Thursday, February 26, 2015

Guest post from Brenda Vicars, author of Polarity in Motion

When I was a high school English instructor, an opportunity came up to teach a college night course inside a nearby prison. At that time I still had the smug idea that I could bestow brilliant wisdom upon my classes, so I jumped at the chance to teach inmates.  Of all the students on the planet, who more needy of my guidance than the incarcerated?

Entering the prison through a series of gates played out just as it had in movies I’d seen, but in spite of the clanging bolts and locks, I wasn’t bothered by feelings of being trapped. I would dabble in this world only a few hours and then retreat to my safe, white, middle class life.  I was led through a maze of check-in rooms and required to relinquish my purse and phone before a guard escorted me into an outdoor area—the prison yard—about the size of a football field and walled in on all sides by two-story buildings. With the guard, I felt safe enough as we walked twenty feet along a sidewalk that bordered the yard and led to the education building. 

But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wham that hit me with my first glance at hundreds of men, mostly black—all dressed in white scrub-like uniforms—milling around in the caged in area. The reality of all these people, locked up, jolted me. 

Armed with my syllabus and lecture notes, I made it through the 165-minute class.  In this prison there were no breaks during the once-a-week session, so we worked for 165 minutes, non-stop.  The inmates were not allowed to do anything independently—no leaving early if the work was complete, no staying late for extra help. 

Bathroom breaks were permitted, but the logistics required with the guards was not something I wanted to experience.  During the three years I taught in prison, I rarely visited the ladies’ room.

So what great insights did I bestow upon these men?  Probably none.  Oh, for sure they absorbed the literature. These were the only classes I’d ever taught in which everyone actually read all the assignments—no Cliff Notes or Internet summaries in prison. Essays were never late or incomplete.  Test scores were excellent.

But here’s a better question: What did the inmates teach me? This question makes me take a deep breath and wish I had better words to express the profound lesson. The men often wrote about their youth—sometimes their middle and early high school years—when their lives had begun to unravel. I gradually realized that many of my public school students were living through the same stresses that haunted the inmates. The inmates’ pasts were my high school students’ present.  The difference was my adolescent students weren’t talking or writing about their struggles. Instead, they were coping and doing their best to navigate—so far.  

Teaching in prison changed me. Lessons from the incarcerated made me acutely aware of how fragile and blurred the critical line is during adolescence—the line between holding onto a path to success and crashing through a crack. 

In my writing I try to unearth that line and give it voice.

Get your copy of Brenda's book, Polarity in Motion, from Amazon US (ebook or paper), Amazon UK (ebook or paper), or Barnes & Noble.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting post! Definitely seems like a great subject for a book. Thanks for sharing.

Sandra Hutchison said...

Oh, good for you. As someone who teaches in a community college, I see students on both sides of this -- trying to hold it together, and sometimes trying to get their lives back on track after time in prison. I will definitely look up your books!

Unknown said...

It sounds like a very powerful experience.