The greatest unexpected source of joy this semester has been my time spent at the Allegheny County Jail. I say unexpected not because I did not anticipate the experience—after all, I signed up for it. Rather, I say unexpected because my initial expectations were so far from what has actually come to transpire. For how could I expect that a windowless room in the downstairs sector of a county jail could be the location of so much blissful connection?
This week, six men came. Our numbers have fluctuated, but it is clear these men are in it for the long haul. Two of the six have begun writing novels in their spare time. Two more are focusing on poetry. One is writing a story about a pig, written in part to poke fun at a friend on his pod. Apparently he’s gotten that friend to write a story as well (making fun of him, of course) and hopes to get his whole pod in on the creative outburst. Creative joys are as contagious as any flu.
My initial expectations were interwoven with fear. I’d never interacted with inmates before. No one close to me has gone to prison. What would these guys think of a pale tattooless white dude who can grow but a patchy beard? What did I have to offer? Yadee-yadee, on and on, all your elementary school-boy worries. I should have known from all these fears that the experience would become transformative. At some unconscious level, I think I did.
Today, we had a long discussion on nature vs. nurture, the role of freedom in a possibly deterministic world. The discussion grew to such a level of passion that three conversations were going simultaneously and the men were vibrating in their seats. They opened up about past addictions, past struggles, and we weaved the ideas together into insight upon “obstacles” and their role in stories. Obstacles have at least four dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Stories succeed when the character faces all these dimensions. He cannot simply be stuck in traffic. That traffic must mean something to his emotional, mental, and spiritual life, lest he become a cardboard version of a person.
I think of the obstacles these men face. I can’t help but picture a moment where each was handcuffed, for whatever reason that occurred. What went through their minds then? What did their faces look like? What visions of the future were altered? How can I know? All I know is it’s never as simple as it may seem. One guy admits to preferring the jail, for outside, he faces debilitating anxiety attacks, overcome by the pressure of too many possible directions. Inside, he feels calm.
I can’t say all I want to say about this experience, about the gratitude I feel when I see the students’ smiling faces, when they thank me for coming and tell me they’re looking forward to next class. I can’t describe the joy I feel when they show me the words they’ve written in their time out of class, when they excitedly tell me to read their stories and poems and ask for my thoughts. These men do not harbor their opinions—to them, lying is clearly a waste of time. They give their full selves to those moments in the classroom. Amazing levels of communicative intensity are being reached, levels I never before knew possible. And it’s only expanding.
Time and time again, those experiences that push me into new territory are the ones that mean the most. We are halfway through the class. I intend to cherish each remaining second I am fortunate enough to get to spend in that incredible room, with those incredible men.
-Sean Lawlor, Teacher