One of my visits to the prison this past year was a mixed bag. There were powerful moments and a few well-crafted texts. There was also a heavy energy in all three classrooms. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I could see that those who were showing up, pens in hand, where sharing their muses with distant problems and conversations to which I was not privy. And then there was the business of a miscommunication I did not know I had had. I had offended one of the incarcerated teachers unwittingly, and he was brave enough to let me know. I was embarrassed. Disheartened. Disrespect is prison is serious business, and my lungs felt like they was crumpling in and away from my ribs as I thought about how I had added pain to a place where none was needed.
I moved from classroom to classroom—scribbling on the board, smiling, handing out papers and praise—but there was no magic. I called my husband after the first day in a bit of a panic and explained to him how badly I thought things were going. His response was unexpected.
“Sounds good,” he said. I wondered if he was even listening. “Sounds like the honeymoon is over and now you can get to the real work.”
His words were a surprising salve. I took them in and tried to lay them over the scenes from the day. Incarcerated writers had not felt obligated to welcome me with profuse gratitude when I arrived. The man I had offended felt free to say so. Those with serious problems weighing on their hearts went ahead and brought their troubles along, letting them take up space in the classroom so that it felt too crowded. As I looked at the day through the lens I had been gifted by my husband, I could see that there was something good and right about settling in. Because the Creative Arts Program at New Folsom is an evocative space, and because the writing that happens therein often stops the hearts of those who come to visit, guest teaching artists like myself expect an electricity, power, and emotional depth from each class meeting. And, if I am being honest, that expectation carries a danger of emotional exploitation—interactions where incarcerated writers feel obligated to emotionally perform for their teaching guests.
Its been over six months since the honeymoon ended. I could not write about it right away because I was not sure that my teaching practice could find a new normal. I was hesitant to talk about what I was experiencing, hobbled by the nagging nay-sayer in the back of my mind who kept suggesting that the fundamental problem was me—that I was not teaching well, that I had let the energy out of the place by some misstep of my own. But time has passed and I think it is safe to say that there is something respectful and productive in dispensing with the fireworks. There is something beautiful in settling in. Its feels strange to let this post end without a victory story, some proof that I am back on my horse. But the fact is that my gleaming steed ran off and now I am walking—“a long obedience in the same directions,” as Eugene Peterson calls it. But walking, it turns out, affords lots of opportunity for relationship, real conversation, and a closer attention to the texture of the road.