I believe in education. I grew up in a family that valued learning and became a teacher almost by chance, not because I wanted to teach but because I wanted to continue to learn. Then I discovered I love to teach as well. I’ve been unusually lucky in life because early on I found a profession that has been wholly sustaining. Not least of all because it continues to surprise me.
This year, while on sabbatical, I’ve been teaching an evening class in a medium security prison near where I live. I’d known about this program for a long time but had never wanted to participate in it. I didn’t think convicts were the population I wanted to serve. But for some reason, this year I was willing to give it a chance. I went to the orientation, where the director of the college program told us about the courses she needed to staff and the procedures for entering the prison: what to bring (a driver’s license or other ID) and what not to bring (purses, keys, anything metal), the shoes we should wear (ones good for running) and the colors we were not allowed to wear (blue, the color of inmates, orange, the color of new arrivals, yellow, the color of prison raingear, green, the color of the guards).
And then she said, “If you’re not willing to teach rapists and murderers, this is the wrong program for you.”
The first night at the prison (and every night thereafter), we had to go through three checkpoints. Show ID, sign in; show ID, sign in, go through metal detector, receive glow-in-the-dark handstamp, enter the sallyport, hear the gate clang behind; walk across the yard, sign in, find the classroom. The room was one of three in a prefab building, with internal windows so the guards could see what was happening from the corridor. In my classroom at the end of the hall, I figured I could probably be strangled before anyone noticed. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Six months later, I can say I’ve learned as much as I’ve taught.
First, I came to understand the powerful egalitarian effect of the classroom. In my college classes on the outside, I don’t know my students’ backgrounds (though I can sometimes guess) but rarely think about the value of this anonymity. On the inside, by contrast, I was acutely aware that I didn’t know the crimes my students had committed or the length of their sentences. Prison etiquette (yes, it exists) is not to ask It’s seen as a violation of privacy in an environment where the only privacy is in what you can keep to yourself. But I’ve come to realize that what this means in practice is that everyone is accorded a fundamental human dignity in the neutral space of the classroom. And this in turn sends a powerful message that, whatever you may have done, the classroom extends to you a chance to become a different human being.
The second experience had to do with a student who as I was later told was probably a member of the Aryan brotherhood, judging from his tattoos. He was doing well in class until we started to read a story by Kafka. Then he started cutting class and not turning in the homework. One night he reappeared in class, stood up and announced that he hadn’t wanted to read the story because Kafka was a Jew. I was silent, wondering whether I should tell him that I am Jewish. He went on. He had decided to “buy” the essay he needed to write for class from someone else in prison. When his bunkmate started to shun him, he changed his mind and reread the story. He decided that Kafka had a lot to teach him, even that Kafka knew a lot about his own prison experience. He had changed his mind about Kafka and decided to write his essay about what he learned. Then he sat down, and the other classmates got up from their desks to shake his hand.
I’m not naive about these guys. I don’t know whether the Kafka convert was telling the truth or just wanted to pass the class. I’m also not naive about what they’ve done. My guess is that some of my students are in for murder, others for drug related homicide. But I’m also glad that I don’t know for sure. I’m focused on the future because education has a great power to reform the human spirit. These inmates are going to return to society and I believe the college classes they take will help them succeed on the outside.
People I meet sometimes object that my teaching is wasted on the prison population who, after all, have been found guilty of serious crimes. They complain that the prisoners get this education for free while our state colleges and universities are too expensive for their own children to attend. I agree with them: college should be free. This is the best investment any society can make. But I’ve also come to believe if there’s any place where the power of education needs to work its reforming magic, it’s in our prisons, where some two million people are incarcerated today, many of whom will return to their communities. So when I hear these objections, I tell my critics that when I teach “on the inside,” just as when I teach on the outside, I don’t want to know what my students have done; I want to know what they can become.
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