Talking to Strangers (Inside):
Teaching Latin in the Prison Classroom
by Jessica Wright
It was an evening in the middle of May, and the New Jersey summer was already upon us. I was standing with my co-teacher, a fellow graduate student at Princeton University, in classroom number one at a state youth correctional facility not far from campus. We were ten minutes from the end of our Friday-evening college tutoring session, and the students and tutors had gathered in a closing circle. Names had been exchanged and everyone had shared their biggest success of the semester. Now was the moment for student performances. Each week we enjoyed slam poetry, rap, improv, but this week was special. Six students had just that week completed the Latin sequence we had piloted across the academic year, and the other students had asked them to share their final projects. One student had translated Green Eggs and Ham into Latin. The student being too shy to perform, another instructor and I took one copy each and delivered an impromptu rendition of Virida Ova et Pernam. Romping around the circle of students, we took one voice each and played out the Seussian quarrel until the students, the majority of whom had not been in the Latin class, were in stitches. The translation had rhythm; the translation had repetition; the translation was fun.
Immediately after the closing circle, prison officers entered the classroom to end the closing circle. The students milled about, shaking hands with the tutors and saying farewells to those who would be gone for the summer. The author of Virida Ova et Pernam dawdled most of all, basking in his moment of glory. “For every action,” one officer said to me, “there is a reaction.” The student was punished the following week, when the officer kept him from the tutoring session. Less than a month later, the closing circle itself, which had run for more than a year, with the support of other officers, was shut down as promoting unnecessary conviviality. Two weeks later, handshaking was banned. “Trust me,” the same officer explained, “If you knew what these guys have done, you wouldn’t want to shake their hands.”
What is outreach in a prison classroom? We might think of it, quite simply, as breaking down barriers to an elitist subject for those who are structurally disadvantaged and disenfranchised. We might further emphasize, as does Dan-el Padilla Peralta, the fruitful interpretative polyphony that educating incarcerated populations in Classics promises.¹ We might also worry that teaching Latin in a prison classroom risks reinscribing colonialist practices brought to light by reception scholars such as Emily Greenwood, Michele Ronnick, and Phiroze Vasunia.² American prisons are disproportionately populated by people of colour, many of whom have been swept up in the war on drugs, or accepted plea deals to avoid putting their families into debt with legal bills. What are the implications of bringing Latin into this community? Is Latin an “equaliser” that can level the playing field?³ Or does teaching Latin in prisons risk further elevating Latin as a symbol of learning and prestige? It is not out of the blue that even the prison officers express surprise that our students are capable of learning Latin, while demonstrating next to no interest in their ability to write astonishing poetry or wrestle with algebraic equations and astronomy. Despite being marginalised in academia at large, Classics continues to carry weighty cultural kudos.
The shut-down of our closing circle played out across the backdrop of far more shattering national and international events. The fortnight that followed saw the massacre of forty-nine people, mostly young men of colour, at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the murder of the politician Jo Cox in West Yorkshire, and the United Kingdom referendum vote to leave the European Union. As a British national finishing up my doctorate in America, it was difficult to remain on track. In the wake of such violence and political turmoil so close to home, I was left wondering why my research matters, why I spend my intelligence and my passion for truth and understanding to antiquity, so far from the front lines of society.
Antiquity matters, of course. It matters because of how it shapes us. It matters because of how we shape our students. It matters for the same reason that it matters to find humour in despair, joy in the aftermath of grief. I have learned this most poignantly in the prison classroom, where the very act of studying Latin — or algebra, or metaphysics, or the structure of a sonnet — is a statement of resistance against a carceral system that seeks to erode humour, joy, and human equality through the manipulation of bodies. When one’s body is controlled by another, as my incarcerated students often insist, one’s mind can be constructed as a space for enacting one’s own liberation.
This claim must of course be qualified: Latin on its own will not liberate anyone. It can, however, create space for cultivating freedom of thought, self-critical reflection, and even, on occasion, a dash of humour and collegial camaraderie. Collaborative pedagogy is a practice of what we might call, following Danielle Allen, “political friendship.” In this context, Allen suggests, “friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration.”⁴ Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers, deals with race, education, and citizenship in contemporary America. Drawing upon Aristotle for her concept of “friendship,” Allen argues for the importance of intentionality in cultivating “political friendship” with one’s fellow citizens, not by investing them with “blind trust,” but rather by the “habits” consequent upon recognising that “a core citizenly responsibility is to prove oneself trustworthy to fellow citizens.”⁵
The social division established by the carceral system is racially-inflected, but it is more explicitly and more intentionally a division between the free and the not-free, the “civilian” and the “inmate.” The division is marked above all through the body. Our difference is highlighted in clothing, in freedom of movement, in access to food, drink, and medication. The distinction between us was reinforced by the officer who banned us from shaking hands. Collaborative pedagogy can, in its best moments, enable the construction bridges across this divide. Bringing Latin into the prison classroom — and more importantly, being welcomed as Latin teachers within the prison classroom — opens up space for learning new habits of communication that place at their center the mutual trustworthiness of teacher and student. Self-critical and open-ended pedagogy can be, I argue, a practice of political friendship.
Outreach is not a one-way street. Instead, it is more like a handshake: a reaching-out in the hope that the other will grasp one’s palm and so demonstrate one’s own trustworthiness. In a period of rising nationalism and cultures of hate, the question of how we build relationships of mutual support and respect across different social groups is particularly pressing. Prison education is not a panacea, but a micro-intervention. Talking to strangers is a habit that one can work at through resituating one’s body in unexpected, unpredictable, and unnecessary contexts. Listening to strangers perhaps even more vital.
1. Presentation delivered at a roundtable titled “The Prison and the Academy: ‘Correctional’ Education’,” Princeton University, Friday 13th November 2015.
2. Michele Valerie Ronnick, “William Sanders Scarborough and the Politics of Classical Education for African Americans,” in Classical Antiquity and the Politics of America: From George Washington to George W. Bush, ed. Michael Meckler (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), 55–68. Emily Greenwood, Afro-Greeks: Dialogues between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), especially the introduction and chapter two. Phiroze Vasunia, The Classics and Colonial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
3. Shelley P. Haley, “Black Feminist Thought and Classics,” in Feminist Theory and the Classics, eds. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin (New York, NY and London: Routledge), 27.
4. Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), xxi.
5. ibid., xxii.