The Story behind “Follow the River”

Follow the RiverBy Jenkins, Mercer, and Siegel

When you come down to the crossroads

                                          And you don’t know which way to go

Listen to the words in your heart,

Listen to the song of your soul ,

Follow the River,Follow the River,Follow the River, and the River will take you home.

Lay down your burden of anger,

Give up your greed and scorn,

                                      Give others the gift you’ve been given

And you’ll reap what you have sown


                                             Reach out with a joyful noise                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Lift up your voice in our song                                                                                           Treat others as you would be treated,

And you’ll never walk that dark road alone

Follow the River, Follow the River, Follow the River and the river will take you home.
Guarenteed,to take you home

The Story: A few years ago I was teaching night GED classes at the Farmington Correctional Center. I had a fairly large class, about seventeen students at the time. Mr. Jenkins was one of my students. He was a young black man about twenty-six years old, convicted of aggravated assault. He had recently become a born again Christian. He had a number of problems with his studies. He could perform any task after explanation, but had long term memory problems. His short term memory seemed to be all right, but after a few days he would begin to loose what he hadstudied. This was a real problem given the program and the final test that each student must eventually take. I worked with him to develop ways to increase and assist his long term memory. One of these was rhyme, which has been used since the beginning of written language tomaintain memory; rhyme and rhythm begin before Homer. We usedthese tools in every part of his studies, “9 times 9, LET’S HAVE SOMEFUN, is 81″. We made rhymes for the entire multiplication table, and Mr. Jenkins made progress. It was slow but he was retaining what he was studying through the use of our tools and constant review. I wrote “Follow the River” during his study of poetry. I wanted him to help me in the writing of it, but when I gave him each verse he would not make any changes to it. He said the words were too good to change. He only made one addition to entire poem, the “Guarantee” at the end. I gave him a copy of the words, and he took them to a musician that he knew from church. The musician took it to others and it became a song that was performed at their church services. I never had the opportunity to hear it preformed because I could not attend their services. He and some of the other students did sing it for me in class.  At one point Mr. Jenkins got into a fight while he was at his day job in the mess hall and was put into solitary confinement for about a week. When he returned to class I had to move him from where he had been sitting to a new location. I had new students, and one of the individuals he had gotten into trouble with in the mess hall was to close too his old location. His new seat was directly under a large florescent light in front of my desk. It was then that I noticed a line on his forehead directly over his left eye. It puzzled me and I began to suspect something. I ask him about it, and at first he was reluctant to tell me anything. I knew that he had been raised by his grandmother. He had mentioned this to me in our conversations. Finally, after my continued questioning, he told me that when he was three years old his mother had stabbed him in the head with a pair of scissors. At break time that evening I put in a request for all his records, including his medical records. There was no mention of this injury in his records, particularly his medical records. I searched further and came up with nothing from the time he had been arrested. It all fit, his symptoms: memory loss and anger control, the nature and location of the wound. I put together a rather large document detailing all this information and sent it to his case worker. The long term result was Mr. Jenkins transfer from the standard prison facility to the special psychiatric facility located within Farmington Correctional, where he could receive treatment for his disability. He continued to come to GED classes, insisting that I remain his instructor. Of course the powers that be, the system, did

not like my interference especially in pointing out their mistake.



When the cutbacks in funding for the GED and Vocational programs occurred

in the Missouri prison system I was one of the first to be let go. About eight months after I left the program I received a special invitation to the graduation of students who had taken and passed the GED exam. I went wishing to see which of my students had obtained a High School education. It was a very strange experience. The families of inmates and the teaching staff comprised most of the audience. After the cap and gown, the inmates were allowed to shake hands with everyone. Mr. Jenkins was the first to shake my hand. He smiled at me and said, “Follow the river, Mr. Mercer, follow the river.” My eyes started to get a little watery, and that was not the end of it. Many students shook my hand, some from my class, some that I did not even know. Most of them said the same thing, “Follow the river.”          Russ Mercer

Bismark, Missouri

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