When we arrived at the jail for our first class of the summer session, Jack, our main contact, greeted us warmly from his open office doorway, as he always does. Our very first class had been cancelled the previous week at the last minute, and my co-teacher and I were looking forward to finally meeting our students. There was a GED class taking a test in the classroom that had the computers, so we were told we’d have to use a different classroom with no computer access for the first few hours of class. Jack helped me silently infiltrate the testing room so I could retrieve our class materials—the notebooks, folders, and other paperwork that had been left for us ahead of time.
Once we got settled in, I realized the previous classes hadn’t left us enough notebooks for all the women in our group, and my teaching partner and I tried to think of a back-up plan in a hurry.
“Should we rip out some loose pages from one of the notebooks and hand them out?” I wondered aloud. It didn’t seem fair that some women would get looseleaf pages, while the others would get a full notebook to use until we returned the next week with more supplies. We planned to challenge them to write twenty pages each week, and it seemed important that they have a place to keep all of their efforts.
We began to hand out the materials as the women came in, and with perfect timing, Jonny, a fellow teacher from the Words Without Walls Program, showed up to deliver our brand new notebooks just in the nick of time. The women were excited about the bright colors of the newest inventory and some wanted to switch to a new hue. We spent a few minutes making sure that everyone had the color that suited her best. In jail, the little things can make a big difference—and, after all, these were the notebooks we were encouraging them to fill with all of their most personal writing.
“Can I get another color?” one woman asked, handing me the reddish-orange composition notebook she’d been assigned earlier in the class. She gestured to her bright red jail uniform. “I’m really sick of the color red right now!” I handed her a blue one instead, as we all nodded in agreement that there was already enough red to go around at ACJ.
The members of our class really dug Maya Angelou; they laughed in all the right places at the crazy fiction piece we’d brought in. Of course, they were also willing to speak up about what they didn’t like (which is equally important) and to ask us about our own lives.
Halfway through class, about half of our group was whisked away the powers that be because the assigned time for distributing meds had been bumped up unexpectedly. The five students who stuck it out with us were bright, engaged, and eager to share their writing. They were interested in trying the prompts we suggested for next week and bravely agreed to attempt “morning pages,” an activity that requires about 20 pages of writing per week. They told stories of their lives, shared their beliefs, and feelings about writing. They gave us much to work with.
If all of the last minute changes and cancellations we faced in the past week weren’t enough to leave two teachers feeling frazzled on their first day, I don’t know what would be. But here’s the thing about teaching in the jail: our time there may be unpredictable each week—organized chaos is built into the very fabric of the place, and the women in our class know this better than anybody, since they are living it daily. But this is the only time we get to spend with them, and we need to make it count in every way we can. As a teacher in the jail, I am constantly reminded of the one great lesson that I am still learning in my life—how to be adaptable.
Flexibility is a survival skill in this place. Maybe that’s something the women can teach me.
At the end of class, as the women filed out, the computers refused to sync up with one another, meaning I couldn’t print from my computer all of the beautiful words our students had just typed. I couldn’t even access those words. But instead of panicking, I took a deep breath and told myself we’d sort it out next week. Somehow, after the successful class we’d just had, it was hard to get too worked up over about a simple technical glitch.
And anyway, I was already looking forward to our second class, with the first one barely behind us.
-Brigette Bernagozzi, Teacher