Thursday, November 10, 2016

Teaching in a Prison

Over the past years, a number of my friends have taught classes in a prison setting. They've consistently reported this to be an enormously satisfying experience.

This morning, for the first time in my life, I joined them. 

It produced 90 of the most satisfying minutes I have ever spent.

Through the efforts of my DePauw University colleague Kelsey Kauffman, a tireless champion for prison reform, the university has formed ties with the nearby Indiana Women's Prison (IWP), America's oldest women's-only prison, founded in 1873. In one of Prof. Kauffman's history courses at the prison, some of her students embarked on an astonishingly ambitious research project: the history of this very prison, the first such history written by prisoners themselves. Their work, which challenges and complicates simple narratives about the benevolence of the prison's founding, has since achieved publication in academic history journals; you can read about it here

This semester another colleague, Professor Martha Rainbolt, is teaching a children's literature course at IWP with six incarcerated women. She invited me to guest-teach today's class, assigning the students my upper-middle-grade novel Zero Tolerance to ground our discussion. The book is based on a real-life case of a seventh-grade honor student who brings the wrong lunch to school by mistake, a lunch containing a knife to cut her mother's apple; both the real-life student and my fictional student turn the knife in to adult authorities immediately - and both find themselves facing mandatory expulsion under their school's zero tolerance policies as a result.

I have to admit I was nervous about the class. How would incarcerated woman, facing long sentences in a maximum security prison, view my story about an upper-middle-class, goody-goody girl anguished by the much less serious consequences confronting her? Would I be able to connect with them across our very different life experiences, especially given that I would have to do it via a Skype-style connection over the prison's electronic conferencing system? Would they find me glib and insensitive? Would I be glib and insensitive? 

All of my fears were unfounded. The students were WONDERFUL: so smart, engaged, insightful, and even reassuring to me when I expressed worries about the ways I had handled certain situations in the book. They had read the book closely. They had thought about it deeply. I had wondered if we would be able to fill a whole hour; instead we talked for over an hour and a half. They asked me hard questions - such as whether I have ever thought of writing from the point of view of someone from a different race from my own. Some of them want to write children's books themselves, particularly focused on the situation of children of incarcerated parents (some two million right now in our country). I have every confidence their books would be well worth reading.

Toward the very end of the class, into the lower edge of the computer monitor appeared a big, shaggy . . . dog! There he was, a seventh member of the class. The student in charge of him shared her experiences raising and training service dogs for disabled children and adults, right there in the prison, including a dog who went home ultimately with an autistic boy, becoming his bridge from inner isolation to wider community. I told her: you need to write that story!

Now I want to do this again. I want to meet again with these women and with other women prisoners. I want to help them write their stories, and publish their stories, and find readers for their stories.

I'm so grateful to Kelsey Kauffman for bringing this university-prison partnership into being. In a week that feels so dark and hopeless for so many in our nation and our world, I'm grateful for the steady, cheering light of this small but powerful candle.

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