Our class roster of 15 quickly dwindled down to six, but I’m hopeful for a faster semester than last. Though, if we can at least help one student gain something out of this, it will be worth it.
I just wish things were easier, but I guess that’s the whole point. It’s the reason I’m here. I’m not here because anything has been easy, ever. I’m not here to get anyone on my side. I’m not here to brag or make anything exotic of this work or my friends here. I’m here for human connection. I’m here to keep trying to develop this habit of writing with these guys. I’m here to make a routine, to have another tribe, to help someone see the power in his writing.
I’m trying to make some sort of connection, I’m trying to remember what it was like to enjoy writing and enjoy the creative process, but I’m really afraid the men can see through me and I fear I’m attributing to writer burnout.
Back in “reality,” the place where I’m doing things in the world or not doing things in the world, or what sometimes feels like a long drawn-out practical joke, I can’t seem to get my scheduling right; my timing isn’t right; my interpersonal relationships aren’t right. I’m writing and editing this blog and catching up on all the other homework I have all after 2 A.M., lots more to go. Does anyone see my fire burning out or am I doing a good enough job at faking the burn?
Then again, maybe one of my students is in his cell, that one student we’re connecting with, and he’s trying to catch up on some writing, too, right at this very moment. That makes me feel a better, but one can only dream.
I can’t stop thinking about what little I’ve done recently to make this place a better one or my university a better one. And of course, my constant obsession, my Achilles heel: my grades. Ugh, grades.
Grades: Marks of ink on a bleached piece of thinly sliced and treated wood, something as insignificant as that. It makes my time with words feel insignificant. Always. Paper, white and vibrant as all this snow, is not as beautiful with my ramblings on it. The criss-crosses to follow sting as much as a cut or bruise if not exponentially more.
I find nothing less creatively motivating. I’m so happy not to have to deal grades out to someone at the jail. To hurt them like that. I’m so glad I can just say, “Awesome job!” and think of only the most constructive and supportive feedback to give these men. We have every reason to believe people have benefited from this program. We have every reason to think we don’t need grades here.
Last semester, I received a lower grade than most of my friends (we’re past the term “peers”), the lowest 80th percentile if we really care for statistics. In most cases of my life, I can’t get it out of my head that I’ve done “worse” than someone, that I’m lesser. I know I’m indulging on envy. I know I should only thinking about myself and my own limitations. I take this advice that everyone has given me, the advice I know we’re supposed to follow, and I say “only you matter” to my buds at the jail, knowing I will never be strong enough to follow the same guidelines.
Yes, I am teaching hypocrite. Yes, I am a human being. Unfortunately.
Today I’m looking over my newest feedback, and I realize I’ve continued this culture of receiving one of the lowest grades. I am crushed that someone would think I was trying to be “disrespectful” in analyzing a text. To the defense, I was pulled aside and told “I have a home here,” but I think that was just a formality. I’ve never felt more unwelcome, so out of the element and so misunderstood. I am too hard-headed to imagine, “Oh, this person is trying to light my flame, not stomp it out.” I feel so irrelevant at the spelling in the corrections of “Johnnie,” whoever that is, and I wonder why everything has to be so god-damn serious.
But then I realize, I have nothing to fear anymore.
This is a release. I’m at the “bottom” of another class but it is opening a door for existentialism. Anything I do in this small scope of my life from here on won’t affect my future negatively, as I have nowhere left to fail. In many ways, I feel very set free now. I’ve found another opportunity to continue to consider how our boys at the jail must feel.
I don’t have to tell the people reading this that civilians see the incarcerated as irrelevant. I see instances of it all the time on these forums about how “those who commit crimes should be executed” and the like. If you’re really looking for a heartbreak, look at what some of these people say about their fellow human being. Just look at the words one being can say to the next, and mean it. Look at the way they assess actions as “wrong” and people as “meaningless.”
I hope I can remind my boys that in spite of anyone, we can focus on anything in this world. The animals, plants, people and ourselves, and there is no pressure. I hope I can share my lesson with them in some way as I know they’ve got sound lessons to share with me, too. I hope I can evolve, be brave enough to accept what my teacher was trying to say. If I have a home in academia, it will be a long, drawn-out, radical, kicking-and-screaming journey, but I hope that this person is right.
Next class, if I get the feeling the men are thinking nothing matters, just as I was moments before I started this blog, I’ll say without any doubts: we’ve got nothing to lose. Write.
-Jonny Blevins, Teacher