The gift of teaching

My pimp is gone. And I kind of miss him. He was dynamic and entertaining. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to make it through to the end of classes in the spring. Lockdown was two long weeks and Julius Caesar (aka “my pimp”) could barely hold it together to sit in his desk every Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. He’d told me he was making some positive changes in his life. That he was thinking differently now. That we made an impact on each other.

But I hear he’s been reclassified and is transferred to a harsher prison. Lockdown took its toll.

Babyface is gone too. But he came up to me on his last day proudly exclaiming that he’d earned his way to fire camp but that he loved the class and it had inspired him to pick up the pen and start writing his raps again. He thanked me and left us all feeling inspired.

It’s different teaching creative writing to inmates. If I set up an assignment for students on the outside I might have a writing prompt that says “Tell me a story about your favorite Christmas” or “Write a story about a time when you faced conflict.” It’s often too real to set prompts like that.

My pimp wrote about what I assume is what landed him in there. One of his “workers” wound up dead while she was working. It was his voice on her voicemail chastising her; it was his fear that didn’t call the police when she overdosed. He wrote about it from his empathy-free perspective.

I never called him ‘my pimp’ though it was clear the first moment he set foot in my class he’d never learned how to speak to a woman without trying to get some hustle out of her. Once, three weeks into teaching at the prison, he asked me if I could get him the handout and a pen. I told him he could get up and get it himself. He asked again, real sweet and so sugary thick that you could get a cavity just listening to his smooth voice hit your ear.

Get up and get it yourself.

Eventually he did. He came up to my desk, careful not to step out of bounds, and said, “Do you know what you just did to me? What you’re doing to me? I think you’re trying to make us better people through reading and writing.” I smiled. Of course, I knew what I was doing — at least that part of it.

For the last six months I’ve been teaching creative writing at two different yards of a prison near Susanville. It marks a return to teaching for me, and an acknowledgment that I’m actually good at something. I had all sorts of misgivings leading into it. After 17 years of teaching endless hours of English 101 that felt sometimes like a punishment for something horrible I must have done in a previous life, I was enjoying teaching again. I’m intrigued, but I don’t always want to know more. If I did know more, could I teach there?

It’s not an easy thing to create fiction and memoir assignments in a prison setting — there’s a good chance you’ll trigger something when you have writing prompts that suggest writing “about one of your worst days” or “Share a favorite holiday moment with your family.” None of them had happy things to say and that made me want to go home and hold my children tight and tell them I loved them.

At Thanksgiving time I asked that they write on the topic of gratitude. One inmate wrote about how he was grateful for being a lifer because after a lifetime of self-deceit he was finally free of the lies we tell ourselves. His life was laid bare. He was a prisoner in the world around him but his mind? Free. All the other prisoners nodded in agreement and snapped their fingers in praise. We do that. Every time we meet the person with the truest truth, the best words? We tell him he won the day. We snap our fingers. We let him set the path for our next writing adventure.

Which is why most of the class is writing romance stories now. I wouldn’t have picked that — my hardened criminal students did. They tell me I have given them so much. They don’t realize that they give me just as much.

2017 was an unexpectedly hard year for me personally. Like them, I had some hard truths to face, laid bare. Unlike them, I have the luxury of a tiny bit of control over my own life. When you work in some place with the word “rehabilitation” in the title you start thinking of what that actually means on the long drive to Susanville and back. Can we be rehabilitated? Can we change?

My pimp vowed change and changed  for the worse. I imagine Babyface fighting his first fires last week. My lifer, who won the day last week with his treatise on freedom, has declared himself a feminist after reading a few essays I sent his way coupled with Toni Morrison novels he was reading for another class.

I guess rehabilitation means we are all doing what we can to be better people than we were before. I hope I’m making a difference. Maybe we are all just passing time.

The holiday spirit is upon me.

In prison, each lesson has to be self-contained because you never know if you’ll see that inmate student again the next week. You only get that one shot at a time to make any impact at all. We do storytelling. They ask me to join in. I allow one question per class. Mostly they ask me to describe meals I might make. Or what it’s like on the other side of the thick concrete walls and the chain link fences. I am careful, like they are, not to ever give too much of the self away.

My murderers. My thieves. My drug dealers. My students whose anger at their lives’ predicaments went unmanaged.

One of the students shared a poem he wrote for homework about our class. It’s called     “Mondays at 3 p.m.” He says in the poem that I’ve given them a great gift of making them think about so many things they’d never thought about before. I’d like to tell them that I had no idea that they would be such a great gift to me this year.

Merry Christmas to those of us giving the gifts of freedom, peace and happiness — to rehabilitate our hearts once more.