At the prison where I am a guest TA, writing classes exist (for the moment) through two different administrative/funding streams – federally mandated mental health services and inmate self-help programs. Six months ago, Jim Carlson, the recreational therapist at CSP-Sac who is also my escort, suggested that we try to add a writing group for protective custody inmates who, by nature of their status, cannot participate in existing programs. A group was set up, and a volunteer sponsor (who provides them with some writing materials and encouragement) agreed to come in regularly.
I spent two days (three hours each day) helping to get things going. I knew that the program would need to be something that could run without a teacher, so we (the incarcerated writers and I) spent the first two meetings establishing a culture for the space that could support the various writing goals of the dozen men who had signed up.
I try to avoid authoritarian postures in all my classrooms, but particularly in this space, I knew that I needed to assign myself a role where I could become increasingly invisible. The first day, we set up “ground rules” for how writing would be shared and how writers would solicit feedback from the group. We chose a leader (a label the group decided could be passed around on a bi-annual basis). I gave the group a couple of important texts on craft that they could circulate among themselves. Then we wrote.
The room was pure electricity. Hungry paper soaked up urgent ink. We made good use of the silence and safety. I left for home after the second day encouraged about what we had set in motion.
Fast-forward six months to my third visit with the group. In my bag I have reading packets and a brainstorming list of three possible activities for the day. But, as is my usual posture with this group, I ask the writers what they want to do with the time.
In quick response to my question, the serious young musician to my left blurts out, “God, you must be the worst teacher ever. What grade do you teach?” I laugh and turn, smiling at his outburst.
“College.” I answer, smirking just a little.
“Okay good. Because I was just picturing you in a room with a bunch of little kids totally running around going crazy, yelling and shit.”
I assure him of my classroom management credentials and remind him that I am his guest. “I could come barging in here, and I do have a few slam-dunk ideas in my bag, but this is your group, so its important to me that you have some say.”
We end up spending our time writing into five-minute “Steal a Line” story starters. One of the pieces sparks an intimate conversation about names and the importance of naming. At one point I ask a question about the cost of gifting someone your name. The group turns that observation into a question, which then becomes their writing topic for the night.
The next day, the gentleman who had questioned my teaching style brought his piece on Names, and brought the house down. He cried while reading it. So did a handful of other men, a few of whom stood to hug him after he was done, offering him earned praise.
I often think about what would have happened if I had employed a teaching posture more congruent with this man’s notion of “normal” or “good.” I am inclined to guess that it would have interrupted the birth of the naming topic. I am also inclined to guess that the serious young musician would have jumped through my authoritarian hoops and written something good enough, but not something sharp enough to pierce his own soul.