One semester, three chapbooks! This fall, we printed over 100 pages of prose and poetry from writers in Sojourner House, Allegheny County Jail, and SCI Pittsburgh. Classes begin again, the first week of January! More writing to come!
I’m teaching again, by whatever glitch in the Matrix.
I have to stop looking forward to the future of this class before I blink and it’s already over.
This week I’ve been rereading Tennessee Williams’s Not about Nightingales in the hopes that we can practice giving a performance. This group of women is full of life, and while I wish I had the perfect place to channel their energy (a 21st birthday party, a metal concert, teaching boogery kindergartners), I hope Williams's play can at least celebrate their talents. I’ve been considering this play (a scene from the group of incarcerated men), focused on sharing Queen—an “Image obsessed convict who is a homosexual, and not very bright”— who, quite luminously, has the line: “All my life I've been persecuted by people because I'm refined.”
It’s funny, isn’t it? The way refinement can be polarizing. At least, it was where I grew up. Refinement was funny in the way it could insinuate homosexuality (#MasculinitySoFragile) and it was funny in the way a refined person can quickly rot into an elitist. All the different ways we interpret refinement are so funny (in a “haha” and “wah” kind of way).
It’s almost too much to consider that with the slightest shift in the winds, I may have never taught with Words Without Walls. My writer friends cringe when I say this, but I enrolled at Chatham only to work closely with a prison population; the writing came as an aside. More often than not, I consider the ways my life would have been worse, better, or exactly the same without my MFA experience. It’s strange to know that, had it not been for this experience, I would still think artists are nothing if not ridiculous (and always late), that they’re all thoroughly selfish, that they’re fighting a rat race of poverty. I’d still give eye rolls in response to: “I’m a writer.” It's hard to admit, but I persecuted writers as "refined," as if their passions were useless.
Almost a decade ago, I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. Or at least an aesthetician. Why? I’m a zit popper. Identify imperfections, erase them, make them worse–that's my game. I look at myself in the morning with a daily mantra: fat, pale, sick, do better. This is the way I get through each day. As a plastic surgeon, I assumed I’d make people beautiful by changing them–by following social constructs, by obeying.
But when I landed in an American Literature class (by General Education Curriculum accident), one person would absolutely change the course of my life. The experience was less like of the smallest gust of wind that plucks a dangling leaf from a branch–it was more like a hurricane ripping a tree up by its roots. I would realize that literature not only reflects but changes the way we see the world. Like religious folks say about God, literature speaks to directly to me and helps me translate this long drawn out practical joke we call life. I learned that negative energy is universal, and I try to channel my mantra through a positive lens. Things suck, let's make it better. I'd find myself unlearning all the systematic rules, the systematic negatives, all the systematics I'd seen practiced in rural West Virginia. Intelligent people aren't, by design, automatically feminine. And even if they are, what's wrong with having female traits, or better, being female? I'm supposed to be ripped, and bearded, and know how to fix everything, right? I'm supposed to laugh at men who write poetry and dance because that's inherently feminine. As if it were a math equation: I know how to fix air conditioners+washing machines+gas meters=I'm no more of a man for any of it.
I realized I had lived a life with opinions that were not based off of any fact (I know, pretty rudimentary stuff, but an uphill lesson in privilege for me). In all that reading, I'd realize there's a lot more beauty to be seen in imperfections, honesty, and pain, and they are not meant to be fixed. Mended perhaps, but not sucked of all the fat.
Were it not for that professor, I would not have moved overseas to teach English in a dusty rural Chinese town. I wouldn’t have worked for an attorney in Morgantown, only to realize how terrifyingly biased and unprofessional I’d be as a lawyer. I would not treat allying as a verb. I would not see refinement as something respectable; I would not realize that I actually enjoyed refining myself. Were it not for a slew of mentors and the founders of WWW, I wouldn’t have taught at the ACJ, SCI, or Carnegie Library, and I most certainly wouldn’t be a “selfish” writer living in Pittsburgh, finding meaning in evaporating water, crusty eyelashes, in the white space below, in the very fact that you're reading words through thousands of particles of light, in seeing a dog's fur as a rolling desert, in coins that represent tiny planets in orbit, seeing something correlated between mass shootings and a thorny rose.
