The Magic Word

 For the first few weeks of our Friday Men’s class, Mike and I struggled to engage our students. While many were interested in writing and sharing their work, we had trouble getting discussion focused and cutting down on side chatter. Frustrations around what had happened in the jail that week often percolated through the class, derailing discussions. Each week, we tried to bring in readings that would inspire the class—with mixed results. And then, we discovered the magic word: volunteer.

It came up as the guys asked us some logistical questions. We said, we don’t work for the jail,
we’re just student volunteers. The attitude in the room shifted. “You guys aren’t getting paid?”
one of the students asked. Many seemed surprised to learn we were here not because someone
was paying us to be, but because we wanted to be. More importantly, we weren’t a direct part of the system they were frustrated with. “What do you guys get out this then?” one of the students asked.

What do we get out of going to teach in an environment like the jail each week? And, the
question I get asked so often when I tell friends and family about the program—what do the
inmates get out of it?

I’m sure that it varies for each one of us who decides to participate in Words without Walls. If
nothing else, it’s teaching experience, a valuable thing to have on our resumes. For me, I enrolled at Chatham at the end of two years of AmeriCorps service. I didn’t want to lose my connection to community work, so when I saw that I could teach creative writing in jail, I said “sign me up!”

Of course, what we got in our class was something much different and much more than I
anticipated. On the first day, some of the guys rapped what they’d written during freewriting exercises. Over the course of our six weeks together, one student shared his memoir with me. One of the shier, quieter students wrote about the experience of being locked in his cell during count.

Each student brought something different to the class, and on the day we owned up to being unpaid, we really got to see the men at their best. It is these moments that draw me and other teachers to this program, moments when we forget where we are and focus on genuine human connection through the written word.

What the inmates get out of it is sometimes harder to see. It comes back to the belief that writing is worthwhile in its own right—it’s a chance to express themselves, to be heard. A chance to better their skills as writers in a space where they’re seen as people, not prisoners. And maybe, just maybe, that certificate of completion will add something worthwhile when their case goes before a judge.

Amanda Kay Oaks, Words Without Walls Teacher