Teaching in Prison: A Mission of Forgiveness, Hope and, Yes, Risk

•January 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It was 1995.

In my hand, I held a paper about six inches tall and four inches wide containing the words: “I don’t want to waste my tax dollars on these criminals”; “those people deserve to be locked away where the sun don’t shine”; and– the greatest indignity of all–the words, “flared nostril at me.” This paper was a formal critique of my final speech in speech class at a Christian university– a speech for which I had amply prepared– and I was being personally attacked for what was, at the time, a very unpopular strategy: work release for incarcerated felons.

Ironically, these words were written by an 18 year old student, who had never even filed taxes and who had probably never even come in contact with a prisoner. Ditto for everyone else in that sheltered class, including me. In many ways, we were in prison, too: a prison of our own preconceived notions.

At the time, work release was a little-known concept. During my research, I was only able to find one brief article on the subject tucked away in a distant corner of the New York Times. My speech attempted to convince the members of the class, all but the professor in their late teens, that work release was something worth considering in order to rehabilitate prisoners and return them to the outside world as productive citizens. Even with my little knowledge, I believed that the idea of prisoners belonging behind bars for the rest of their lives was false. In this, I found, I was quite different from the norm. Here’s why.

I was seventeen myself. I had been sheltered by parents who believed rigidly in the infallibility of the Independent Baptist church. I’d never known a juvenile delinquent, and I’d never stepped foot in a prison cell. I’d never even visited a police station for administrative purposes. There was only one thing I knew about prison, and that was Tony Alisangco. Tony worked with me at Jack’s Hamburgers. He was there almost every day, did his job faithfully, and had this smile that, though toothless, was infectious. I suppose Tony was in prison for drugs, maybe marijuana. I never asked. And frankly, I didn’t care. The thing was, there was no one I trusted more in that building than Tony Alisangco. When one of my male bosses tried to sexually harass and/or assault me in the bathroom while I was cleaning it at the end of my shift, his attempts were thwarted by Tony, who, feeling that I was unsafe, appeared suddenly in the small hallway where my manager had cut off my escape. Tony was a big man, obese, but tall and intimidating. Whatever my manager was planning stopped right there and never crossed his mind again. Women, you know how those alarm bells go off in your head when something is wrong? That night, those bells were jangling. By the time I realized I was in danger, though, any escape was improbable. I know in my heart that if Tony hadn’t been there clearing the path for me, I would have been assaulted.

If, I reasoned, prisoners were so bad, why was Tony protecting me? Why did I trust him so completely? And if my experience with Tony and his work-release program was successful, why wouldn’t other people’s experiences with it be successful, too? For that reason, I couldn’t have expected the animosity I faced from a crowd of Christians whose hatred for the incarcerated, even at such a young age, was so profound as to warrant personal attacks on the appearance of my nose. 

I have received one letter (in the late 90s) from Tony since those years we worked together when I was sixteen. I’m pretty sure he’s no longer living. Still, the memory of this man’s kindness still reaches me in my gut, even though I’m closer to forty now.

Today, though, I find myself thinking of Tony because I spent the morning in a prison, Columbia Correctional Institution, with incarcerated men who are about to get a second chance at returning to their communities “better” and more educated men. Late last year, I interviewed for and won an adjunct position at Florida Gateway College to teach inmates at Columbia Correctional for the federal government’s 2nd Chance Pell Program. Watching the inmates today– going over their lists of books, touching and counting each of the items, signing the forms that officially made them college students– I knew that I was right where I needed to be: at the end of a path I began walking at Jack’s Hamburgers when I was sixteen: a path Tony Alisangco unwittingly put me on.

