8 min read
My arms bundled with supplies, I've entered a classroom. The air is stale, the walls painted a muted gray; there are no windows. Every door I enter requires a key, or to be buzzed in. A camera tracks my movements every second. They aren't worried about what I will do, unless I do something unsafe or unwise. They worry what will happen to me if the inmates get a bad idea in their head. I know the deputies are watching me; their voices come across the intercom when I have a question or need to get through another door. I've gone through six doors so far to get here. I set my stack of lined paper, folders, spare dictionaries that I snagged from the office, and my see-through bookbag down on the table and open a seventh door, the one to the storage room.
There's no camera in this one. They don't want students going beyond this door; anything could happen and they wouldn't know. I suppose that's why they make me wear a button worn on a lanyard around my neck; it blinks on and off every now and then to show me the batteries work. If I press it, they'll come running and will bring hell with them. They won't get there in time if anyone wanted to hurt me, though. No one could. My protection isn't a camera, it isn't a button, it isn't a door; my only protection is myself.
Respect is a currency that must be paid in kind here. Status is an important thing to understand. My role is to walk between the worlds of the sheriffs, a family in and of itself -even if they aren't all the same and they don't all agree with each other- and that of the inmates who self-group themselves into either racial divisions or a defiant, non-racially based group called the "Others". I am in-between, and so I fall into no categories. I don't get involved in the politics on either side. At least, I shouldn't. I hear what each group says. I listen, and I learn. It would be stupid not to learn what I can. After all, this is now my world too, for five days a week and at least seven hours a day.
The class shuffles in, plastic cups of coffee or red, kool-aid looking drinks clutched in their hands. It might seem odd for some of them to seem like they've just awoken, but not here. Even though it's past noon, they rarely sleep during the night, and the daytime and morning are used for sleeping. Some of them have only just woken up. They're coming to study for the GED test. They're coming to better their skills at reading, writing, math. They're coming to escape the monotony of their cells. They're coming to get days off their sentence. They're coming because it is one step closer to freedom.
I pass out books and headsets, paper and pencils. I make sure they can log into their computers and try my best to track what subject they're working on. Science, social studies, English reading, English writing, math. I've got to get a handle on each of them to the point I can answer most -if not all- questions that they throw at me.
"Miz B, I need some help!" I rush to one, and then to another, another, and another. I write out examples on the board. I deflect dumb questions about what my astrological sign is. I courteously respond that I had a nice weekend, "Thank you for asking" when they try and attempt to socialize with me. I rarely sit still for that long.
Before I know it, the class is nearly at an end. I stick my USB drive into my laptop; it's connected to the speakers and the projector. I leave them with a song or a thought or an educational video. It's something to break the monotony of their lives here. It's one of the many tiny reprieves I can give them from staring at the same gray walls, hearing the same conversations, being surrounded by the same type of people day in and day out.
And they surprise me. I play something that has poetic lyrics, and some of them are somber; one of them hides in the back and I can see he is crying. I sneak him tissues. I don't know their lives. Some of them let me know, but they'll never tell me everything; some people never even admit everything to themselves at night, when they're alone in the dark and dreaming.
Four different groups per week. They grow fond of me quickly. I'm quick with an answer or a witty remark. I dish out what I'm given, and they learn to respect me. I treat them like they're students, not criminals. They are allowed to simply be adults, and so many of them take on that role -instead of stepping into the same, demonized role they have been cast in time and time again.
They aren't perfect. They have addictions, both to money and drugs. Many of them are nearly as old or older than I am and have never held a real job. "All I need is a job to get that dope, then I can get back into that game." It's hard to say no, they say. It's hard to live a clean life when you have to start over and start from nothing.
But then they say the money isn't worth it. They heard their family wants them home. They're missing their daughters sixteenth birthday, their son's 21st birthday, their wife giving birth, the passing of their mother, the marriage of their brother... Moments they can't get back are taken from them while they are serving time in jail.
Not all of them come to this conclusion. I suppose we don't all have that much to lose, but when we do... the risks certainly get higher.
"I need to pass this test before I leave." Some say. They please, "You gotta help me. Just sign me up." Some of them aren't ready. Maybe it's the drugs that have eaten away parts of their mind, maybe they have an undiagnosed learning disability. I try with them. I sit with them one on one. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don't. They get released into the world and I don't hear from them again.
Less, rather than more, students pass the tests and get a GED. One of my first students to graduate was so young and full of potential. He was bright and charismatic. He wasn't affiliated with a gang. I wish I'd known he had an addiction to meth. I heard later he gave up the shelter and housing and school that he could've gone to; within a few hours of being out, he bailed on his parole officer and left to get high.
But others would succeed, even though it had taken them several trips to the jail to finish what they started. They would go to college and get away from their gang and drugs and create something different. It makes you wonder... How many times do we need to fall down in order to get up and stay standing?
I will say this; teaching at a jail is like being a blind and stubborn optimist. At the same time, it means opening your eyes so wide you can see how cruel, twisted and gritty this world is. It is realizing that the sweetest person can also be someone who can beat a woman within an inch of their life. It is realizing that to survive is to learn how to lie well and to con others. It is believing in the best in your students but also knowing that to expect them all to succeed only to watch them be released, fail, and end up back at the jail is asking for heartbreak. It's learning to not take things personally, to keep the details of your private life private, and yet to be genuine and real at all times.
Freedom is the ability to change the direction of your life. Locked up, behind bars is one form of incarceration. The prison of the mind, of habits that trap you in a destiny that leads you back to prison or worse, are eating away at freedom, also. The thought patterns that lead a person to think that they will always need more because nothing will be enough, nothing will be certain, nothing will be safe... that is a prison, too.
To learn something... anything... different; to learn that you have what it takes to finish what you started as a child, to rewrite the story of you, to accomplish a goal that seemed little and unimportant only to realize it was one of the only things stopping you from changing the perspective you had of yourself and your potential; it isn't much, but it's a start.