Our last lesson was supposed to be great. I had been practicing making paper cranes all morning with the intention of teaching my students at the Baltimore City Detention Center. I had cut bright paper into squares for each man to write a letter to himself at age thirteen on one side and a letter to himself ten years from now on the other. In my mind we’d make cranes from the letters, create a large mobile and hang it in the common room of the psych ward.
Slowly the room is feeling less like jail and more like an art studio. One wall is already full of pieces from our “musical chairs” painting class, and our styrofoam prints are starting to creep on to a second wall. In the future we are hoping to create a mural and put up boards to display art. In my mind there is a huge suspended installation of paper cranes. Letters of forgiveness, hope and recovery. I want that room to feel more and more welcoming as each student adds their own art.
This fantasy was shattered quickly by the realization that the student/teacher relationship I have with the men I work with is blurring. When we walked into the space on the day we made cranes we were greeted with one man yelling to the others in their cells, “The ladies are here!” I felt like a piece of meat. I had worked so hard to be Miss Hutchison. Not nineteen. Not a college freshman. I thought I was doing a pretty good job at pretending I had more experience. Somewhere along the line I’d gotten too casual.
I might have just been sensitive that day but I felt like I was being leered at every time I turned around. One student told me I smelled good. Another told my co-worker that he had a crush on her and that he wanted to be pen pals.
To make matters worse paper cranes were much too difficult. Too specific. Too structured. One by one the men got frustrated and gave up when they couldn’t make the wings match up evenly. We ended up with a handful of sad looking birds; not the striking mobile I had imagined. The class dissolved and we didn’t bother to debrief.
Normally we would have had our students gather in a circle and discuss the process of letter writing and how it felt to see those letters creating something beautiful. Instead we all left defeated and uncomfortable. I felt like a bad teacher for not being able to explain the project clearly and for not maintaining the thin line of professionalism. I want to create a space where I can engage students in a personal and authentic way, but I also one where I feel respected despite my age and lack of experience. It all seems like a very delicate balancing act to me.
After I returned home from jail I reminded myself how new I am at this. I made a plan to re-establish my role as a teacher. It all feels like a balancing act between being open enough to make students comfortable, but professional enough so they respect you. I am hopeful that our next lesson will remind me just how important this work is.