I’m not a bleeding heart. I know there are bad men. I know that most incarcerated felons are not innocent. But that does not mean they are useless drains on society forever. Millions of people are imprisoned in the United States, and many things make it tough for a convicted felon to recover. Tougher laws, even for minor infractions, zero tolerance, three strikes, decimated communities, missing fathers (and mothers), poverty, lack of access to education, and low self-esteem are problems we can no longer ignore. I know that there are many people who think prisoners don’t deserve an education. I understand their point. As an adjunct for the Year Up program at FSCJ, I teach students who will come out of the program making more money than I make to teach them and without the burden of nearly a hundred grand in college debt. Sometimes, I’m tempted to feel bitter. Our society doesn’t do a good job of making sure our educators receive a decent wage for the immense tasks put upon them. (Is it a surprise that there’s a risk that when a car lot pays a security guard minimum wage to protect his expensive inventory, that guard might choose to help one of his buddies steal the merchandise for a more lucrative payday instead?) So, I get it that law-abiding citizens should wonder why people like me want to give things to convicted felons that they themselves aren’t getting. After all, they didn’t commit crimes. They were willing to operate within the rules. Unfortunately, operating by our unfair rules doesn’t produce a fair result. That’s something we need to change. What about rewards for good behavior for law-abiding citizens instead of only punishment for bad behavior? Still, we educators can’t let our bitterness distract us from our mission. What we do is a labor of love, of faith, of forgiveness, and, yes, of risk.

As a teacher in a correctional institution, I go in with the knowledge that I am taking a risk. I don’t feel that that risk is to my personal safety, although that may exist. The students chosen for this program are among the best the penal system has to offer. They’ve been vetted, researched, interviewed, and their behavior tested and studied. The risk I am taking is mental and emotional. What if I trust these men– build rapport with these felons— and all they care about is using me to advance their position in the prison’s micro-economy? What if their goal is not to learn, but to entrap? What if they think of me, not as a teacher, but as a tool, a means to an end– an end which may not be their education and their betterment? What if I am not respected so much as used? What if I get hurt in the process? I get it. It’s a risk. But. I am– and have always been– willing to take such risks.

To be honest, as a teacher, I get used all the time. I allow it to happen to some degree in order to achieve my mission. Sometimes, you have to. Students sometimes manipulate me to get what they want. (I call it “advocating on your own behalf.”) And you know what? I teach them how to do it. Instead of fearing student manipulations, I encourage them to be better at these manipulations than me. Manipulation has a negative connotation, but the concept isn’t all negative. Parents manipulate their children all the time. Teachers manipulate their students. Then, we teachers ask students to manipulate us. In English studies, we call that “persuasion,” and we dub mastering it a valuable skill.

I understand there’s a thin line with manipulations in prison. Confining manipulation to persuasive ideas in essays is different than being manipulated to do something against the correctional institution rules such as becoming a “mule” or engaging in forbidden personal relationships. Personal integrity should prevent these egregious infractions– for both inmates and teachers. Still, sending prisoners back into the world while preventing recidivism means that we have to prepare these felons to make their own choices, which means allowing them a certain amount of freedom in the classroom. I call this agency. As a teacher, it is my job to give these men, as much as possible, a sense of agency for their own learning, for their own decisions, and thus, a sense of responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. In this way, I hope to transform some of these incarcerated men into productive individuals who can return to their communities and begin rebuilding them, from the ground up. These men alone can fix their communities. It is the teacher’s job to empower them to do so– to prevent their children from following their footsteps into the prison-industrial complex.

So yes, I am going to teach incarcerated felons. Yes, there is risk. I don’t know what my incarcerated students have done. I do not want to know. As far as I am concerned, they can leave what they have done in the past behind them. That’s where the past belongs for all of us: in the past. This has to happen if our students, incarcerated or not, want any type of future.  The standards of good behavior, effective communication, mutual respect, and fair treatment is my strategy for dealing with potential risks. My strategy might not always succeed. (There’s always a chance that that a felon on work release might choose to use the leniency granted him to escape. Likewise, a student may fail to learn and may make bad choices.) It’s not as much our job as educators to prevent bad behavior as it is to issue consequences for that bad behavior when it occurs. Sometimes that means a student won’t complete his or her program. Sometimes, an “F” is given, which may even leave permanent scars. Sometimes, bad behavior may entail just a warning. Some students, once released, may return to prison. Occasional failures are unavoidable. This does not mean that the whole program is a failure.

