John Edgar Wideman Visits ACJ Juvenile Class

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It’s never a sure thing, in jail. No matter who is coming to visit, or what is planned for the day, a lockdown stops all movement. John Edgar Wideman writes of his own experience with this in Brothers and Keepers, voicing frustrations about trying to visit his brother at Western Peniteniary. Any number of things could cause a lockdown, and there's nothing you can do about.  So their classroom teacher Kristine and I were careful not to get too excited at the prospect of Wideman visiting our class this morning.  We hadn’t had a class canceled for lockdown in the entire semester, and here we were, two days before the visit, crossing our fingers.

My students are anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old, being held in an adult jail. While they hold the enthusiasm and imagination that any young mind should, they are also used to being let down, and they probably wouldn’t take it as rough as we did if something came up.  Besides, I think Kristine and I were a bit more excited about this than they were.  We had both read Brothers and Keepers before meeting each other, so using it as our textbook for the semester seemed like a perfect match.

 Our young writers instantly caught on to the book, both from a narrative standpoint—what happened with Robby, and why is he still incarcerated?—to the way Wideman crafted his brother’s voice so truthfully, so much that Robby became more of an author than a main character.

We spent each week reading passages in class, alternating between John and Robby’s voices.  Then we wrote creative responses. The passage that stood out to most, I think, was along John’s quest to find out where Robby’s path diverged, revisiting the death of Robby’s friend Garth and its impact on his brother.

A lot of these youngsters have already dealt with more grief than many ever experience in their lives. Most, if not all of them, have had a best friend or sibling pass, and many of them wrote about that in their creative work.

I should probably tell you at this point that it happened—John Edgar Wideman visited our class today. He brought nothing but his mind and voice, but that was more than enough to fill the room with great wisdom and encouragement to love yourself, to take control of your life, and to dream.

Instead of reading his own work, the Pittsburgh native shared the stage with our students, who took turns reading creative pieces. Everyone was invited to chime in with feedback. It was also a practice run for their formal reading on Friday, when they’ll share some of this work again in front of all the Words Without Walls creative writing classes. This practice run just so happened to include coaching from one of the most premier fiction writers in the country.

Wideman also answered questions with humbling honesty. He admitted that Brothers and Keepers would always be a disappointment to him as long as his brother was still incarcerated, and deep down, he really wrote the book because he thought it would somehow lead to Robby’s freedom.

He spoke of the neglect of Homewood, of walking around and seeing so much empty space. He discussed the discipline and reward of time management, and always listening, reading, and working toward your goals. He urged them, along with everyone else in the room, to push back against anyone and anything that wants to make us, as individuals, irrelevant.

This was truly a remarkable morning, one of several visits Wideman has made in his hometown communities.  This whole event wouldn't have been possible without the help of Dan Kubis and the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh.  Through that program,  he also visited a class of Westinghouse high school students and gave them feedback on responses to the same text.  Eventually, we are planning to add their work into a compilation of student responses—not just a chapbook, but also a commemoration of an inspiring visit.  This morning was the culmination of remarkable nine weeks, here in the juvenile class at ACJ.  I couldn’t have asked for a better semester. 

Snakes and Ladders

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The first five or so times I walked into ACJ, I was overwhelmed. It’s a maze of identically nondescript hallways connected by elevators and staircases. During in-facility training, I followed a C.O. down corridors and into elevators, was shepherded through intake, taken into a different elevator to go up to the medical pods, and then traveled back down I don’t know how many levels so I could be shown the Adult Intermediate Unit—home of the classrooms and library. Because I am privileged enough to be in a position to teach in jail as fulfillment for a course requirement in a graduate creative writing program; because I passed clearances; because, while doing the few illegal things I’ve done, I was never caught; by the end of that day, I had an I.D. badge and magnetic key. I was free to leave.

The game we know as Chutes and Ladders was originally developed in India as a way to teach children about karma and kama—destiny and desire. The ladders symbolize the good deeds and virtues that lead one towards Moksha through positive reincarnation. The chutes, originally snakes, represent the vices and bad deeds which lead to negative reincarnation. The snakes always outnumber the ladders.

