Back to Prison (with students who sneak out for literature)

Yesterday I went back to prison for the first time in nine months. It was the first day of the Gothic lit class I teach there, and, as usual, the semester got off to a slightly bumpy start. For one thing, the count didn't clear, so the students were stuck in their cells. At the official start of class, I was there in an empty classroom, organizing my handouts and waiting to see if we would have class at all.

While I was waiting, an inmate from one of the GED classes slipped across the hall. I didn't know him and he didn't know me, but he heard I "taught college." He wanted to know what I taught, who I taught it for, and what I'd gotten my degree in. Then he nodded his head and said "Writing and literature, I need some of that. I want to win the Pulitzer prize."

I didn't know what to say, other than to encourage him. I told him to remain true to his voice, that that would carry him far further than anything else he could do. And read. I told him to read. But as I was saying all this, I felt the prick of guilt, because the last thing I wanted to do was give him false hope. And at the same time, perhaps hope and ambition are all he has, and he would do well to hold onto them. Having never seen his writing, who knows? Maybe he could win. I never want to say never, especially not to these guys.

Our conversation was cut short because the guard "needed" him, which was I'm sure her code for "you're not supposed to be alone with a teacher in that room." Grateful as I was for the interruption, I also felt a familiar pang of empathy, for him and all the other men in that prison. They're so hungry for interaction with someone outside of the prison system, people like me and other professionals who come in, who represent a life they've never had or the one they've left behind. I remember one day last summer when one of the guys lingered in the hallway, talking about one of the texts. When we both went through the steel door into the main unit, he turned to me with an almost desperate look in his eyes. "Now I have to go back to not being human," he said, and the steel door closed.

Perhaps this is why, out of the twelve men signed up for the Gothic, seven of them managed to "sneak" over to the education department, despite the fact that they were not allowed to leave. At 4 p.m., over an hour after the class's official start, they finally made it over and settled into their desks. "We had to use our penitentiary skills," one said. Rather than chastise them, I gave them the handouts and began the lecture, abbreviated as it was. Even though our class was cut short, I could do what I could to give them the stories, check out their books, and let them reclaim their humanity, one word at a time.

Comments

Ronlyn Domingue said…
"Now I have to go back to not being human."

Okay, what else is there to say after this? What part of this is difficult to understand?

You have a sense of what your time really means to them. It's respite from their day-to-day life. Intellectual stimulation. Positive human contact. You're giving them a gift.

I don't think you gave that man false hope. You gave him hope, period. Who knows what kind of a writer is he, or will become? And even if he doesn't, he'll find out on his own and won't have to look back at your moment together and feel sad about it. Someone gave him a glimmer.

I know that Feltus found meaning in his life by having his book project. I think that humanized him and that people honored and recognized his efforts helped, too.
What a beautiful and moving piece, Kathryn. It's amazing to see how much the chance of education means to those who are routinely denied it. It makes me appreciate anew the opportunities I've taken for granted.
Joy said…
When he said that he wanted to win a Pulitzer, I chuckled because...he probably will. And in his speeches and acknowlegements, he will mention what a great nobel prize winning teacher you are.

I know many people who have gone to prison...often for things that a lot of the rest of us feel are stupid, and because I know them I know that what you are saying is true. It is just as you implied, and have often stated in person: they are human too. They have hopes and dreams, regardless of what has derailed their ability to accomplish them. These people are not throw-aways, even though our society wishes they would just go away. They don't go away...even when we don't see them.

Thank you for such an honest and touching (and as usual well written) article. Thank you for reminding us of the humanity of all of us, even those of us who are behind bars. And thank you for being such an awesome person.
Joni Rodgers said…
You did good, Dr. KatPat. And you did it well.
Jeanna said…
Your post made me stop and feel...always a blessing.
Donna Maloy said…
Bless you! It takes guts to walk into a prison and it takes heart to know it's necessary.
Suzan Harden said…
Darn you, Kathryn. Everyone's making me cry this week. You, Roger Ebert, Jay Lake. . .
Mylène said…
I love his goal of winning the Pulitzer. There is no crime in that.

Lovely post.
Anonymous said…
What great work you do!

Tess