Growing up in an affluent home in an affluent suburb in the Midwest, I had certain notions of criminals and prisons. I’m not sure of their genesis, but my beliefs were perpetuated with no opposing forces causing me to pause or reconsider my notions. Interestingly, I have yet to meet people who do not share at least some aspect of the rhetoric I brazenly spewed at the time.
In high school it baffled me that the government committed such efforts to ensure the comfort and humanity of what amounted to the most evil participants of society. I did not separate any aspect of an individual’s situation or crime; it didn’t matter. In some respect it still doesn’t.
As I journeyed through and refined my professional passions, the world became murky. I’m not sure when the seed of desire for teaching in a prison started. I certainly never met anyone with a like desire, much less actually attempted such an experience.
It was an intermission between my final public school teaching job and the start of another Masters program that I chanced upon our state government’s employment listings. The Department of Corrections was seeking a Special Education Teacher. The description did not give all that much clarity, but this was my opportunity to advance on my bucket list. I completed my application packet, and waited…a very, very long time. I interviewed and waited an even longer span, eventually offered the position after the tangle of bureaucracy and background checks. It was only then that I paused to think about this pursuit that I felt so woefully unprepared to embark.
I learned the description, while lengthy, was vague for a reason. I have specialized training in literacy instruction, and my supervisor was pleased to have me structure my class teaching the prison’s most struggling readers based on a TABE assessment. Then it was the first day that was over and underwhelming simultaneously. Teaching at-risk adolescents in the most remedial classes the high school offered, I expected similarities that only translated in unexpected ways. These men were clearly the products of the very system I spent years of my training in, but maturity and the system transformed them.
It struck me the gratitude of my students, but not in expected ways. I received responses to my basic civility, and realizing the extent to which I take such things for granted. I was greeted with open, almost excessive formality, but I could see cold anger and aggression in their eyes and expressions directed at others in the class who engaged in social missteps. These looks were chilling, but familiar even if they were more practiced. At the end of the day I always noted the odd dichotomy as I walked through the institution’s courtyard and finally to my car. The eeriness never really subsided, shaping many dreams that weren’t scary, but I awakened in the morning reflecting on their oddity.
On occasion I encountered frustration and anger, but it was easily diffused with rationale and simple, respectful explanations. In those cases I was always left with the feeling that the content was irrelevant, perhaps it was the effort perceived most noteworthy. Perhaps that is why my attendance roster was consistently complete even when the sentence reduction incentive did not apply for a specific time period.
They were appreciative of my skill and expertise; many surprised they were learning to read after years or even decades of failure. They rightfully and appropriately never shared their personal stories, but there was always a surprised bewilderment when encountering new reading or spelling words that offered clarity they never encountered as the Hieroglyphics lifted in rapid strokes of days.
As a teacher those moments stick with me, as well as the raw grit and determination my students maintained throughout every class when academic tenacity is not their strength. But, the experience that was most profound was the gratitude they expressed for receiving human interaction, leaving me to consider what society has been missing for the simple notion of respect to seem so far removed from such a large population. I continue to wonder the full implications of such an absence.
I found myself questioning my life’s rhetoric regarding this system and its inhabitants. For so long I assumed a global evil, but at its face encounter they were just people. There was nothing mysterious or unfamiliar, only their choices leading them down a certain path I knew others avoided through some chance or another. This is not to say that I trusted my students or approve of their navigation through life’s challenges and predicaments. On some level there isn’t much excuse, but at the same time there are curiosities of how society has developed such individuals; I’m not so arrogant to claim the answer, but I question our treatment of those forgotten long before they entered the penal system.