Over any teacher’s career—in my case, 26 years of teaching high school English to at-risk teenagers, the last 10 of those years in an adult county jail—you get asked lots of questions. Some about the topic you’re teaching; others, well, it’s hard to know where they come from. But there’s one question I heard a lot, most frequently from my jail students, “Why don’t you teach in a real school?”
This usually happened when a lesson went well and a kid really got what we were talking about. “That was a good lesson, Mr. C. You should teach in a real school instead of here.” That last part was typical of incarcerated kids. Instead of taking credit for understanding some new idea, the student was quick to give it to me.
I knew where the “real school” remark came from. My students were mostly poor youth of color; many bereft of families. The education they received in their home districts was pretty bogus, and they knew it. Minimal supplies. School buildings as dilapidated as the warehouses (called “public housing”) they lived in. The curriculum dummied down because “they can’t handle the real thing.” For these locked up kids a “real school” was one they weren’t in.
They knew my take on the “real school” remark. My classroom was a real school; they were real students doing real learning; and I expected them to act that way. I confess, I wasn’t always polite about it. It made me mad—at them; at the educational system; at society; at myself. And it made me sad because within that comment was their bone-deep belief that they were worthless.
But in their remarks I heard another question. It’s a question every teacher asks with each new school year, “Why do I teach?” For me it was, “Why teach the hard to reach—at-risk kids—in the first place?” It’s a fair question, one that deserves an answer.
Of course there’s the obvious one. Everybody knows that education affects the quality of your life. Jobs. Where you live. Where your children will be able to grow up. Your health. Perhaps even your happiness. So as an English teacher, I knew the incalculable value of being able to read and write.
Yet I wanted my students to learn more than basic survival skills. I’ve always been a passionate believer in literature’s ability to change people’s lives on a deeper level. It was never an easy sell. By the time my students got to me their minds were slammed shut; their worlds, small. Presented with a story or a book to read they’d growl, whine, practically stomp their feet in a tantrum. “Why do we have to read this? It’s stupid…boring…crazy” (you supply the adjective.) Still I insisted we read.
It didn’t always work. Some refused to leave the streets behind, to glimpse a less hopeless life, even just for the duration of a short story. But not always. Warren read way below grade level. I wasn’t sure that could improve since his teenaged mother drank heavily while she was pregnant. But one day he announced that he was 15 and had never read a book. A friend told him about Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, and he wanted to read it. I worried about the reading level, but Warren was captivated from the start by a kid just like him, steeped in the hood and all its troubles, yet with a message of hope that kind of sneaks up on you. It took him months, but Warren painstakingly, proudly read every word.
I’m not saying that reading a book will radically change a kid’s life, but it may come close. It does happen. Wilbert Rideau who served 44 years, many of them in solitary confinement, in Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison, is a testament to that power. In his riveting memoir of his incarceration, In the Place of Justice, he writes that the books he read then saved him emotionally,
Reading allowed me to feel empathy, to emerge from my cocoon of self-centeredness and appreciate the humanness of others…It enabled me finally to appreciate what I had done.
Those words should give any Language Arts teacher the courage to continue pushing books on his or her students.
Yet, my jailhouse teaching wasn’t just about hustling books. You need a lot more than that to survive ten years of prison’s daily grind. No. I knew there was more to it than that. Since I always believe in practicing what I preach, I often got solace and inspiration from what I read. On my toughest days a few lines from Galway Kinell’s poem, St. Francis and the Sow, reminded me why I even bothered,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness.
At times, that reteaching loveliness was the hardest lesson I had to teach. But ultimately I knew it was what every day of my teaching was all about.
Repost from Beacon Broadside