Without characters like Queen and the words from Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemmingway, and on and on, I don't know how I would have made my journey. Without the words of so many beloved people in my Pittsburgh family, I may not have realized that I’d almost built a life attempting to avoid regrets.
My purpose in teaching is to pay it forward. And I want to be the kind of teacher I've mentioned because I know how it feels to think one with refinement (or education) deserves persecution. Because who likes a nerd, right? I want my students to know how many times in my life I've changed, and how many times I've felt like something even less than a total failure. I want them to understand: not everyone knows you by your weakness (or convictions) alone. Not everyone thinks you ought to better yourself, but you do it anyway.
So many of us do this because we love it, or don’t quite know how much we love it yet. Many of us work as volunteer teachers. We spend eight weeks teaching three hours each week (more for prep and planning). I was lucky to be able to do this through the support of Laurie Mansell-Reich and Henry Reich. The Robert H. Mansell Fellowship allowed me to: teach every semester of my graduate career; help with administrative tasks; work on team and community building. But most importantly, it allowed me to get to know individual units of this soulful community. It showed me just how selfless (and sometimes, unfortunately, how terribly selfish) some writers can be. Braver still is the WWW teacher who at least tries a semester of this program, only to realize this is not a population best suited for them or their time. That's alright! We all do this and learn from this together as a dysfunctional little family. Anyone able to participate in this program and write in this community, even for a moment, is lucky for the opportunity to be an ornament in another person's heart.
So stop being so ashamed. As a writer, today you are selfish. Today you are refined. Today you only write to share it with the world. Tomorrow, you're something else. And others are going to persecute you for anything, sometimes everything. So?
You’ll get more and more refined in whatever as you go, and that’s a great lesson to learn.
-Jonny Blevins, Teacher
It is our last day of class and Nicki walks in. Her black hair sits high on her head in a thick pony-tail. The first time I met Nicki I told her, “You look like Sandra Bullock.” To which, Nicki leaned back in her chair and said, “Yeah, I know. Julia Roberts, too.”
Nicki smiles and greets the other students in the room. I try to hide the surprise illuminating my face. Nicki hasn’t been in class for weeks. I overhear her tell the other students she’s been too depressed to leave her cell, to do anything. She says she finds out tomorrow if she is getting released or sent up state.
When we make eye contact Nicki smiles and blushes.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” my co-teacher Alison Taverna says.
Nicki shrugs. She walks to the front of the room, and sees all the students’ work printed out and in piles. As I pass out course evaluations and explain the anthology MFA graduate student Tony Ciotoli is organizing, Nicki pours over her classmate’s words. She touches the poems and paragraphs printed on clean and crisp sheets of paper.
“How did y’all fix the computers?” she asks.
“We didn’t,” I say, “I typed up everyone’s work at home.”
In a flash Nicki is at one of the many monitors that line the room. She finds her previously saved work, starts copying her words down from the screen and onto notebook paper. She looks over her shoulder and asks me if I will type up her poems, too. I say yes, “Give me as many as you want.”
Truth is Nicki, who never shares, whose voice shakes, who can’t always maintain eye contact unless she’s telling a joke, writes the realest shit I’ve ever read. I missed her the weeks she didn’t come bobbing down the hall. I couldn’t help but feel hurt when she refused to come write and read with us week after week. I felt I had done something wrong—Alison and I weren’t the teachers she’d wished for. It never occurred to me (the graduate student who after class gets to go home, sauté garlic and asparagus, boil a pot for tea, and smoke cigarettes on the front porch) that Nicki had a good reason not to show up. It wasn’t that our teaching, writing prompts, or poems weren’t good enough. It wasn’t that Alison or I had failed her.
