First Day at ACJ

It was Thursday at four in the afternoon and our first class at Allegheny County Jail. Mike and I sat waiting in our classroom. The inmates couldn’t be sent down until count had cleared, so we sat and twiddled our thumbs as an hour of class time slipped away. I paced and rubbed my hands together quickly. We had six classes, three hours each. Eighteen hours to impart something on these men. Now, already, one of those precious hours was gone.

Finally, they started to trickle in, coming down as their different pods were called. All of them shook my hand and introduced themselves. I could feel sweat bead at the base of my neck, this was one of my first experiences in charge of a classroom. Luckily, Mike was there with me. We worked well together, picking up where another left off or didn’t adequately respond, ending awkward silences. Despite my consternation, we got to do all our preliminary activities, explored a poem and an essay related to place, wrote, shared stories and talked about living in Pittsburgh.

What struck me most was how engaged all our students were. Every single one of them participated in discussion, read something aloud and/or asked questions. They all wanted to be there, they all wanted to learn. The quieter men intrigued me. David, covered in tattoos, who shared a beautiful memory of his mother but mostly remained silent and thoughtful. Damian, who stroked his beard next to me and asked intelligent, thoughtful questions. Brian, who came up to me at the end of class and said: “I never knew my perspective could change so much in so little time.” What Brian said was so wonderful to hear and so important to writing. Perspective. Learning about a new point of view or trying to take on a new perspective to make your writing better. Putting your own situation in perspective. Exploring what the future could hold.

Hopefully, I can help my students explore new perspectives. They’re already helping me.

-Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher