The lighting is poor in the library, and the furniture is flimsy and cheap. The place has the non-smell of an almost totally concrete structure. But I am happy here. I’m as happy here as I’ve ever been. All around me, men are studying. Some are studying law, others are simply trying to learn how to read. But nobody is mocking anybody else for trying to learn. I’m studying too. And nobody is trying to harass me about it. Instead, strangely, I’m celebrated.
It is just about the last thing I would have expected in a place like this.
After all, everyone here (aside from the staff) is wearing the exact same clothes: prison fatigues. Those who are studying law are hoping to find a way out. Those who are learning to read are trying for a better life once they’re released. And then there’s me. I’ve got Principles of Corporate Finance opened in front of me.
My name is Billy Lee and I came into prison without a high school diploma. Now, I’m two months from leaving with my Masters in Business Administration.
And the prisoners around me are proud of what I represent.
You have to understand, I didn’t grow up in the kind of place where academics were celebrated. I grew up in a small Appalachian county. My parents were small farmers, working a patch of flattish land between the broken hills. They were poor, but they weren’t alone. It seemed like every nook that could house a homestead did. And most of those places were populated by our kin. We called each other cousins, but that wasn’t necessarily our relationship. We just knew we were part of one big family; a big family pushing back against a massive world that wanted to crush us and our way of life. But we were mountain tough. If you had to pick a fight between our family and the world, we knew who the winners would be.
Nobody was going to take us down.
Every day an old school bus would ramble along the roads, skittering between the rough hills and gulches that defined our lives. It would gather us to the County seat of Scottsburg. We all went through the motions like school mattered, but it was all make-believe. In a place like this an education meant you thought you were better than everybody else. It meant you were planning on leaving. It meant we weren’t enough. And we didn’t like that.
I hung out with a loose collection of boys. We got up to various and sundry shenanigans. But it was education that made us a real gang. You see, back in high school there was a guy named Jimmy. He was a good-looking kid. But what really set him apart was that he was a great student. The teachers (all imports from outside the county) were so proud of him. They weren’t so proud of us. They thought we were trash. But they thought this kid could make something of himself. And their education began to do what it did to anybody. It made him think less of us. Before long he’d been infected by those teachers, looking down at all us hillbilly trash.
Jimmy became James and whatever his actual crimes, it was all made worse by the fact that we felt he was trying to make us look bad.
It came to a head one night when a crowd of us got drunk, drove up to his parents’ trailer and started shooting. The others wanted to shoot at the house, but I argued it was enough just to shoot near it. That was the only good thing I did that day. In the end, we scared the &%$ out of that kid. As we watched, he and his parents flew through the front door, tossed their suitcase in their old pickup, and drove – tires churning up the dirt – straight out of the county. It was a victory for us, but it didn’t feel quite right. We became a crew, through. We knew what we had done and we relied on each other to keep that secret.
We picked a name then. It wasn’t too clever. The cousins became The Cousins. We even had a motto, although nobody had to say it.
It was this: “Nobody gets ahead of anybody else.”
That’s why I didn’t get a high school diploma, at least back then. I knew the material. I got all my homework done with no mistakes. But I never let the teachers see that. In class, I said nothing. And when it came time for tests, I flunked every one. On purpose. I loved learning and I was smart. But I was smarter than Jimmy; I didn’t let anybody else know what I could do.
But I loved studying. And it didn’t stop with school. After I left school, I got part-time work doing repairs at the prison. The Cousins would hang out all the time. We’d complain about our many troubles, we’d drink and we’d go shooting (not generally in that order). We might terrorize a few people, but we kept it pretty gentle. They were family after all, just like we were.
But the Cousins weren’t all I had.
When I had time alone, I still studied. I learned about the history of my county. I tried to work out the clouded origins of my own family. I read up on the Civil War and Civil Rights. And I traveled in the woods and through the hills, learning about them too. My focus was the rocks and geology. I wanted to understand the past, the distant past. I’d tell people I was huntin’ but I just wasn’t very good at it. All in all, I got myself an education. I just didn’t let anybody know about it.
One day, in the woods, I came across a girl. She wasn’t from my county. As I watched, she scooped a bunch of dirt into a test tube. I asked her what she was doing, and after she got over the shock of me bein’ there, she got all flustered – like I caught her in some very inappropriate position. But I knew what she was up to. I don’t know what made me do it, but I decided to let her know what I was up to.