Three weeks ago now, in the Thursday Men’s Class, we ended up talking about how hard it is to write happy poems. Some of the guys were concerned that they could only write “depressing shit.” Others quipped, “We’re in here. What happy shit have we got?” Another student said, “I try to write happy things so I can find some peace.” The class got meditatively silent after that, in the way that it often does, until someone makes a joke to break the tension. I don’t remember the joke that broke this silence. But I do remember that silence, remember realizing yet again that I’ll never teach these guys as much as they teach me. The next week, without even realizing I had done so until afterward, I turned in a distinctly happy poem for Thesis Seminar.

Every Thursday, after class is over, Cedric and I shut the computers off, un-circle the desks, erase the whiteboard, return the library cart, slide the attendance sheet under Jack’s door, walk down hallways, are buzzed into stairways, swipe our mag-keys over the EXIT receivers, are buzzed into an elevator. Down in the employees’ lobby, I let the guards check my teaching bag for contraband, and then we leave. Once we reach the parking lot, I always turn towards the building and look up at the grid of square, barred windows pocking the jail’s bricked façade. Without helping it, I think about Snakes and Ladders. Then, I think about the dice, how chance is the slipperiest, most unfairly important thing.

                                                    -Hannah Cloninger, Words Without Walls Teacher

Lesson Learned

          I am 96% positive that the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a ninja. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I fell into a teaching phase. Sitting my stuffed animals down in orderly rows to learn math. Giving my parents spelling tests. But that phase ended, too, and as I entered my teenage years, my goals became jumbled.

         I had vague notions of doing something that might impact someone else’s life. I was aware that, within society, there were marginalized populations. I was aware not everyone had an army of plushes growing up, or parents who could sit and play games. But I was also a natural writer. As a kid, I would read over the shoulders of typing journalists in my father’s office and point out spelling and grammar errors. I was accused of plagiarism by a teacher, the first time, in sixth grade, because I wrote at an advanced level.

         I eventually decided on social work. Looked at and applied only to colleges with a strong social work program. And then, on my first day of college, abruptly switched to professional writing.

      Flash forward nine years. I am looking at MFA programs. A message is scratching itself into the back of my skull. It’s not the time you have. It’s what you choose to do with it. I run alphabetically through a list of programs, rule out by location, length (not too long, not too short), language requirement. Look for programs with community outreach.

            Pittsburgh. Not somewhere I thought I might want to be, but what the heck. Click.

                  Words Without Walls.

         Apply. Get in. Get excited. Get nervous. Almost decide not to volunteer. I’m not a teacher. My friends are teachers—they take classes and look like teachers and have some presence of authority. Volunteer anyway. It’s why you applied.

         Flash forward again. September 2017. It is my second semester teaching at Allegheny County Jail, and we’ve just finished day one with the Friday morning men’s class. We introduced poetry; they wrote haikus, limericks, and nonets. Several shared their work. We compiled a list of words we associate with poetry. We dissected poetry examples.

         But they were quiet. Reserved. There were lulls in conversation that never would have happened in the women’s class I taught over the summer. A pit in my stomach was growing. I was failing them. They weren’t interested.

         “I thought that went really great,” Mike says as he gathers up leftover paperwork, pens, folders. He goes on to describe the men as engaged, and says how impressed he was that every single student produced work during writing time.

            I was so busy comparing the class to my previous class, I didn’t even realize that for this class, what I had just witnessed was, if not a breakthrough, an improvement.

             Each class is unique. Start each new semester with a fresh outlook. Add that to my growing list of teaching lessons learned.

             Last week, in response to a poem, they asked us the causes of the Vietnam War. As discussion ensued and broadened, I also scribbled down notes to look up how U.S. territories work, and exactly who Mussolini was, anyway. I have vague answers to all of these, but part of being a teacher is also admitting what you don’t know.

            Week by week, our students teach me as much as I hope they learn from us. We have taught them about poetry and prose, the links between music and poetry, about choosing words carefully, about finding inspiration in art.

            What have they given me? Direction. The knowledge that this is something I can do. That this is what I want to do. To work with populations overlooked by most of society. To hear their voice; to help them find the voice they already have.

            I may not always feel like a teacher. Sometimes I’m a listener, or mediator, or student. But that’s part of teaching, too. My students taught me that.

