It was the oddest pairing, but I had a feeling good things were going to come from this week’s class. I had invited Tenzin, a classmate of mine and a Tibetan refugee who grew up in India, to be a guest speaker in my class. My class this fall is centered on the theme of home. Tenzin writes about growing up in India without Indian citizenship, never able to go to return to the land her father and mother call home. She writes about being in the US for grad school—making a semi-permanent home in Pittsburgh. She knows the multi-facets of home and that gut-wrenching longing. She has a talent for writing but doubts it. She has an important story to tell.

My students know homesickness too. They are, after all, in jail. They too are away from home, not by choice. One student came in one week with a worried brow. He couldn’t get a hold of his daughter and worries something is wrong. Another student wrote about how he misses his girlfriend. One week a student’s mother died and he wrote about his mom’s cooking that he’ll never be able to taste again. Every week they ask me what they weather is like outside. They doubt their writing abilities, and doubt that they have anything to say.

Tenzin brings a piece about a houseplant our class. The plant looks like it’s dying so she sings to it, talks to it, and begs it not to die. The plant represents her other side, the part of her that hopes for home.

“Have you published this?” the students ask Tenzin.

Tenzin laughs and says she’s hasn’t because she’s too scared to submit it.

“It’s amazing,” the students encourage her. They tell her she is a good writer and a good teacher. I beam with pride as I watch them point to specific sentences, images, symbols in Tenzin’s work that spoke to them.

Inspired by Tenzin’s piece, we do an in-class prompt: pick an object in your cell and make it a symbol for something in your life. One student writes about a cold air vent as a symbol for his terminally ill friend who committed suicide in jail.

I glance at Tenzin. I can tell she is outside of herself, absorbed in these men’s lives—too filled with empathy in that moment to think about how much she misses her home. 

This class changes teachers’ lives too.

Rachel Kaufman, teacher