Growing up, my parents always pushed me to compete in writing contests and scholarships. It was a bore most times, creating some grief and lots of long nights. As a teenager, even when I won, I wondered–to myself of course–if it wasn’t all a bit unnecessary. These essays I wrote–after all my other essays, math problems, and Latin were turned in; after reviewing my ACT, SAT, AP, and Latin flashcards; after all that–these essays opened up doors to invaluable opportunities.
To my surprise, classmates with greater talent than myself and with seemingly similar ambitious spirits wouldn’t bother with these competitions. They’d hear about me flying off to Washington D.C. for this, and driving down to Sacramento for that, and yet another scholarship adding up on my books, but they’d do nothing except tease me. It was another lesson in how people treat the successful ones, a lesson and callous I wish I could transmit into the hearts of my students when they tread that lonely path.
As a teacher I resolved to open the doors for my students as my parents had done for me by incorporating writing competitions into my curriculum. In four years, working with the students I did, I truly expected greater results (such was my faith in them), but I am satisfied with the honorable mentions and one outstanding national achievement a student earned.
When I went to work for the prison, my determination to open doors in this way had to adapt. For one, the ages of my students, predominantly over 18-years-old, were naturally disqualified from the competitions; for another, they wouldn’t be able to accept awards. Then a local writing contest caught my eye at the library and I brought the flier to class one day. I told my Creative Writing class they could write the story for a grade and I would go through the proper channels to submit their work.
Not surprisingly, my female student rose to the challenge. Then she won!
My boss, the principal, ignored my earlier statement and requested that she attend the awards ceremony. Our rules state that an offender at the highest status can leave the facility with an escort. Evidently we bent some of the details to make the trip possible, but I was grateful for the two staff that brought her to the library one evening. Responsible for my children that night (and knowing she didn’t pose a threat to my family), I met the three of them there. They sat up front where I could marvel how easily they blended into the crowd. Except for my student’s boots which she tucked up under her chair so anyone behind her could read “inmate,” you would have had to look closely to know that she came from a different kind of school. Because the staff, one man and one woman, came dressed in business casual clothes, you would have to look twice to realize she wasn’t their daughter.
From the back I watched over 90 people uncomfortably fill the room. You could spot the parents with their silly, proud smiles and the siblings trying to look impressed. Cousins ran around unconcerned. Boyfriends looked bored. I, sitting alone with my two children clearly too young for the contest, started to attract some attention. When the MC asked the teachers to stand for recognition, the parents beside me gave me the funniest smile. Afterwards they told me I was far too young to be a teacher. That compliment will last until my birthday in three months! On the other hand, my student was asked if I was her mom.
I didn’t know the transportation staff very well so I didn’t know what to expect when the crowd began to disperse, but the two of them were very conscientious. Ms. P. made sure my student was included in all of the pictures and enjoyed some refreshments. My student wouldn’t stop looking around and commenting on the smells. She told the math teacher the next day that “in prison there are only three smells: soap, meal trays, and funk.”
In the school building we only have soap and funk smells. Imagine a rank middle school intensified. This is why I finally sneaked in an air freshener. To my amusement, one of my students insists that my room smells like peaches when in fact it’s supposed to be some floral blend. Evidently four years in prison will distort your sense of smell.
The local library wasn’t exactly a trip to the nation’s capital, but it was a good experience for my student, raised the library’s appreciation of our facility, and showed me one of the unique advantages of the program I’m a part of. It is easily one of the highlights of this difficult semester.