Ask Me About Words Without Walls

When my friends or members of my family ask me about Words Without Walls, their questions all tend to be simultaneously curious and cautious, and most of them have more to do with logistics than they have to do with learning or teaching.

“Do you have to go through security?”

“Can you wear jewelry, or do they make you leave all that at the door?”

“Aren’t you a little scared of the inmates?”

“Are you doing this for credit?”

I can understand where these questions and hesitations come from. My fellow teachers and I are, after all, walking into a secure facility every week in order to interact with inmates who are serving time. There are doors that must be unlocked, uniformed officers who must wave us through security, and strict time limits that must be adhered to. Concern is, I suppose, a reasonable reaction to all of this. However, from the moment I found out I would have the opportunity to participate in Words Without Walls at the Allegheny County Jail, these were the last elements of my experience that entered my mind.

Because I was fortunate enough to be able to work with some of the pieces produced by the Words Without Walls program before I started teaching, I had some idea about the results of the program. I had the honor of reading just a small – but extremely moving – portion of the brilliant work that was being produced by its participants. Each piece moved me more than the last, recounting stories and lives in such raw and honest detail that I nearly had to catch my breath after reading them. This work often left both my gut and heart wrenched and yet, I could not stop myself from reading them again and again. This experience allowed me to start seeing past the rules and regulations that are naturally involved in this type of alternative teaching space, past the locked doors and uniforms, and into my future classroom.

And my teaching experience so far has been exponentially more than uniforms and secure entrances. My fellow teacher and I often find ourselves speechless when we leave at 7:00 on Thursday evenings. We are consistently floored by the progress of our students, by their eagerness to learn, to write, to engage. When we are in our basement classroom, we and our students are not separated by glass or bars or doors. We are not separated by our choices, by the paths our lives have followed, by our histories or by our futures. For three hours, we are all just people. We are students, teachers, writers. We learn from each other, we create with each other, and we talk to each other as fellow humans.

And so, when I am asked questions about the procedures and specifics of my Thursday afternoons, I graciously answer them. I offer my enthusiastic rebuttals, I might recall one of the many moments that invariably leave me in awe of these students each week, but, most of all, I feel grateful that teaching with Words Without Walls has allowed me the chance to see beyond the regulations and discover what this program is really about: creating art with other humans.

-Tess Wilson-Gay, Teacher