You know, it’s a funny thing about education: the teacher is always excited to get back to work, yet the students are often more hesitant. Hey, I get it. I’ve been on both sides of the issue, both sides of the desk. These days, I don’t see an English paper as an exciting prospect, but I do see it as a necessary activity. I suppose that this is just one of those odd quirks about education. But to tell you the truth, as long as I continue to feel this way about teaching my class, I think that my life will be that much better. It’s as if I love to go to work. What a blessing, indeed! Actually, the other day the prison surprised me with a $20 bonus on my $5.25 monthly pay check. Turns out they are now paying me $10 per class that I teach. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.
Several things came up this week – both in class and out – that I’d like to share with you. First, I received the graded results of my first assignment for the new English course that I’m taking through Ohio University. I was very pleased to see that I earned an “A”. As a matter of fact, I’m going to be posting this essay to the blog shortly. This way you will not only see my work, but also share in my story a bit. After all, the paper is about signing my plea bargain, a very emotional and troubling moment in my life.
I am angry! Ok, I said it. I, a 25-year-old federal prisoner, who has bright red stars tattooed on his hands, am angry. I note my appearance and age because of the irony of the situation. The description that I just gave you of myself probably doesn’t inspire a general feeling of moral behavior or ethics. But both are front and center in the issue at hand.
The other day Mr. Batton and Mr. Rigney (one of the GED tutors) brought a new man to me. They introduced the man as a “well-learned man; a man who educated himself from behind bars.” He has salt and pepper hair, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and comes across as a decent guy. Moreover, he was inquiring about becoming a GED tutor in the Education Department. All of this seemed to make him a potential asset to the Education Department. But boy was I wrong.
Today I went to Dental…yet again. While waiting up there at 9:00 a.m., the man came out of the Medical Department wing and sat down next to me. We struck up a conversation about his educational past. After all, I was a familiar face and the last time I had seen him was in the Education Department, where we spoke about him becoming a GED tutor or ACE (Adult Continuing Education) instructor.
Well, this week has certainly been an interesting one. Class caught me a bit off guard. Since I just don’t have room in my cell to hold all of my class materials I store my writing-related books and class materials in the Education Department. If you remember correctly, the Bureau of Prisons has a rule that prisoners are only allowed to possess 5 books at a time. Storing my excess books enables me to have all of the books that I need and not get in trouble for being over the limit, but it makes preparing for class a challenge since I don’t always have access.
As usual, I showed up to my classroom around 5:30 p.m. Once there I was greeted by a number of my students. Usually I like to use this time for private tutorials and to prep for class. But that was not meant to be. What happened is a man missed the first two classes because he didn’t know that the class had started. In reality, this wasn’t entirely his fault because of their being a snafu with the call-out (appointment) system. So after he spoke with the staff member in charge of ACE courses, he was allowed to attend the class.
Part of the grassroots movement of prison education has to do with supporting our fellow prisoner-students and bolstering their activities. In practice, this takes the form of celebrating their successes and in lending a helping hand when one is needed. Today I wish to celebrate one of my student’s phenomenal pieces of work. This work, titled The Acorn, was written by A.J. Pettitt. He is quite a character. I jokingly told him that he is such a character he actually wrote something very normal. I hope that you enjoy this piece.
Class started out rough this week. It wasn’t that the students were rough, they were great – all 17 of them. Rather, the Education Department dropped the ball. They failed to issue me the copies for this week’s class. So I went in blind. Instead of covering the basics of writing as I had planned, I opted to cover the author platform: how to become visible to your target readership. I landed upon this topic because it is a very important one for any professional writer. Plus, I’m currently in the middle of reading several books on the topic (“The Facebook Era” and “Twitter Power 2.0“).
I think that the students were a bit disappointed with the topic that I chose. They seemed like they really wanted to have a solid writing day. Heck, I wanted to give it to them. But without the packets I felt that I would be remiss by only giving them half of what I had. I also didn’t want to load them up with tons and tons of homework for the following week. So the author platform it was.
