Way of the Master

Confucius. The 6th Century philosopher and teacher isn’t a hot topic for twenty-somethings nowadays. But for Steve, a twenty-something student in my Words Without Walls class at Allegheny County Jail, Confucius is important. He’s brought up Confucius every class. I hate to admit that even though he’s asked me to bring in Confucius quotes, I’ve forgotten for the past two classes. So when he asks again today, totally off topic from the Jamaica Kincaid story we’re reading, out of curiosity or frustration, I ask, “I don’t have any quotes today, but do you have a favorite quote you could recite for us?” Steve responds with his signature smirk, pauses, then says, “It’s something like ‘When one rules by the means of virtue he is like the North Star. All other stars pay homage to him.” That quote is awesome, of course. And I tell him and ask him to tell us what he thinks it means. It means wisdom is important, he says, and there are lots more where that came from.

Steve’s rep proceeds him. When I finally type up a page of Confucius quotes and bring them to class, he’s being held up on his pod for a minor infraction. The other students don’t seem surprised that he’s gotten himself in trouble. “Typical Steve” seems to be the look on the other students’ faces. But there’s nothing typical about Steve. There’s nothing “typical” about any of the men in my class. One minute they’re remembering hard theft from their past, the next they’re spinning metaphors and telling me, “Don’t just say my poem is good. What do I need to fix?” But none of us are typical, for that matter. I defy people’s expectations all the time. Being Black and Southern are just two descriptors that people use to turn me into a stereotype.

I research Confucius. He was a man who dedicated his life to learning, to teaching others various arts. Archery to music. Confucius also held poetry in high regard. Steve darkens his notebook with ink, responding immediately to any prompt my teaching partner, Mike, and I give him. Student and teacher alike can only get better by practice. If Steve lived in 6th Century China, Confucius would have gladly taken him in, teaching him the virtuous ways but also laughing along with Steve’s perfectly timed jokes.

--Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher