Class has gotten off to a slow start. It happens like this sometimes—a bunch of people get released from the jail at once, emptying our class; or the facility goes on lockdown, and everyone has to stay tight on their pods, classes cancelled. When there’s not a routine, guys forget about the class, because writing is just like most things—a habit. When they’re not in the writing habit, it’s harder to find the motivation to fill a notebook, read a novel excerpt, choose writing class over dinner.
So a slow start. Four weeks in, we’re still trying to build routine with our guys, make class satisfying enough to remember through the week, interesting enough to look forward to. It’s been frustrating, because even when I know we’re doing something important just by showing up, and continuing to show up, teachers want to teach, just like writers want to write. Sitting in an empty classroom feels lousy.
Today, when just one student shows up, I’m a little depressed. I’m tired and hungry and was hoping a great class would make me forget about all that. Five guys on our roll are nowhere to be found.
Stephen shows up, though. With an eight page story, that’s actually a screenplay. He doesn’t know he’s writing a screenplay, but that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s only come to class once before, last week, but it’s clear that in just a week, he’s got the habit. Bad. What he hands us is the beginning of a coming of age story about ten high school athletes, standing at a crossroads. Will they make good on their Division I football scholarships, or will they stay in the old neighborhood, fall prey to the same cycles that they criticize?
“My cellie helped me rewrite it,” he says, presenting us with his carefully transcribed, neat, handwritten pages. “I didn’t want it to look bad.”
These are the habits of a writer. When a piece of work means something to us, we want to make it as perfect as we can before we show it to anyone else. We want to come back to it—literally write it a second time—we enjoy it that much. It’s our pleasure to make it as clear as it can be, to find the perfect detail. He waits for us to read it, and the pressure is on, because he’s outnumbered. Two teachers, one student, one eight page story.
After I read, I immediately want more. Eight pages is a tease. I need to know what happens to these boys. Where do they end up, who gets the girl, which character is the man sitting in front of us?
“There are so many characters,” I say. “Do you have a list of them?”
He smiles and hands over two more pages—lists, divided between men and women characters, and short descriptions of each, their relationships to each other. Immediately, I know this is a story he knows well, characters that come straight from the pages of his life, and again, I want to know more.
We end up writing together, the three of us, in silence for most of the class. First, a ten minute prompt turns into thirty minutes, each of us peeking up every once in a while to see the other two still deeply hunched over the notebook, not even close to the end of that thought. And then, after sharing those, we head to the computers, for another hour of straight writing.
I’m not tired anymore. I’m not hungry anymore. I’m not depressed anymore. I remember, again, that quantity isn’t what we’re after here, and it never will be. The truth is, the majority of the students who we teach in Words Without Walls won’t go on to write every day, or even every month. A lot of them will never crack open their notebooks after class is over, some may trade them on the pods for Ramen. And who can blame them—only when you’ve got the writing habit does paper seem as important as hot soup when you’re lonely. The number of students isn’t the point, and it isn’t the barometer of our success. We show up and keep showing up, even when no one comes to class, because of the one person who might find something valuable in what we do. Because of the one person who shows us, sheepish and hopeful, something that matters to him.
It’s not to say I don’t hope for a full class next week. For Stephen’s sake. His story deserves more eyes and ears and voices weighing in. He deserves knowing there are about a dozen other men at Allegheny County Jail who care in the same way, about the same thing, who take pleasure in the act of writing and reading, who want their stories shared. And for my sake, too. I am a better teacher than I am a tutor. The two-on-one attention is sometimes embarrassing for us all. But that is why we acted like writers tonight, not teachers and students, and rather than speak and listen, we did what writers do best. Got our habit fixed. Sat in silence and wrote. Together.
-Sarah Shotland, Teacher