Teachers in Tough Places
It was a busman’s holiday. 30 people in a room, all teachers in high school and GED programs in various prisons from across New York State, listening to me talk about teaching locked up kids. The conference was in Saratoga Springs with lots of other things to do. Yet there they were, nodding their heads in recognition of the stories I told, laughing in all the right places with that dark sense of humor we jailhouse teachers develop from years of working with society’s throwaways in some of the toughest schools going.
In interviews or talks I’m frequently asked why I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. I often explain that I want people to see the kind of living conditions to which young offenders are consigned in adult facilities and to show that each incarcerated kid is a real person, one who most likely grew up in a home crippled by poverty, by poor health, by addiction as well as physical and sexual abuse. It’s a picture not conveyed by the crime numbers we read in the newspapers.
But looking out over that audience of incarcerated education teachers, I knew there was another reason why I wrote these stories: to describe what it’s like to be a teacher working under some of the harshest conditions going. In this time of “education reform” and its concomitant teacher bashing, I wanted to praise the people who are committed to teaching every day, no matter what’s going on around them, around their classroom and their students.
And in jail a lot goes around. Most classrooms are right in the correctional facility, and so the closed, foul smells of overcrowded and under-washed bodies, the ubiquitous roaches, the dirt and grime of poorly ventilated buildings and the chaotic noises of slamming gates and shouting voices easily seep under a classroom door.
One of the rooms in which I taught at a county lockup was a cramped, dark space right off a major hallway going to the blocks. Students sat elbow to elbow at a long table. Getting up for a book or some paper was tricky business. Personal space in jail is as valuable a commodity as a dealer’s street corner. I never knew when a fight, or at least a face-off, might erupt. Likewise, it didn’t make it any easier for my students or me to settle down knowing that any minute one of the kids might be pulled out of class for a random search, a lawyer’s visit, or taken down to booking in handcuffs. And nobody could tell when a fight might break out and a code called with the emergency response team in full riot gear running down the hallway screaming threats and commands.
Try teaching the difference between a simple and a complex sentence, or the definition of irony, with that kind of disruption. Sometimes I felt downright silly going on about adjectives in the face of such chaos. Sometimes I’d think, “Why bother?” Nevertheless, I kept at it. I taught every day and my students learned. I want to repeat that, because so many people don’t believe it’s possible: every day I taught and my students learned. I had high standards and expectations. We had skills to acquire and to hone. We had tests to prepare for. We had tools to fashion so that when they left jail they could repair and change their lives and, I hoped, not come back to prison.
Looking out at that conference room full of intent faces, I could see that every teacher understood what I was talking about. They knew the damaged lives their students brought into prison and in turn, into their classrooms, and they recognized their own oppressive working conditions.
I realized something else that day in Saratoga. My jailhouse colleagues were not much different from the many other educators in this country who work in similarly harsh environments in the inner city in schools that are underfunded and undersupplied, in unsafe and unhealthy buildings, and in dangerous neighborhoods. The media reports that schools fail because teachers don’t teach. All they want to do is protect their cushy, tenure-assured jobs. Don’t believe it. Teachers—especially those in the toughest places—teach because they believe that every kid can succeed and deserves a chance. If we teachers are greedy, it’s for those small triumphs that every day make a difference in our students’ lives.
Originally posted on Beacon Broadside