As she watched, I opened my own satchel and I showed her what I had in it. I showed her I’d been collecting rocks and I’d taken notes about where I found them. I told her about them. Turned out she had a nice microscope at home and was collecting soil to learn more about the microbes that lived in the hills. She worked as a secretary in a medical clinic in the next county over. And just like me she didn’t let anybody know what else she was really up to.
We started dating. She knew about my reputation, but she thought she’d found something better in me. And I guess I wanted to live up to that. Eventually, it came time for us to move in together. So, we got married at the County Court and we moved into a tiny clapboard house. It nestled beneath a little mountain with a burbling stream not 200 feet from the front door. It was hillbilly paradise.
And then I found the pyrope.
I had been wandering in the woods when I came across a deep red, almost black, stone. I didn’t know what it was, so I set to work trying to find out. I did find out. I had found pyrope garnet. Pyrope garnet came from kimberlite tubes and kimberlite tubes were an indicator of something very rare and valuable indeed. Diamonds. Now, I didn’t have diamonds. But there was a chance of them. There’d been a few tiny little diamond mines in neighboring counties before and I thought, just maybe, finding a few more of the little gems could be quite a pick-me-up.
I talked to The Cousins and we decided to spend our spare time looking for diamonds. I showed them what kimberlite looked like. I showed them what pyrope looked like. And then I showed them what uncut diamonds looked like. And we set off for the hills, searchin’ for our dreams.
The idea was this, we’d find one diamond and then we’d start crushing and panning for more.
Sue – that’d be my girlfriend – and I also made a simple deal. She’d get cut in, half-half, on my portion of whatever we found. And in return, she’d support me while I searched.
Then we found the diamonds. It started with one tiny little rock. And then we started crushing and panning, using water from a nearby stream. And we just kept finding diamonds.
I told Sue about the initial find and I gave her a small, raw, rock. But then I divorced her. The find was too big to share with outsiders. We all went back to digging through that treasure trove of kimberlite – amassing a fortune in dirty, hard, stone. I left Sue in the rear-view mirror. When we took breaks, we Cousins imagined what we’d do with the money. We wanted new houses, new trucks, new guns. And we wanted to dominate the county.
We thought of ourselves as a little hillbilly mafia.
Then, our diamonds started disappearing. One of the Cousins, a guy named Bob (not Billy Bob, sorry), set up a little stand – like he was huntin’. Bob wasn’t a clever guy, he tended to get himself arrested for stupid things. But this was smart. He just watched our stash from his huntin’ stand.
And then, after about a day, he caught her.
It was Sue who’d been robbing us.
The Cousins didn’t want to treat this like they’d treated Jimmy. They didn’t want to just run her off. She wasn’t one of us, she couldn’t be trusted. And she didn’t deserve the chance to run.
Somehow, she needed to become a lesson to anybody who’d try to take what belonged to us. So, we decided to shoot her. We’d never killed anybody before, but needs must. And while there wasn’t exactly a guidebook, we thought it was good form to ask if she had any final requests.
She did. She wanted me to pull the trigger.
I aimed the gun at her, but she just stared at me with those curious eyes. They were curious about why I was doing what I was doing. She’d seen something better in me. Maybe she was wondering where it’d gone. And she made me wonder too. I didn’t pull the trigger. I lowered the gun, and I told the others about the deal I’d made with her. She deserved that, it just took me a while to do it.
We kept building our stash, hoarding it. We weren’t really sure how to sell uncut stones. But then the prison closed. They said something about wanting to find locations with a larger available workforce. And in the battle between the family and the world, it was one point for the world.
And just like that our big family needed help pushing back. We needed help, or we wouldn’t survive.
We Cousins decided to start selling some diamonds. I volunteered to go to Atlanta. I needed to take care of my people and Atlanta is big enough and far enough to maybe hide what we were doing. I’d read about the Kimberly process, but I figured we could get around it because nobody was really looking for uncut American diamonds. I was scared, but the whole thing went smoothly. I found a buyer. I got an okay price. And we had a buyer for more diamonds when we needed one. Everything was back on track.
At least it was until Bob called on my way back to the county. It turned out the IRS had paid him a visit. Without telling the Cousins, he’d sold some diamonds on the side. That wasn’t what had tripped him up, though. He’d also bought a brand-new truck, with cash. Just as the county was facing major layoffs.