           Lesson learned.

Melanie DeStefano, Words Without Walls Teacher

Books on the Shelves

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Some weeks I assist Alex Friedman with the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) library. There was no library until Alex, education director Jack Pischke, and other Chatham alums worked with jail administrators to make it happen. The library is a medium-sized store room at the back of an adult classroom in the education area. The door remains locked unless Alex or I grab Jack’s keys, an old-timey set on a big metal loop—the kind Andy Griffith carried.

As for the books on the actual shelves, they are all donations from libraries, Chatham alums, current Chatham students, and eager cults looking to drop off their book-length pamphlets. There, of course, are rules for what materials we can bring into the jail. No hardbacks. No books with excessive pencil notes in the margins. Nothing spiral-bound. But we’ve acquired a wild assortment: vampire romance novels, baroque romance novels, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, werewolf romance novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald…

Most Mondays, Alex, two other library-science grad students, and I organize shelves. We’ve acquired enough books at this point to give books away to inmates on every floor of the jail. And that’s what we do each month. Alex and I pack clear Rubbermaid bins full of paperbacks, stack them on a hand truck, and deliver them to male and female pods on each floor. I wish people on the outside could see the glint in inmates’ eyes when we deliver books. It is a glint I have rarely seen even in grad students’ eyes. At some pods, the guys pace around the doors when they see us coming. “What y’all got in there?” “Got any James Patterson?” “Can I look through the bin first?” We dropped off books at one women’s pod. Alex and I were surprised they already had a bookshelf, a bookshelf filled with Bibles. The women asked, “Could you please take some Bibles down, so we can put other books on the shelves?”

According to BegintoRead.com, over 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth-grade level. Many inmates in jail and prison are at an educational disadvantage, but these women and men crave books. Many want to use their time locked up to improve themselves. They read biographies, graphic novels, literary fiction, “urban” fiction. They are voracious for knowledge because knowledge is power. That is not just a cliché. Inmates need words because words help them prepare for court. Words help them self-advocate as they grind through the gears of the justice system. Words help them write letters to a loved one. As grad students, we have so many books to read, we often take it for granted. We complain, “How am I going to get through this stack of books?” We don’t think of the woman or man in jail who just wants a good mystery to take their mind off a life sentence, and a book is nowhere in sight. It is a privilege to know how to read, to have ready access to books, to have the freedom to read whatever you choose.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

Women's Voices, Women Writers

I’ve found myself in a unique experience this semester at Allegheny County Jail. I’m a man teaching a class of only women by myself. But I’m glad for it. It’s given me a chance to work on my approach to teaching and look introspectively at my own identity. My class is titled Writing as Empowerment: Women’s Voices for Women Writers. We’re only reading published pieces written by women and I try to let them dictate the conversation as much as possible. I do as much as I can to be in the background, to let their voices to come forward.

They’re happy to dictate and discuss. Our first class, focused on poems about home, still stands out to me. It was an intense class and my students were already willing to share so much of themselves and their work. However, I still worried about being overly authoritative. I felt like a huge looming presence in the room.

When we got to reading for the day, my students couldn’t stop talking about “Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich. They were looking deeply into the relationships in the piece. In the latter half of the poem, a milkman appears and my students were trying to puzzle out what his presence meant. One student, bright but quiet, piped up suddenly:

“I think she’s screwing the milkman!”

And without hesitation, we all burst into laughter. In that moment, I felt the illusion of my authority fall away. My students started to speak and act differently; for the first time the room felt comfortable. Since then, I’ve noticed a huge shift in the classroom. Through that shared experience of crude humor, my students are more willing to offer up opinions and ask for things.

Their asking has been a huge delight this semester. They are so hungry for knowledge and challenges. One student requested pictures of poisonous flowers so she could write a poem about an ex-lover. Another student wanted to learn about epigraphs in poems. Still another is in the process of writing an Ars Poetica. It’s important to note that none of these are classroom assignments, these are all tasks they have undertaken themselves.

These women are also incredibly generous listeners. They encourage one another to read aloud and then clap or snap after every reading. They encourage me to write and read with them. My classroom has become a place of intense generosity, rigor and safety. This is all because of my excellent students.

-Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher