you.)

In the car I try my son again, and he picks up. He is at the University of Maryland and called to lament his calculus grade. He is having fun and making friends and getting used to his freedom, his height, the carefully trimmed beard clinging to his hardening jaw. I am trying to be stern with him for not being more studious or organized. But sitting here, I know things could be worse. He is kind and good and a better son than I deserve. But I can’t risk him relaxing into failure. I tell him I’m disappointed, remind him it’s already May, too late to be lamenting his grade.

He hangs up before I can say the two good things.

Seema Reza is the author of the poetry collection A Constellation of Half-Lives and the memoir When the World Breaks Open.

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