He’d been nailed for not filing taxes in the past; buying a truck had been stupid. Of course, Bob had been in trouble before. But now his trouble was threatening the entire county. And calling me had just made it worse. Whatever the IRS imagined was going on, now they’d have no trouble tying it to me.
And that was when I really began to take responsibility. My Cousins, my family, my county, needed a break. And I needed to give it to them. So, I stopped by a gun store to buy some Tannerite – a binary explosive that goes up when you shoot it with a fast-enough bullet. And I stopped by a drug dealer and spent all the diamond money on a bunch of meth and some test tubes.
I then drove to Bob and – with our cellphones in the another room – I told him to agree to testify against me. And I told him what he should say.
Next, I drove off into the woods. I found a good spot, and put the meth out with the Tannerite and the glass tubes. And then I went about 200 feet down the road and laid out my rifle and just waited.
The Feds had my cell phone and Bob called them almost immediately. They’d pay me a visit. When I heard the crunch of tires coming from down the hill, I fired once. The Tannerite went up, and so did the meth and the glass. And I had the wreckage of a little meth lab all ready for them to inspect.
They arrested me. They weren’t looking for diamonds, meth made sense to them. But I was the only cousin who was arrested. I confessed and they carted me off to jail. The Cousins came to my one day trial. And I saw something I’d never seen in them before.
I knew the rest of the family would get ahead. I knew I had changed “nobody gets ahead” to “everybody but me gets ahead.” But it didn’t bother me. Our old folk would have the medicine they needed. Our kids would have clothes. I wasn’t just pushin’ back against my peers or admitting my mistakes.
I was taking care of those who depended on me.
When they closed the bars on me, I decided I wouldn’t stop with sacrificing myself. No, follow in the footsteps of Jimmy and I’d get myself an education.
I wasn’t going anywhere, not like Jimmy.
I just knew that the time would come when the family could use an MBA.
After all, we’ve got to do something with those diamonds.
We often read this week’s Torah portion and focus on the story of Yosef. Yosef who learns marketing. Yosef who grows into a powerful man in another land. Yosef who learned the importance of purpose. And Yosef who wanted nothing to do with his messed-up family. But maybe Yosef isn’t really the focus in the story. Maybe Yosef is just a tool.
When the brothers want to kill Yosef – for thinking he’s better – it is Yehuda who suggests that they sell him. It is the seed of responsibility. This is just like what Billy Lee does with Jimmy. When Yehuda shortchanges and then wants to execute Tamar, he ends up acknowledging his own mistakes – just as Billy Lee does with Sue. Finally, when his father needs Benyamin (Benjamin) to come home, it is Yehuda who sacrifices himself for his family and his father.
In the story of Billy Lee, the diamonds are a stand-in for the spiritual wealth of the family. In a way, the family hoards that wealth, not wanting anybody else to get ahead. In the end, it is Yehuda who violates the principle that holds them back: he allows everybody but himself to move forward.
Yehuda, like Billy, demonstrates true character.
And Yehuda becomes the leader of the Jewish people.
In a way, the ‘story of Yosef’ is really the story of Yehuda. Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on Yosef’s story of divine blessing, inspired interpretation and unwavering fate. Perhaps we should focus on Yehuda’s story of moral growth and personal transformation in the face a more understandable reality.
Yosef’s story unfolds like a majestic divine plan. But perhaps the story of Yehuda, of true personal growth in the face of error and hardship, is the one that can more easily transform us.
p.s. This week we celebrate the story of another Yehuda. Yehuda HaMaccabi. At the end of the story, the Menorah burns for 8 days on only one day’s worth of oil. It seems like such a minor miracle, but it is a critical one. The Menorah, after all, is our recreation of the burning bush. The bush burned with spiritual energy, but it was never consumed. This idea, this vision is of a world of creation and symbolic connection without loss. This vision represents the core of the Jewish people. We exist, as the Jewish people, to bring the Divine reality of the burning bush into our world.
As we light our candles let us keep in mind that we are remembering the values of Hashem and rededicating ourselves to their protection and realization.
Image Appalachia City Hall by DM, Flickr. CC License.
Joseph has just published his first book of Torah Shorts. If you enjoyed this, please consider buying a paper copy of his Torah stories for quiet reading on a Sabbath day.
Learn more by searching for “The Assessors Joseph Cox” on Amazon.com or by visiting https://www.amazon.com/Assessors-other-Stories-Joseph-Shorts/dp/0976465973/