Cynicism and the Seed

What began as sharpening pencils and grading papers four months ago has turned into a full-time tutoring position. In addition to teaching three GED and two writing classes, I tutor students one-on-one in the library and in my unit - I've even helped Rooster with his drug rehab homework.

Teaching in prison is wrought with challenges. There are days when I feel as though I've made a difference and found my purpose for being here, and then there are days when my efforts seem futile, like I'm plugging holes in a ship destined to sink.

As you might expect, education is severely underfunded in prison; ruled notebook paper and calculators are scarce luxuries. Teachers are also in short supply, and the one class that caters to students with learning disabilities has a waiting list over one year long.

But the biggest problem, and one most detrimental to learning, is the widespread cynicism among educators who believe that prisoners are either uninterested in or incapable of learning.

I have witnessed firsthand how this predisposition robs students of the opportunity to learn.

A few weeks ago, I was teaching subject-verb agreement to one of my writing classes when a student raised his hand, pointed to the chalkboard, and asked why I had put a comma before the word "and" in one sentence but not before the "and" in another. Before I could answer, a fellow tutor chimed in and said, "Don't worry about commas; they're too complicated to understand.

"I was irritated. I couldn't believe that a tutor could be so ignorant as to say something as crucial to writing as punctuation is unimportant and beyond the class' comprehension. The room got quiet and I could tell the student was dissatisfied, so I seized the opportunity and launched into a lesson on independent and dependent clauses - when two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction, a comma is inserted between the clauses, before the conjunction.

To my delight (and the tutor's surprise), the students latched onto the concept almost immediately and were successfully identifying independent and dependent clauses faster than I could write them on the board.

For the next hour, I showed the class all about commas - how they're really nothing more than pauses meant to bring clarity to our writing - and when we got done with commas, I introduced them to semicolons and hyphens and quotation marks.

At the end of the class, one student looked up from his notes and said, "Those are exactly the things you should be teaching us.

"Feeling motivated, I decided to make good on the student's request by putting together a worksheet on commas for the next class. That afternoon as I sat typing away at a typewriter in the library, another tutor came up behind me, peered over my shoulder, and told me I was wasting my time. "They'll never be able to remember all of those rules," he said.

My enthusiasm was completely shot. I finished the worksheet, but the self-doubt followed me back to the classroom where I stumbled through the lesson feeling foolish and vulnerable. Was I really so naive to think I could teach punctuation to a room full of prisoners?A few days later, my mother sent me information on the PEN American Center's annual writing contest where inmates nationwide submit their poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to compete for small cash prizes and publication. She also sent me information on the PEN Mentoring Program which pairs inmates with professional writers to provide them with constructive criticism, tips, and guidance to help improve their writing.

I shared this information with a teacher in the education department and suggested that some of the students might like to participate, but after skimming over the programs, she said that the students weren't very good at writing and would probably have no use for them.

Again I was left feeling discouraged and silly for thinking I could help the helpless, and I was surprised again at how powerful and destructive cynicism could be, how just a few words can feed self-doubt, stifle curiosity, and kill the spirit.

I also wondered how inmates must feel when they are continuously told what they are and aren't capable of accomplishing.

In her book Breaking out of Prison: A Guide to Consciousness, Compassion, and Freedom, Bernice Mennis writes about her experience teaching literature and composition in prisons. She says her teaching is guided by the "belief that everyone yearns for, seeks, and loves to feel his or her own depth" but that in order for students to reach their potential, they, like seeds, must be nurtured and encouraged.

Mennis quotes Henry David Thoreau's Faith in the Seed: "though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders….

"When I look back at my own schooling, I think about how fortunate I was to have teachers who saw the importance of encouraging their students and setting high expectations. I could never have succeeded academically without their support, and I wonder how many of my students never had that opportunity. It's easy then to see why some are so hesitant about learning. They've been told by teachers, their peers, and by the world that they are lost causes unworthy of help or compassion.

Looking beyond the scope of education at the broader picture, I wonder what effect society's cynicism has on rehabilitation. "Tough on crime" legislation, lengthier prison sentences, the inability for ex-convicts to find work after release, the suspension of Pell Grants and federal financial aid for inmates - are these not all byproducts of society's cynicism toward prisoners? And do these roadblocks not hinder rehabilitation in the same way that cynicism in the classroom hinders learning?Our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world and an average national recidivism rate of about 70 percent - seven out of ten inmates reoffend within their first year of release. I realize that the issues are numerous and complicated, but I firmly believe that much of what is fundamentally wrong with our prison system could be fixed if we focused on healing rather than ostracism.