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OPINION: The Wednesday Column by Jessica Weston: 'Hummingbird in Underworld' details Deborah Tobola's journey

The Daily Independent - 2/12/2020

Feb. 12--"Hummingbird in Underworld" author Deborah Tobola once lived in Ridgecrest and honed her writing chops by working for the Daily Independent.

Tobola spoke to the Rotary Club of China Lake, giving her personal history (including that stint in Ridgecrest) and how she wound

up writing her acclaimed memoir about teaching in a men's prison.

It all started in childhood. Tobola said she wanted to be a writer and after reading Louisa May Alcott's classic "Little Women" she realized it was a dream she could actually fulfill.

But first, she got a job as a telephone operator in her early 20s. Although the job was well-paid and secure, she wanted something else.

Tobola made the bold move of quitting her operator job with no other work lined up. She ended up working in a Beverly Hills advertising agency. Then in a strange twist, illness and an antibiotic allergy led her to Ridgecrest (where her parents lived) to recover.

"I looked around and I kind of fell in love with the town," she said. After declining to return to the ad agency, she instead went to the Daily Independent office and applied to be a news reporter.

She said she was hired by Cliff Urseth as an advertising rep since she didn't have a journalism degree.

Tobola really wanted to write, but she took the job anyway. She said her early advertising accounts included John's Pizza, Mom's Furniture and Corny's Shoes.

She wrote a free column, then got her big shot when the paper needed someone to cover a local murder trial.

She said it went well, except when someone in the newsroom told her she had to use the computer (then a new invention) rather than a yellow pad to compose her first story. She learned how to do so quickly because she wanted the job.

Tobola's writing career was launched. She said she also worked at the Inyokern News Review, interviewing Ricky Nelson after a show at the fairgrounds among other assignments.

"I became a writer in Ridgecrest," she said. "I became a working writer." She said she thanks Urseth for giving her her first writing job.

She went on to work for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Woman Magazine in Alaska, as well as for other publications.

Tobola later got a degree in creative writing at the University of Montana and an MFA at the University of Arizona.

Three years later she began teaching in prison. First at Tehachapi, then North Kern State Prison and ultimately got a job as an institution artist facilitator at the California Men's Colony.

To hear Tobola tell it, there is an ironic symmetry to her work in that last prison, since her father also worked there as a guard in the west facility years earlier.

"The night I was born [my father] was chasing an escaped convict, so he missed my birth," she said with a laugh.

Thus began the second half of Tobola's career: teaching in prison. She said the work changed her life.

It was this work that she immortalized in her memoir "Hummingbird in Underworld." The book alternates stories from Tobola's life with vignettes from teaching in prison. It is thought-provoking, funny and uplifting; a fast read.

The book has received good reviews. The Los Angeles Times wrote, "Tobola's dedication to keeping these inmates attuned to their creative spark is what gives this humble memoir its powerful shine."

Tobola's prison stories highlight the differences between life inside and outside the big house and Tobola's sometimes successful attempts to bring about redemption for the inmates using poetry and drama.

The Arts in Corrections program Tobola worked for has been considered controversial, as she points out in the book. Many people complain that prisoners should not be given access to an arts education that is not provided for students in public schools.

What is missing from this argument, however, is the stunning impact of education of any type on inmates. Studies have shown that there is a big correlation between education behind bars and large drops in recidivism rates. One study found that the recidivism rate drops to zero for people who earn a master's degree in jail -- a result too big to ignore. (And for what it's worth, I strongly support teaching the arts in public schools. I think arts education is beneficial for everyone.)

Tobola's work with the inmates did bring about redemption for some of her students, although it was not always a straightforward path.

The book contains several stories of unlikely redemption and a few darker tales. It also contains fascinating details, such as Tobola's observation that murderers can make good office staff -- the rationale apparently being that they are sometimes "normal" people who have lost control once, rather than habitual criminals.

She eventually left her full-time job teaching in prison, although she now works as a contractor. She also founded the Poetic Justice Project.

Part of her work has been staging plays, including original works written by inmates. These have proved wildly popular, both staged in prison with inmates and outside with former inmates. The work outside prison also has its redemptive values, although Tobola noted that within the prison system it is easier to keep track of the actors and make sure they show up on the opening night.

The local angle adds a certain interest to Tobola's book (and yes Ridgecrest is mentioned in her story). But really this is an inspiring read for anyone interested in redemption in its many forms.

Hummingbird in Underworld is available at Red Rock Books.

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