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A pile of Cheetos on a distressed black surface
Photo by pxhidalgo on Depositphotos

Prison can take away our motivation and belief that we can help loved ones from inside. But one prison visit with my daughter changed my thinking about that — and my approach to being a father from behind bars.

When they were growing up, my children were separated from their parents because we were incarcerated. My loved ones took temporary custody of them. One day, when I called to check on them, I was told my daughter was struggling in school. 

I was upset and hurt, but felt like I couldn’t help her much even though I cherished phone calls with my children and wrote them letters. I called our written correspondence “snail mail” because in a maximum security prison, it sometimes takes two to three weeks for a piece of mail to get from one person to another.

During one particular phone call with my loved ones, I struggled to get to the bottom of my daughter’s school problems, so I asked them to bring her up for a weekend visit.

When she arrived on Saturday, I had her buy pastries from the vending machine. But before we ate them, I told her to read the ingredients to me out loud. She easily pronounced tricky words like “monosodium glutamate” and “fructose corn syrup.” 

Clearly, reading wasn’t a problem. I planned to tackle math the next day during her Sunday visit. 

All night long, I thought about how to use an item from the vending machine to teach math since my prison didn’t provide pens, pencils or crayons. Eventually I settled on an imaginative solution that would make even Albert Einstein proud.

When my daughter returned on Sunday, I greeted her with hugs and kisses, then told her to buy Cheetos. She smirked, because she knew I didn’t eat chips. She came back to the table with two bags of Cheetos, and then I asked her to get paper towels. 

I opened a bag and poured Cheetos on a paper towel. Then I slid the Cheetos to the side and took out another paper towel. I picked up one Cheeto and watched her mouth water. 

I used the Cheeto — and its cheesy dust — to write the first problem on the paper towel for her. She struggled with fractions. I saw it was taking her a while.

She had become upset and ashamed, so I said, “OK, let’s try division,” and I wrote another math problem on a paper towel. 

She had the same hesitant, withdrawn response. 

“What’s wrong, baby?”

“I can’t do it,” she said.

I thought, maybe if I wrote the problem down as a sentence, as opposed to just numbers, that would work because it would allow her to read it. I wrote the fraction out with words using the Cheetos. She quickly responded with a correct answer. 

I then wrote the division problem in words, and she again answered correctly. 

I looked at her with a smile, then pulled her to me and kissed her.

“You got it,” I said, enthusiastically. “We found your process.” 

I explained to her that if she looked at math problems as reading, she would be just fine.

Our weekend visit taught me I could still be an active, supportive and loving father to my children while incarcerated.

Now my daughter is a high school graduate, working on finishing college. I couldn’t have done it without the power of imagination and, of course, Cheetos.

At the end of our lesson, she had one last question for me: “Dad, can we eat the Cheetos now?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Emmitt Wright is a writer incarcerated in Illinois.