We cannot guard ourselves constantly from the risk that people will let us down, even when we give them everything we can to encourage their success. At no time is this more true than now, when young people face fewer pathways to productive lives, when decimated families mean more communities with gang problems, and when unavoidable poverty leads to theft and crime. The point is, as a society, we can no longer close our eyes to the consequences our own bad choices have caused. Time and time again, we have put personal and corporate gain above large swathes of an impoverished community. We have locked our felons away in facilities on the outskirts of our communities so we don’t have to think about them. We have ignored the negative impact our current system of education has perpetuated. The time to make changes is now. The time to provide access to pathways out of poverty is now. The time to reduce prison populations–both those already incarcerated and those on the path to incarceration– is now. We don’t have the luxury of locking our problems and their consequences away. We are out of time.

Rescue

•July 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Last night I dreamed about a turtle
so very small no one else noticed it.
Against it, a platoon of ants
was waging an offensive:
rush forward, fall back.

The turtle kept running
in a circle
trying to fend off the ant infantry,
which I could see, big as I was
and high as a god, was futile.

Don’t intervene in nature,
my companion said to me,
seeing the intent in my gaze
and reading my thoughts
as dream companions
often do.

But–
I felt the turtle’s fear
its hopelessness at the looming
presence of certain death.
I could not turn away
leaving nature to itself

this turtle, marked for oblivion,
coming to its end
on what I perceive
was a Sunday.

So, I stepped in– God as I was–
during the platoon’s next reprieve.
Plucking up the turtle
in my hand,
it grew larger the closer it was to me
I reckoned

until it was so heavy
I could barely heft it.
Then, before I knew
what would happen
helpless as I am in my dreams,
It bit off my finger–

Nature’s protest
against my help
and my hubris: that I,
god as I am of ants
and turtles
could dare

to dictate the outcome
of something already deemed necessary
by Nature– or my assurance
that I could stop this age-old war
between predator
and prey.

Nature did not want it.
The ants were aligned against it.
Even the turtle was complicit
in its own annihilation.
This reminds me
of the time

You–
when offered escape
from your abuser– said
No. Go away. Everything

is fine.

Elegy on a Divorce

•July 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Stifling July.
Rain-bellied clouds build,
agitating the trees.
Their heads peer up at the sky,
expecting suddenness
and light.

The birds have silenced,
wings roofing their nests.
Here comes the whipcrack of lightning
setting off a car alarm.

The wind says, “Hush,”
against the house.
Someone is running for shelter.
Somewhere, a marriage is over.

The man’s wife leaving
strikes him as sudden.
If he will admit it to himself,
for miles off, he has heard
the thunder.

Plenty of time
to prepare.

I can hear the thunder now.
In the distance,
sirens are blaring.
The water oak groans at my window.

Together
the oak and I
wait for the inevitable.

The Loon

•July 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Like an echo

the call answers itself

a sound

and a sound

and the ghost of a sound

through the long, dark hallway

of distance between us.

I pause to tap on your closed door.

Like the loon’s call,

my summons

met with silence.

I know what the bird is seeking.

It answers a similar cry within me.

Where are the others of my kind

and what has become of my own kindness?

I hear how alone the loon is

how hopeful for a landing

how fragile its hollow bones

how desperate its wings’ thrum

this migrant:

always journeying

never home.

What My Last Trip to Dairy Queen Taught Me

•January 19, 2015 • 2 Comments

Not only was it date night for old people in hats (and also a Sunday, which could be the reason for so many AARP members in fedoras…) it was also date night with Baby Bird. So, we go to the closest Dairy Queen because Baby Bird says he wants ice cream. He likes cherries and chocolate, just like my dad, and I usually get my staple of cookies and cream unless I really like the special. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, whoever you are, because what I learned has nothing to do with ice cream or people in hats.

As I’m sitting in the booth, facing the corner, there is this sad little evergreen plant on a shelf high above the dining room. It looks like something you’d find in a methadone clinic (not that I’ve been to one) but I feel like I know the place. Somehow, in these clinics, everything ends up looking really greenish, and there are sliding windows between you and the receptionist who sits all smug behind the fingerprint-smudged glass. You know the place: vinyl chairs with hideous patterns that must have been gleaned from a special “Corporate Catalogue of Hideous Patterns” and the floor is this weird, speckly tile, and the walls are almost always white with a pale green tinge, or pale green with a white tinge…anyway, I digress.