Much can be said regarding what exactly to call what I do. Some call it prison education. Others call it correctional education, yet others refer to it as inmate education. Some even call it adult continuing education or adult basic education. Though, if you want to get technical, it’s really prisoners teaching prisoners since I am a prisoner myself. Which begs the question of: What am I? Am I a teacher, instructor, professor, prisoner-teacher, prison educator, or adult educator? How about educational consultant? I like that last one. It makes me seem special somehow, as if my counsel is worthy of acclaim. But the truth of the matter is that I am federal prisoner number #22132-058. I came before 22133 and after 22128. The 058 part is the North Carolina designation. The difference though is that I know 22128, and while a nice guy, he’s not an instructor of sorts as I am. Most aren’t.
Regardless of what I am to be called or what term is coined to refer to that which I do, it is a very peculiar thing. Those of you who follow this Prison Education Blog know that I teach a class. I teach a class at FCI-Petersburg, a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. My class is titled Writing and Publishing and meets every Monday night from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. That’s right. I teach a room full of prisoners, people which society and the courts have deemed need to be locked away. Prisoners are the kind of people that other people need to be protected from. Dangerous gig, right?
Well, it has certainly been a ride. Tonight a grand total of 11 students sat for the first ever ‘Writing and Publishing’ final examination. But before we reach the statistical analysis, please allow me to brief you on the week prior.
This week was filled with two primary activities. These were the class notes for my next group and the revisions to the handbook for my proposed Correspondence Course Seminar. The class notes were certainly the hassle of the two.
Since I lack access to a true word processor, I have to write all of my notes out by hand and sit at a computer terminal for 30 minutes at a time to type my notes. The reason for the 30-minute time frame is because the computer system will only allow me to utilize the email feature for that amount of time. After 30 minutes I have to wait 30 minutes to log on again. All of this makes my life revolve around a 30 minute cycle. This can go on and on when I have a large paper, article, or blog to work on. Each blog alone usually takes me around 3 hours on the computer.
This week I completed and typed the notes for weeks one and two. I also completed the homework assignments and made the revisions to the curriculum. The notes for weeks one and two came out to around 7,000 to 8,000 words, a hefty sum. Because of email limits (13,000 characters per email), and organizational considerations, it took 11 emails to send all of the above. These emails will now be paginated, properly formatted (something I can’t do with my email program), and mailed back to me. This is the same process I have to go through with the blog, with the exception that it is posted instead of mailed back to me.
Looking back upon the experience of creating a course, seeking approval for it, and teaching it, I see tremendous growth in myself. And I see more. I have now come to a greater understanding of what it takes to be a prison educator and what it means to be prisoner-student. Now that I’ve been on both sides of the desk, I feel a sense of understanding I didn’t previously possess, a calm knowledge beckoning me to come forth in the arena that we call prison education.
Throughout this process, I have gone through struggles. I found closed doors when I thought they should have been open. I found a student who signed up for the course, yet refused to even attend one class, stripping another prisoner-student of a seat. And I found, and became well acquainted with, my fear of public speaking.
Throughout this process, I found tremendous successes. I saw men who had been worn down rise to the challenge. I watched as uninspired men became inspired and crafted amazing works. And I perceived the birth of light in eyes where before only darkness resided. That light was the light of hope – a hope that might ferry them out of the abyss of self-indulgence to the land of the living.
Before we get into the class, please allow me to share some sad news. Today I received a letter from Brigham Young University informing me that they have discontinued all correspondence courses in favor of online-only courses. This is a major blow to the realm of prison education. For a long time I have recommended BYU to my fellow prisoner-students who are short on funds, but still desire to learn at the college level. This is because Brigham Young University used to offer top-quality courses at a very reasonable rate. BYU’s program will be sorely missed. God willing, the other major institutions of higher education will keep the prisoner-student in mind when making course format decisions in the future.
Well, this week’s class was certainly crystalline. I say so because we clearly didn’t have it. At 5:30 p.m. I logged off from typing up my revised curriculum and set off towards the Education Department. My arrival was greeted by a crowd of people waiting to go inside. It should be noted that this is atypical because the Education Department is supposed to be open from the time the first housing unit is called to go to chow, around 5 p.m.
After waiting around for 20 minutes or so, one of the GED tutors set off to the lieutenant’s office to ask if the Education Department was going to open tonight, but was stopped on the way there. He was stopped because he was “in an unauthorized area,” an area where the lieutenant’s office is located. So, instead of allowing him to continue to the office, another 20 feet further, he was directed to walk all the way around the center of the prison, a 7-minute walk, to approach the office from the opposite side, a side that also took him through an “out of bounds” area. Long story short, because of a confused guard he was discouraged from finding the answer we all sought.