My well-equipped prison classroom sometimes leads me to overlook the conditions of incarceration that are a reality of my students’ lives. A serendipitous visit to a cellblock changed all that. I had arranged to have writing conferences for each of my students to return their unbelievably cool writing portfolios. I met with each student for half an hour in the classroom and offered them suggestions for their growth as writer. It’s the stuff of Writing Pedagogy 101, except when it takes place in a prison.
So, on this particular day, I’m scheduled to meet with Twin. I know him well because he has taken every class I’ve taught in the prison. He looks a bit like a miniature Malcolm X-slight in stature, with thick black glasses. He’s a true autodidact, too. He’s been incarcerated since he was 15 (he’s over 30 now) and has taught himself almost everything he knows, and he knows a lot.
I find out that Twin is in lockdown because of an incident with a staff member. He can’t come out to meet me. I feel frustrated and deeply disappointed. This is my last chance to see him and to give him back his work. And then, an extraordinary thing happens. The prison staff grants me permission to see Twin in his cell. I’d been teaching in the prison for two years, know full well that at this high-security prison. I have been teaching violent offenders who spend most of their time being locked up, I have somehow not faced the harsh reality of their incarceration. The classroom in which we meet was quite regular in appearance and served to normalize our interactions. Seeing Twin in his cell reminded me of what I was really dealing with.
I walked gingerly down through cellblock and found Twin’s cell. There was nothing in it except a photo of a fellow cellmate who had committed suicide a few months before. The cell block was 5 by 8, lit only by a bare bulb. In typical Twin fashion, he was writing and a thick thesaurus and dictionary lay on his bare steel cot.
He quickly jumped up, brushed himself off, and looked at me with a mixture of delight and embarrassment. Was I wrong to let him be seen by me this way? Did this moment of seeing him behind bars erase the countless hours I saw him think and write and read like a free man?
When the conference was over we did a fist bump through the bars, and I turned away quickly so he couldn’t see my tears.
For better or worse, the last thing I’ll remember is seeing Twin in his cold bare cell, a mere suggestion of the man I came to know in our oasis of teaching and learning.