This plant looks like it could have been in one of those places that attempts to appear sterile, but only succeeds in looking depressed. Above this plant’s mylar-wrapped pot, there is a light shining down, casting its shadow onto the wall. The point is this: there, in all its reflected glory, was the shadow of this evergreen plant against the beige wall. This shadow was almost as tall as the distance between the floor to the plant– a good six or seven feet. And the shadow looked like this beautiful, needly, full fir tree.

I imagined then that this plant spends hours during the evening looking at this shadow and thinking that this is truly what he looks like.  In his own mind, he’s tall and luscious, and completely full. Pondering this tree, I learned two lessons:

First of all, we all have an image of ourselves as we think we are, which is usually nothing like we actually are. This image sometimes keeps us from learning awful truths about ourselves– namely, that we’re not perfect– okay, so that’s not exactly awful, but it feels that way to some of us (me)– and such a knowledge usually creates the awareness that, in spite of our imperfections, people love us anyway. (This is hard for some *cough* people to grasp, but that doesn’t make it less true.) This image can be a setback because we become completely unable to see who we really are and all our glaring faults (like trying to see yourself as beautiful while looking at your reflection in a mirror with fluorescent overhead lighting) and thus fixing them. But, in another way, this false image also protects us from constantly thinking about all the ways that people find us absolutely intolerable. At least through the image, we can see good things about ourselves and appreciate them.

The second thing I learned from this little plant is that this image that we think defines us is not only an illusion, but it is also lent to us through the particular lighting cast upon it. Without the light overhead filtering through its leaves, this evergreen plant would see nothing at all remarkable about itself. It would just be a potted plant, its view of itself only gleaned from people’s reactions to it, which in most cases, is to completely ignore the plant or to find it insignificant. I mean, really– who pays attention to a little green plant with no flowers, no scent, no ornament? Why in heck should it have a gootree and shadow editedd self image? But does that failure to be recognized mean that this little plant has no value? Nope. It’s sitting there in the corner, high above people’s heads, doing what it was born to do: eating light, photosynthesizing, making oxygen so that people can breathe. You know– living.

But this potted evergreen also teaches us (and when I say us, I mean me) to always try to cast ourselves in the best light possible for others. We should always try to show our best work, and treat any compliments with humility. (“Oh,” the plant says, “this pot? It’s just mylar. I know it’s shiny, but…this old thing?”) And, even if no one but me ever notices that plant, or its shadow, or even appreciates it for what it does for me, personally, and for my entire biological species, it can still look at the wall during the darkening hours between 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. and say, “Hey! Look at that! I’m lookin’ good! Yep. Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Incantations Against Oblivion: A Lonely Tree on the Mountain

•December 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Like language, you are leaving me, poem,

to my own, lonely devices.

I am the solitary, leafless elm

and you are the rocky hill

upon which this edifice is built.

You–

the cold, white sun between

the black bayonets of trees

so distant are you

and so watchful.

You outshine, and when you sink

below the hilltop

our dark hearts break.

We are all broken boughs

and songless sparrows.

I cry for you in the long dark night

swallowing all our souls.

Our feet wander to and fro over all the pebbled streams

and bouldered hills.

We shoulder our way through the pressing darkness

all the while, praying for dawn.

Hypocrisy

•December 1, 2014 • 1 Comment

I am a hypocrite. There, I said it. I live a double standard.

It’s early afternoon, and I’m dressing.

“I have no idea what to wear,” I say, frustrated at the pile of clothes I have just dumped on the bed after emptying my suitcase after a trip “home” to see my mom. As soon as I sweep in the front door, the cyclone devastation of clothes, shoes, and snotty tissues follows me.

“You could just wear that,” he says, hungrily eyeing my pink sports bra and my black underwear with the pink hearts.

“I hate to be naked. You know that,” I say, without a moment’s hesitation, not even looking at him. And there he is, suddenly shut down, suddenly quiet.

