When I Was at the Prison…

I was cleaning out folders today and came upon a piece I wrote a few years ago when I lived in Billings and taught at the Montana Women’s Prison and Passages Pre-release Center. I think it has merit, and it’s not had an audience yet. At one time, I had toyed with the idea of a book-length story of my experiences as a nontraditional college student, and this might have gone in that, and maybe will one day. I hope you enjoy it.

The card said “You are an excellent teacher and it’s been an honor to spend this four weeks with you.” I read it again, sighed, and looked out my windshield at the traffic flowing by on South 27th Street. Few experiences humble a person like this one humbled me: one of my students at Passages, the pre-release center for women, was thanking me for teaching a class we called “Engaging with Literature.” Teaching English, writing, and reading at the Montana Women’s Prison and at Passages had been one of the most rewarding, satisfying, exciting adventures of my life, an experience that helped me feel like my time in the world had not been completely wasted. And I was fairly well-paid to do it. Grant money, through my university’s College of Professional Studies and Lifelong Learning, compensated me very fairly, and I enjoyed tremendous freedom with creating curriculum, schedules, and goals for my classes. Not only did I love the work, but I also came to care deeply about my students, those women on the fringes of society who have not learned how to coexist peaceably with the rest of us, usually due to abuse issues: physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and substance. I focused on their humanity and their dignity as sisters to me in the human family, and I avoided thinking too much about the crimes that brought them into the institution of corrections and, ultimately, my class.

Even though I understood that a certain professional distance is necessary when working with offenders and others in institutional settings, I allowed myself to care about my students to a degree that threatened my own emotional safety; scorn, indifference, or disdain could shake my confidence and my morale, making me question every facet of my teaching. But likewise, a card, comment, smile or tear would strengthen my resolve that teaching consists of much more than channeling information from the teacher to the student: teaching is about relationships and seeing the value in the content being taught. That card confirmed for me that I was doing that; I was building relationships, explaining and showing the relevance of language and communications to my students and doing it with enthusiasm and joyfulness. I reveled in the moment, blinking back the tears of happiness that tried to ski down my cheeks, knowing that my day was just only halfway over, and I had more responsibilities to face. No time, right now, for just basking in the moment. I started my Subaru and pulled out of the parking lot, thinking about the afternoon ahead of me. As I drove home, mulling lesson plans and my crazy schedule, I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself the two words that had lately become my mantra: Who knew?

The path to teaching at Montana State University—Billings and, through the university, at the prison and pre-release center was not a direct route for me. In fact, my path to becoming a professional educator was circuitous and long, and until the last few years, I had no idea I was even heading that direction. For me, the likelihood of becoming a teacher—a university instructor, no less—was pretty close to the likelihood that Johnny Depp would call me for a date: zero and none.

Like a rowboat with a missing oar, at the mercy of currents, gravity, winds of chance, and large rocks, my life had drifted along. Occasionally I’d attempt to steer with the remaining oar and end up backward, looking at where I’d been with even less idea of where I was headed, my destiny determined for me by winds of chance. For a long time, I accepted that, yet I managed to keep an open mind to all possibilities, and when the opportunity presented itself, I took stock of my life and the goals I had for myself and decided it was time for me and the little boat called my life to take a new, determined direction. It was time to get another oar.

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