Tonight was the first night of a new class, one that I am teaching with John Schmit, an English Professor at Augsburg College. It’s a sociolinguistics class called Language and Power. On this first night it all came flooding back why teaching here seems so important, why it is both exhilarating and devastating, why I eagerly spend my sabbatical in this grim and gritty place.
In the enthusiastic flush of the classroom, it is easy to forget that the men spend much of their time in a dank 6×9 cell. Once in the classroom though, the grimness recedes and the classroom becomes remarkably like most classrooms in many, surprising ways. As the men enter the classroom, I am thrilled to see that 8 of the 24 are students from previous classes. We greet each as warmly as this frigid and unforgiving place will allow. A firm handshake with smiles is what we all seem to settle on. Still, when they say, “Welcome back. Good to see you again,” I hesitate as I think of what to say in return that is neither insincere nor insensitive. Because here the queries “How are you? How have you been?” even “What’s up?” all seem fraught in a place that last week led one of their fellow inmates to suicide…in his cell.
We discuss the syllabus and the basic premises of language and power, the axis around which the course spins. In our first linguistic exercise, we ask them to write down their most and least favorite words. We giggle when one inmate has to explain that “good-looking” means thanks, not you’re, well, good looking. John laughs at his own disappointment, having been the hypothetical recipient of this compliment. In fact, the men explain, it is short for “good looking out,” meaning, “thanks for having my back.”
There are sympathetic nods when LaVon explains that his least favorite word is “when” because he doesn’t have an answer when his daughter asks when will he come home (we all know the answer; he’s not coming home). We all take in a sharp breath when both “nigger” and “white boy” are offered, from opposite sides of the room, as least favorite words. The tension is palpable, and we all keenly feel the possibilities for an eruption. This is both the safest and the most dangerous classroom I’ve ever stepped foot in.
At the end of class we pass out cards and we ask them to feel free to write down anything they’d like to say. We receive two cards from two of our returning students. Here’s what they wrote:
“I just want to say it’s great to have the both of you back! ” ~Inmate Brian
These hastily scrawled sentiments remind me of why I am here: these learners are as hungry and as sincere as any I have ever had the privilege to teach. And they have souls that need to be nourished.
“Thank you dearly for coming back! Nothing is more liberating (to me) then access to knowledge. Knowledge is truly food for our souls.” ~Inmate Eli
Blog Entry Originally published in WORDS NO BARS CAN HOLD by Deborah Appleman.
“An affecting meditation on the ability of literature to empower inmates who are too often dismissively diminished by society.” ~Kirkus Reviews
“Appleman’s book is important, not just for those who teach in prisons, but also for those who want to understand how to break the school-to-prison pipeline.”~Rethinkgingschools.org
Deborah Appleman is the Hollis L. Caswell professor of educational studies and director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College. Professor Appleman’s recent research has focused on teaching college-level language and literature courses at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater for inmates who are interested in pursuing post-secondary education.