You see, Nicki is a writer.
Sometimes getting to the root of the thing is too much to face. Especially when you're waiting to learn whether or not you're getting time served. Sometimes writing about your childhood, or reading Sharon Old’s “I Go Back to May 1937” loosens up all that pain inside you.
But you or me? We get to go home.
We get to call our mom’s to say we’re sorry. We get to write and write about what aches, and then we get to go sit in the sun. A poem that awakens the soul, the kind that kicks up all the dark particles clinging at the bottom of your gut, is cathartic to us on outside. On the inside—when a piece of writing touches you, when a lesson stirs some memory that you’ve kept shoved down for months and months—there is no counselor to talk to, no phone to call mom. There’s an empty cell and your head.
This is what our students face every time the CO comes to open the door. They shuffle back up the stairs with composition notebooks in hand. The words, poems, sentences, and images stacking up behind their eyes are theirs alone. But they come back to us. They turn in scrawled pages. They stand in the front of the room and recount their pain. They speak their truth in a place where freedom is no longer a lofty concept or privilege, but a missed reality. They give us their words after everything else has been taken away from them.
You see, Nicki is a writer. She’s been in her cell for nearly a month, scribbling in a notebook, too depressed to leave her pod, and on the last day of class she hands me a fistful of poems.
The class continues. The five women I’ve learned to love fill out a questionnaire about the “effectiveness” of our course. They ask if Alison and I will be teaching them again and when we answer no, they protest with fervor. Sam, the youngest student, younger than me at 25, simply cannot believe it. She is our most prolific writer and often reimagines herself at different ages and perspectives. She claims she never signed up for the class, and is “terrible at English.”
“I wanted to walk out the first day!” says Sam, “But now I know you guys!”
“You’ll learn to like the new teachers, too,” Alison says.
Our students start thanking us then and suddenly it is me who cannot keep eye contact. I know that they appreciate our class (they show up every week) but they’re defensive about their work, suspect of Alison and my intentions. They don’t believe us when we say we’ll bring in typed rap lyrics or new notebooks. They don’t expect us to ever follow through. But we do, and when we do, they are as grateful as children.
Today, my students are thanking me for being their teacher. I can’t handle it. I fiddle with the computer, nod when I hear them thanking me directly. I start to wish I had done other things in the course: screen writing, watching movies, slam poetry, sustained narrative, and letters. I want to start over. I want to go back to January.
Nicki walks up and hands me yet another paper. She sits at the desk next to me instead of writing at one of the student chairs. Well, she sits on the desk at first. But when she can’t bend down far enough to write, she pulls up a black computer chair. She laughs.
"We had a fire drill and they walked us to the gym. They say the jail is made of concrete so it won’t burn. But the jail is sinking into the ground,” Nicki says, “It’s going to fall right into the river. We’re going to drown first.”
Sabrina—a student whose spoken words sound like prophecy, who seems to validate everyone with whom she comes into contact—scoots up to my desk, too and continues filling out the class evaluation. They talk about the fire drill. They talk about their upcoming court dates. They say words like pods, upstate, release, stuck, out, time, waiting, home, home, home, and good luck. I sit between them and listen. I say I am sorry.
The correctional officer on duty walks in. I’ve never met him before. He opens the classroom door and leans in. He’s tall and wide.
“Get back behind the line!” he says.
He points to Nicki and Sabrina.
I look down. Red tape, thick and peeling, lines the perimeter of the room. My desk, the computer, the chalkboard, the podium all stand behind it. Since January, I’ve been setting up my students’ desks in circles. I’ve had them gather around the computer. I’ve touched their shoulders.
Never have I noticed this bleeding red line.
Nicki gets up and moves to her “designated” side of the classroom.
Sabrina stops writing and looks at me.
“Kindness ain’t easy.”
-Brittany Hailer, Teacher