“I know,” he says, defeated. He tells me that it’s a real boost of his self-confidence that his opinion on the matter seems to mean so little to me. All the while, I am assuring him, “This is not about you. It has nothing to do with you.” And it doesn’t. Not really. But still. It seems to him like it does. And maybe, just maybe, he’s right. After he leaves for work, I begin thinking about what my negative self-image must do to him. What it must mean. And even moreso, what it does to me. To us. I’m the kind of girl who can hate herself, her body, what it can do, while still encouraging you to love your own. What a hypocrite. Sure, there are things I could do to make it better. I could get up earlier (“early” isn’t even a word in my vocabulary); I could get in the gym (I already have access to two free gyms); I could eat better food (there’s always tomorrow. Always.); but I don’t. I’m not what anyone would probably call “fat.” I wear my weight well. I get that from my mom. I have an hourglass figure: big breasts and hips, small waist. But I can feel my back fat like arms hugging me when I stand, sit, or drive. I hate that feeling. The feeling that someone is behind me, holding me down to the earth. The clingyness of it all.

I don’t expect perfection from others. I love the curves of other people, my mom’s, my sister’s, my best friend’s, my partner’s, and I love people for their hearts and souls without even considering their bodies at all. I simply cannot give that same love to myself. Despite all my love for human individuality, for my friends and their remarkable personalities and all the things that make them different, I still can’t help but hold up that media-presented image of ideal perfection to myself: a constant overlay like the clear plastic pages in anatomy books that show the human organ systems, one on top of the other, peeling layer by layer until nothing remains but the skeleton. No matter how much I try to look past it, there it is. And, like the skeletal system, that ideal is woven into my bones. Even though it’s the story plots and characters I watch, I can’t help but notice that no one on my favorite shows looks like me. Paunch on a man might be acceptable, but nowhere is there a woman who isn’t skinny, with taut muscles and shiny, perfect skin. Certainly not one who survives the zombie apocalypse. My favorite television show whispers quietly to me that women like me don’t survive: women with imperfect skin and wobbly bellies, lax arm muscles and crooked knees. It isn’t just that message that women like me don’t survive, but more that they shouldn’t survive: that they’re not worth saving.  Even though, statistically and biologically, women like me have a much stronger chance of survival because we have more fat and more insulation and fewer muscles to feed feed feed—it still doesn’t register. The Hollywood ideal is still too firmly ingrained in me from years of watching the stories Americans tell each other on TV. I can run myself down for my lack of muscle tone or taut belly, all while loving people for who they are and willing them to survive and thrive no matter what they look like. So why can’t I accept this imperfection in myself? Why can’t I love the body that carries me and feels things and makes my heart beat and my brain think and my soul love? Why can’t I just get over it?

 

I return, then, to the thought of what my partner must feel every time I put myself down. I’m telling myself to get get get to the gym, to tow some weights, to run some hills. What he wants to do is cuddle down with me on the bed in front of the television, to have a delicious, fattening dinner with me, or to whisper nerdy stuff into my hair as we hold each other, wobbly bits and bubbly folds to folds. But I can’t hear him so often because of the insane buzz buzz buzz in my head telling me to be better. Telling me to do do DO. Still, I’m smart enough to know that even though I have the capability to do, certain things happen if I actually begin to do all the things I say. More time in the gym is less time spent with those I love. It’s less time spent with writing, with my friends, in conversation. And the more I bulk up and tone down, in essence, the lonelier I become: because all these things I want to do, believe I should do, are solitary things I must do alone and away from those for whom I claim I’m doing them.

Also, the “better” I get in my own mind, the more likely others are to drift away from me: to feel “left” in some way as I try to get better and better, running faster and faster, leaving them behind. Not only have I left them in my mind (because I’m busy thinking about all the things that must be done, that won’t get done unless I absolutely do them myself, and RIGHT NOW), I’ve left them emotionally, because if something is standing in the way between me and a task, I’m like a fucking bloodhound and get out of my way out of my way out of my way until I can Finish. It.

