Green Light, Yellow Light, Red Light


I’m lucky. Having your classes canceled at the jail is always a possibility. If there is a lockdown, if there are not enough officers to cover the adult classrooms, a class can always be cut. One adult men’s class this semester has already been canceled four times. On Monday, my class was canceled for the first time this semester. I’m hoping to start energized and fresh next week.

I miss the women already. In our first class, at the beginning of January, we opened by playing green-light/yellow-light/red-light (credit to Sarah Shotland). In the icebreaker, the class takes turns voicing varying degrees of personal information. A green light is something you don’t mind telling everyone (“I love Teddy Pendergrass.”). A yellow light delves deeper—something about you only a few people know (“I wish I were skinnier.”). But a red light is something you may have only told God. As a lone male teacher, it didn’t feel right—especially in the first class—to nudge the women to reveal their darkest secrets. Plus, we just didn’t have time to go that deep. You need time to run such an emotional lap, time for silence, time to grab Kleenex. Instead, we talked yellow and green.

I asked all the students to write down their red light but not to share it. They isolated the feeling that arose from the red-light. I led them through imagining that feeling—shame, guilt, anger—as a physical object. The students composed excellent poems based on the exercise. Two students envisioned anvils for their objects. The object of course did not have to be heavy. It could have been light as a tooth, soft as a feather. For these two students, the emotion weighed them down to the floor. I never asked any of the women to disclose their original secrets, and in fact, I discouraged it. However, a few did share. I won’t go into those details, but my heart twists whenever a student shares an intense personal story to which I can’t relate. I’m not a parent. I haven’t been married. But I can be honest about not sharing those experiences. I can offer a willing ear.

We opened another class with dialogue from Macbeth. One student, Kaylan, described Lady Macbeth as “passionate and treacherous.” Pretty accurate. In another class, we talked spoken word and Danez Smith. Dionne spit two of her own poems that she’d memorized.

I’m lucky to have such consistency this term and to have such involved students. I know they’ll be writing this week during lockdown. The closed doors won’t dim their creative spirits.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher