In my last ALT/space post I wrote about the young musician who questioned the open-ended teaching style that I use with incarcerated writers. I wrote the post, sent it in, felt uneasy about how my story as a teacher was tangled with the intimate witnessing of another man’s tears, argued with myself over the breach of trust implicit in my telling, and eventually asked for the piece to be retracted.
But that did not feel right either. It was an important story. I wanted to tell it. It was a story about the seat of power in the classroom. And especially in prison, art as a means to power is something worth discussing. But I worried about telling any of the writers in the group that I was writing about our time together. I knew that if they began to see me as anthropologist/appropriator/spy, beautiful living things would take their water and roots elsewhere. In the end – and with trepidation – I decided to use the sanctioned prison channels to send the young musician the yet unpublished post and ask him to respond to it.
In the letter I sent along with the piece I told him of my interest in inviting other teachers to a messy classroom moment, richly textured with the complications, misunderstandings, and negotiations that are part of “real life” teaching. I asked him to provide two levels of feedback on my piece by addressing the following questions:
1. Are you generally comfortable with me sending it in?
2. What comments/suggestions/edits do you have for the piece?
My primary intention is the correspondence was permission/disclosure. I felt that I needed to let him know I was writing about the group. I asked him to respond as editor to my piece because it seemed like a logical second step in the permission process, I wanted him to understand that I saw him as the bearer of a “red pen” rather than rubber stamp.
Jim Carlson, my contact at the prison, let me know the next day that the young musician had responded. Jim read me the letter over the phone; I sat looking out my office window and cried. The young musician’s written response to my piece was thoughtful and brave. He described: his tears as his strength; his relationship with his father; his experience with high school; his imagining of how other people see him. His words called back to other stories I have witnessed – the dark emptiness or violence which takes the form of parents who weren’t; the layered, dehumanizing losses of living without the things we need; the scarring that happens when names are scratched out and replaced with 5-digit numbers.
I am crying again now, as I write this post, imagining the young musician in the seat of power; the lower bunk of his 6×9 cell and the college-ruled notebook on his lap transformed into the “Teacher’s Chair.” I did not start our correspondence as a calculated teaching move, but it may have been the most powerful thing I have yet done as a teacher inside. Giving the young musician my proverbial red pen and inviting him, as editor, to my piece was a humanizing and empowering experience for both of us – just the thing I had been hoping for in our original classroom exchange. Jim tells me he is hoping to see the young musician become a classical guitar mentor with some of the inmates who qualify for mental health services. Jim also tells me that the respect and power implicit in our correspondence is part of an important process through which the young musician is beginning to understand himself as valuable to communities outside the prison.
I spend a fair amount of time in the Teacher’s Chair. I sit, I slouch, a puff myself up, I swivel. But I don’t often have the good sense to give up my seat completely, to ask a student for help with my writing, to be caught off-guard by the blessing of trading places.
[AMH submitted his response to my piece, “The ‘Worst’ Teacher Ever” directly to ALT/space, and an abbreviated version is included here as the essential second voice in the story. Although his voice is personal, it is the voice of an emerging teacher, responding with power in the role of editor. It is the voice of an artist, finding that his words resonate outside the prison walls. It is the voice of a man breaking the thing that had only been sending back his echo.]
Thank you so much for toting this idea around in your brain for so long. Although you and I seem to remember the past with slight variation (hee-hee), it is touching to think that something I wrote might have had such a profound impact on a “real” person. So much so in fact, that you would remember it as part of a greater project you have set out upon.
As to your request for feedback:
I am absolutely comfortable with whatever you might want to include in the way of any writing project on which you may embark. This applies to opinions, anecdotes, stories, or even actual material.
As to “comments/suggestions/edits” that you requested, I have just a few.
First, I believe that it might be possible to include even more emotional reflection. Maybe you think that the amount you have revealed is just enough for the piece, and if that is your intent, I would absolutely defer to your aim and opinion. But, if it is only a matter of how much I might be comfortable with, I wish to assure you that I have (finally) reached a point in my life where I value truth and what is “real” about all else. My emotions, and further, my tears, are my strength – no longer my weakness. It took me nearly 30 years to realize and believe that; all a part of shaking off my father’s attempt to break me. Nevertheless, here I am, tragically stronger for it.
Second, on a few occasions I have tried to imagine how other people might see me. How would I describe myself versus the way another person might go about the same task. My good friend Drifter once put his view of me into some surprising words. We always only see ourselves from the inside out, so I am usually a bit shocked to hear a person’s impression of the guy I think I am. “The serious young musician” made me squint and smile.
Third, a short list of standout phrases:
“mak(ing) good use of the silence and safety” – I hadn’t thought of the atmosphere in such a way, but those two descriptors nail it.
“jump(ing) through my authoritarian hoops” – I feel like that’s all I did from kindergarten until my last day in high school.
“shit” – Yeah, I do cuss quite a bit; thank you for staying true to life!
I sometimes think of all the wonderful people I have had the fortune to meet over the course of my, let’s just face facts here, unimpressive showing. And I wonder how my karmic balance could possibly have the required tilt to have allowed me to come into contact with them. But at a certain point, I suppose that it is impossible that I could ever in my life figure out the justice in the world. A simple “thank you” must then suffice. So, you know, thank you.
Anna Plemons is a guest teaching artist at California State Prison-Sacramento, where she works with groups of writers under the bureaucratic umbrellas of mental health services, inmate self-help programs, and protective custody. She is also a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University where her primary research interests revolve around teaching and writing in prison, and the complications and implications of such work. Contact Anna
Also by Anna Plemons in ALT/space:
The Worst Teacher Ever
Working in Impossible Places