For the teacher of a class where attendance it non-mandatory, anticipation runs high and plagues her heart until the following class’s moment of truth: will my students, if any, come back?
It’s our second week and the class attendance has more than doubled from four out of sixteen to eleven out of sixteen students. This is a definite good start, people have been talking.
Seven more notebooks are distributed. Seven more pens write away in their unique scratching. Fourteen more feet point on a tile floor to their classmate’s feet. Seven more men sit in our circle, sit in a one-piece desk/chair, fill the space up with even more raw creativity.
Seven more names were given up or guarded suspiciously during roll call.
In this classroom, which by default is grounded in oppression, it is essential that I keep my ears open for moments when students reach across the desolate fog of disconnection, and connect with their brother in suffering, their brother in creative writing. Today I heard the promising shots of connection being delivered purposefully across the circle, webs like Spiderman:
-Two students realize they both have daughters named Ariyanna
-Two students realize they both invoked ideas of “instinct” in their read aloud poem
-Two students openly reveal to me how much they enjoy class, want to know if it’s offered more often
-All reveal their “home” location like a google map location. “Earth, North America, USA, Pennsylvania, Allegheny County…” we all begin
-All realize there is at least one other person in the class who considers their home through like architecture: the projects, a duplex, a single home
These things seem small, yet in the jail, these connections are amplified in their significance. In an account on sharing personal information in the jail setting, poet and ex-inmate Jimmy Santiago Baca said that “these boys worried about revealing information that others might take as a weakness or use it against them. Suspicion helped them to survive, as did denying their feelings…”
Knowing this, it is also essential that I promote a classroom family, a place where our similarities can be explored in celebration and eventually our differences through respect. I’m lucky, creative writing is a massive and naturally occurring point of connection, it’s a liberatory instrument which creates for all of us (teacher and student), a stable foundation of honest dialogue and spiritual growth. Rather than articulate the ways in which the jail setting is an oppressive starting point, it is more worthwhile to recognize the ways in which creative writing is hugely liberating and transformative. I feel lucky to have this platform of unity and trust.
On their way out, I hand them small sheets of paper with a handwritten inspirational message, a quote from Ovid, “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” In the corner of this message I placed a small Spiderman sticker. I have the feeling this Spiderman metaphor will continue its shooting, reinforcing the hold of mine and my students recently strummed heart strings.
-Sister Siobhan, Teacher