before the beginning

I loved teaching 10th and 11th graders because they knew how to be high schoolers, unlike 9th graders who had to be taught how to be a high schooler in addition to the content. And 12th graders were half way out the door. By that time too, Mom and Dad usually resigned themselves to Junior being Junior and had ceased to blame the teachers. But one year the peaceful relations I enjoyed with parents came to a sudden halt.

Using up all my smiles, calling upon my customer service training, showing Mom and Dad the data and experience I had with their child and how that informed my instruction, politely enduring endless meetings and e-mails and horrible accusations, I was battered and bruised emotionally. Because I did nothing other than the best job I could, the administrators gently but firmly supported me, but it pained me to find myself odds with the parents. We should have been on the same side fighting together to educate Junior. The turmoil on the home front meant I had no time or place to rejuvenate. By February I was counting down the days to summer. For several reasons, this among them, I sought a change. Change was to become an understatement.

Six months later I was sitting in a prison. It is a high school within a prison. Holding myself awkwardly as I waited for a new semester to begin I would hang out in the GED room hoping I could be helpful.

“Miss!” I heard someone say shyly. He didn’t know my name, and wasn’t even sure what my role was. “Miss? How do you write a letter?” The simple admission in his question gave me pause. Wasn’t he supposed to be a violent, rough, know-it-all gangster? That’s generalizing my prison’s population, but I was new (and I’ve found that you have to maintain a balance between the generalization and the individuals if you want to stay safe on the campus).

He explained that for making loud animal sounds the night before he was assigned to write an apology letter to the major. As he spoke, I took notes which I plugged into an outline. This I showed to him. The next hour I saw him hunched over a keyboard typing furiously until two paragraphs filled the screen. I ignored the red and green lines that Word snaked beneath every line. When he asked, I made him read his sentences aloud so he could identify his own mistakes. Then I showed him how to format a letter, including the signature line. He beamed as he signed his name on the letter like a businessman. “Thanks,” he muttered and confesses he would have cheated (i.e. bought a letter for some food from another offender) if I hadn’t come along; instead, he had tasted some measure of success.

Was it going to be this easy? Throw in a lot of praise with a little bit of instruction and viola both teacher, student, and community will have success? Nope.


About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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