On Balance | Anna Plemons

As I look back through my previous ALT/space stories, I can see that most of what I write about comes from an ongoing conversation I am having with myself about what type of teacher I am when I teach at New Folsom Prison.  Although I understand the importance of eschewing authoritarian postures in all classrooms, the context of teaching at the prison, especially as a sporadically-appearing contract teacher and middle-class white woman, has led me to think very carefully about how I present myself.  And so most of the stories I have told thus far in this space have been about moving to the edges of the classroom, working to make myself peripheral in the landscape.

I realize, however, that there is something disingenuous, or at least incomplete, in my telling of how I move in and through the prison classroom.  I think an honest reckoning of myself as a teacher has to account for the reality that, when need be, I exercise my teacherly license to dictate and censor.  In processing what that means I offer the following story of censorship from the prison.  I am still working through this memory because I am not sure I took the right course of action.  But then again, I am not sure I didn’t.

The composition of the C Facility writing group at New Folsom Prison has changed dramatically in the last two years as folks like Spoon Jackson, Marty Williams, and others have been shuffled out of New Folsom to other institutions.  The classroom leaders/culture tenders from my early days teaching inside are all gone.  Because this changing of the guard happened over time, and because I am at New Folsom so infrequently, I was naively unprepared for my most recent class in C Facility.

On the day in question, I brought reading material, we had a rich generative conversation, and then folks spent 30 minutes writing.  I don’t remember what the prompt was, but I do remember that much of the writing that was generated was sexually explicit, and I could not shake the feeling that the graphic nature of the writing was intended to either impress or intimidate me.  I had not thought to set clear parameters at the beginning of the class because I had never had to before.  Spoon, Marty, and others had done that work of tending the boundaries of acceptable material and so I had been able to breeze in with an anti-authoritarian posture, all the while missing the fact that the space was indeed being actively managed by the incarcerated teachers.   With Spoon and Marty gone, I suddenly found myself quietly listening as writers took turns reading fictitious accounts of their exploits.  I did nothing to curtail the situation.  I left feeling snookered, and mad.

I spent a sleepless night replaying the scene, looking for places where I could have stepped in, and rehearsing all the things I should have said.  The next day I was teaching in A Facility and that group of writers was on the receiving end of the distilled culmination of my late-night speech writing.  We used the same reading material and the same prompt.  But, before it was time to write, I casually told them that class the day before had devolved into a graphic contest of one-upmanship, with little attention to craft.  I explained that I was loathe to censor writers, but that I had had enough.

My cheeks flushed with embarrassment at dictating what these adult writers could and could not do with their class time but I don’t think anyone noticed because they had all turned their heads to stare down the one writer who was likely to test the limit I was setting.  In the end I was glad I had said something.  The writing in class that day was intense, personal.  Even the one writer who usually protects himself by only writing sexually explicit fiction, tenuously ventured into a bit of personal narrative.

I will be back in C Facility next week, and so I have been sitting with this memory again, trying to mentally construct a rubric for evaluating when things have gone too far and some preliminary boundary-setting language that respects each writer’s freedom.  But I am torn.  There are a thousand reasons why the prison classroom is not about me, or my desire to feel comfortable.  But there is also the matter of respect.  I have not sorted it out.  I have mixed feelings.  I think the road forward has something to do with balance.

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