In my mind, there will always be time to hold my partner, laugh with my sister, watch terrible reality TV with my parents. But…there isn’t. We are all getting older. My parents are getting older. Eventually, they will die, and I will no longer be able to run home to mommy when things aren’t going my way. People grow apart. People leave. Things change. And already, so often, I’m stuck somewhere, alone, doing something that, in the end, doesn’t fucking matter. My sister and her husband are going to dinners and on vacations without me and my partner. We watch the same TV shows in the same house but at different times and in different rooms. My partner goes to work alone and comes home alone after hours to find me sitting at my computer working at something that I am constantly running after and never catching. I can’t slow down. I can’t stop. If I do, something will catch up to me, surpass me, bowl me over. If I stop, I’ll get behind. I’ll let someone down. Something bad will happen. But…something bad is already happening. And I’m already letting someone down. Someone very special to me. And I’m letting myself down, too.

All because I keep on chasing an ideal I’ll never reach: perfection. The thing about perfection is this: it’s deceptive. It tells you that if you are perfect, you’ll have everything you need and everything you want. You’ll have friends who love being around you because you always know what to do and look so good. They’ll bask in the glow of you and your perfection. You’ll have money because you’ll know exactly what opportunities to take and exactly how to make things happen. You’ll be a leader because you’ll be strong and even ruthless when you need to be. But…here’s the truth. Perfection is the embodiment of loneliness. To be perfect means that you will be perfect all by your little lonesome. The truth is that your perfection will make others feel bad about themselves. They’ll assume you view everyone else through a perfect lens and that they’ll never, ever, measure up. They’ll shy away from you because they don’t like standing in the mirror of your complete perfection. People will see your perfection and assume, wrongfully, that you have all the friends you need and so what would you want with them anyway? You’ll be unable to think of anyone to call for help, because, as a perfect person, you don’t need help anyway. You’ve got this. Your capability is perfect. You don’t need anyone. As a perfect leader, people will follow you, sure, but you will always be looking forward, and won’t be able to hear their whispers about you behind your back. It may be whispers of admiration, but chances are, it will be more along the lines of, “who does she think she is anyway?” In your inimitible quest for perfection, you will sacrifice. Sacrifice time with friends and family, time with your partner, time with nature. You’ll get up that extra hour early and hit the gym, maybe even while the world is sleeping, but your lover, who probably won’t feel as compelled toward perfection as you, will be sleeping alone in a different room. Possibly even dreaming of someone else. Someone who makes them feel more perfect. As a perfect writer, your writing is so perfect that everyone stops sharing their writing with you. Suddenly, nothing they could ever express could be as meaningful and as perfect as what you are currently expressing right now. And so, they will wall themselves off, refusing to share their feelings, their writing, their dreams, because their dreams are full of imperfections and vulnerabilities. You find yourself removed from the world you live in, always outside the flow of things, because you’re too perfect to put yourself in a position where there is even a remote likelihood of drowning. Perfection casts a shadow over everyone else, and because it’s something you achieve alone, it’s something you will live in…alone.

And still. Even though I know this, and tell myself this, over and over, I cannot escape the enticing promises of perfection. There is still that overlay, that desire, burning inside me to always be better…do better. No matter what I do, it’s never enough. And if I am never enough, my partner thinks, “what’s to make her think I am enough?” I have now effectively transferred my self-doubt to my partner, who, this morning, was quite happy just to be alive, just to have me home again, but now feels my weight. Not my actual weight, but the mental weight of my constant, unattainable desire for perfection at all costs. He smiles at me and says it’s okay, but there’s this deep pain there that I can never fully eradicate. Once again, I’ve broken something, because I feel I must be perfect instead of simply be. Everything I have worked to build could be crushed by my perfect hands. How does this make my partner feel? My lover? The man who tells me, “You may not be perfect, but you’re perfect for me”? I push him away, refusing to let him love me because I cannot love myself. My words say one thing, “I love you. You love me. That’s all that matters!” But my actions reveal me as a true hypocrite.

“Fine,” my actions say, “if the world doesn’t punish me for my imperfection, I will.”

 

And so, this morning, when my partner compliments me, I can only hear it, perceive it, through the overlay of perfection that films my eyes. He says, “I think you’re perfect, just the way you are.”

“Yes,” I say. “But…”