sitting in the fishbowl

My journal is peculiarly silent about my six first weeks at my new school, the facility where I now worked. There wasn’t much to write about. I couldn’t remember being more bored, bored, bored for an endless stretch of time.

I was hired in mid-July when most teachers cram in that last hike or last trip or last project before school opens its doors to training. Not me. My summer vacation ended. My new school operates year round and only takes time off for bank holidays. This is for safety. Let me explain.

We have over 200 young men roughly between the ages of 17-23, with a handful both younger and older. They’ve been charged with adult crimes according to the laws in our state. Although I have some students who are in for fraud, ID theft, and other non-violent crimes, we’re reminded during our annual refresher training that we have the most violent population of criminals in the state. They’re also young, strong, and aching for freedom.

They live eight to a cell, recreate in a yard that looks to be about five acres, and rotate through only four buildings on a regular basis. They get sick of each other pretty fast. Add to that frustration and ennui the gang rivalry, bad blood from the street, and a culture of hitting anything that looks at them wrong. No wonder the administration says, “Keep them busy!” The devil, the gangs, or testosterone, finds work for their idle hands. So while the school does exist to educate these young men and help them reinvent their lives, we’re also there to keep them occupied, divided, and out of trouble. We’re also expected to be there to keep the school doors open.

I came into the middle of a semester without training and without any specific job to do until the new semester began. I’m not usually one to sit around with nothing to do all day. I was left to my own entertainment as long as I was under some direct supervision (until I passed the academy and was official). So I read and felt guilty that I was getting paid to read. I should have been celebrating.

At one point it was suggested that I sit in on everyone’s class. While this seemed like a natural thing to do, it was truly a unique part of my introduction to my school, something no one else had done. It was such an unplanned event that one teacher was nearly insulted when I was handed off to her. (I forget that teachers are not accustomed to unannounced visits to their classrooms because I had come from a school where such visits occurred weekly.)

Before I showed up for work the first day, I didn’t understand the fish bowl nature of the place. Every expression one makes, every tone, every movement of the body is keenly recorded, assessed, and passed around the prisoners in mysterious ways. I had to undergo this silent analysis for several long weeks before I began teaching. No one needed to tell me that this was to my disadvantage. I was doing a lot of things wrong, but no one could tell me what was exactly the right thing to do either. All this did was add to everyone’s discomfort with me working there and the offenders’ assurance that I wouldn’t make it a month.

I didn’t know where to sit. I couldn’t sit with the offenders for safety reasons, I didn’t want to sit up front where they could obviously look at me better, nor did I want to steal the teacher’s chair. Room after room, I was ushered to the teacher’s chair or teacher’s assistant’s chair. I tried to hide behind the computer or something to block their view of me. Then I just watched.

My last school had a rich and distinct culture. If it’s all you’ve know it’s hard to break from the training and beliefs of that culture, but I tried to readjust my thinking as teachers said a few words then sat down and put their hands behind their heads. Down the hall, one teacher held her students’ attention with images from the Dust Bowl. “Visuals,” I wrote down in my notes. I hadn’t seen anyone interested in learning until now. In another room I admired that one teacher made all of her students read the text-book out loud, no excuses, but wondered where her enthusiasm for the subject lay. If I, a good reader, couldn’t make sense of science books back in high school, how could these low-level readers be expected to comprehend science straight from the text-book? No diagrams, no enthused teacher extracting the meat of chapter in understandable terms, no reason to care about such things as plate tectonics even though many of these guys came from California and know what an earthquake feels like. I couldn’t wait to leave. Imagine how her students felt.

I got up to leave behind the class. The teacher stopped me before I left. “Where are you going?” I told her the name of the teacher on my schedule. “Oh, watch out for him. He’s a womanizer,” she said in a whisper and shuddered before turning back to her room. At the end of the next hour he warned me  about the next teacher. And so it went on down the hallway. What were they going to tell the next new teacher about me? How I missed the good people, truly good people, I had left behind. Too late to dwell on that now, I thought, I’ll just have to make the most of this.

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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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