Intro: At our last open mic at Caffe Lena, I told “Locked Into Teaching.” Can you imagine me as a nervous, prissy English teacher teaching Hamlet and poetry in a maximum security prison for men? I hope so. The story is mostly true. (I didn’t really teach Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils.)
I did it for the money, $1,500 for six weeks. (And to broaden my horizons and serve humanity.) Beatrice, my office mate at the college, had taught there for years, and she is probably no braver than I. Surely I too could teach a summer course at the nearby maximum security prison for men.
Before I taught my first class, the prison authorities had to put me in their system. Getting fingerprinted was fascinating, but a little messy. I got a little ink on my shirt that won’t come off. I suppose my fingerprints are now in some national data bank. If I should ever do anything illegal, I’ll be caught in hours, and my family humiliated. So I am really careful.
The correction officer took my picture and made two ID cards, one for me to carry with me inside the prison, one for their files–so they would know what I looked like if I never made it back from class. He reminded me to lock my car–always–before I came into the prison. (Who wouldn’t?!)
On my first day of class, the officer compared my face to the one on my ID and waited while I locked my watch and purse in a locker. He checked my textbooks, attendance book, notes, handouts, pens, Kleenex, and emergency chalk. He sent me through a metal detector, then set me free to enter the prison—or rather go through the first of three sets of heavy sliding metal bars.
The bars behind me slid shut and locked before the bars ahead of me began to open. For a little while I was trapped between them. If there were a prison riot, I would be safe, I guess, sort of, locked between the bars. After the third set of bars, there I was, at one end of a very, very, very long hallway. You would expect a correction officer to walk with me to keep me safe. But no. I had to walk to my classroom alone—with hundreds of rapists and murderers and other criminals deserving to be sent to a maximum security prison all around. And the guards were god knows where.
I considered the advice that my colleagues at the college, had given me:
Roy had said, “You’ve got to keep discipline, or they won’t do any work for you.” I don’t think he had high hopes for me. He added: “You’re too friggin’ soft.”
Beatrice warned: “Dress conservatively.” So I wore my usual: white blouse, longish navy skirt, sensible shoes, one heel a little wobbly, but who really notices?
I stopped to get talked to by the education officer. “Whatever you do, don’t criticize the men in class. They won’t tolerate being put down in front of their peers. Woman or not, they’ll take you out. If you have problems, call out; I’m just down the hall.”
Not in the classroom, somewhere down the hall. I haven’t screamed in any serious way in my entire life, so I earnestly hoped that nothing went wrong. It was almost time for class. I adjusted my pile of books and papers a little, put my head down and scurried towards the classroom, preoccupied, wondering how I was supposed to keep discipline at all costs while never criticizing anybody. The door was open. I noticed the rows of men at metal desks waiting for me, but not the step up into the room.
My wobbly heel caught on the sill, and I was flat on my face on the floor–books, papers, pens, and emergency chalk scattered around my outstretched arms and legs. Silence. I kept my eyes down, picked up my stuff, dumped it on the battered metal teacher’s desk and sat down. More silence. I looked up at twenty-five silent big men. Most had huge necks, chests, biceps, the product of life sentences to lift weights. They didn’t smile or move; they looked at me and waited.
“Good morning.” My voice was squeakier than usual. “Today we begin Introduction to Literature. We’ll be studying poetry, short stories, and Hamlet.” And I stumbled through my first class.
Weeks passed. They did the reading and spoke up in class, unlike most of my students at the college. We read parts of Hamlet out loud. I got to be both Ophelia and Gertrude. They said I wasn’t bad. I got permission to loan them a videotape of the play, and they watched it at night, which, they said, made it easier to learn. But they still didn’t much like Shakespeare and said so, often. I didn’t criticize anyone in class, and no one beat me up.
I had one “incident.” Tony made fun of another student for asking too many dumb questions. George, a gigantic man with biceps bigger than my waist, rose to his feet and bellowed, “Who are you, *?*#!?! , to tell him he can’t talk in class?” And he nodded towards the door. They left abruptly, Tony first, George following. “I’ll never see little Tony again,” I thought.
Probably I should have done something. But I didn’t have a clue what that something was. So I finished teaching the poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” You know, the one by Wordsworth, about daffodils. After awhile, George came back alone. I hoped Tony was alive and not badly hurt. The next day, Tony came back too. Nobody explained anything to me. And I didn’t ask.
The men wrote papers, sometimes pretty good, except for the plagiarism. It was egregious! I talked to Roy back at the college.
“Margaret,” Roy said. “They’re in prison for reasons more serious than plagiarism.”
On the last day of class, we finished early. The men and I were almost comfortable together by then. They wanted to chat.
“Do you remember the time George took Tony out of class,” one asked. I nodded. “We were all watching your face. If you had cried, none of us would have come back.” Several agreed.
“And do you remember the first day of class? The day you fell on your face?” I doubted that I could ever forget. “We all thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever seen. The education officer came to talk to us afterwards.
“Men, I don’t care how bad a teacher she is. You had no business throwing her on the floor like that.’”
Everyone but me laughed. Class ended. We said our good-byes. One student offered to carry my books down the long hallway.
At the entrance, another inmate, a man I’d never noticed before, approached me and offered to carry the books to my car. (I really don’t think it’s allowed.)
“It’s the red Dodge Colt,” he said. “I watch you every time you leave.”
And with this unsettling tidbit in mind, I walked alone from the prison to my rusty little red car, on the last day of my prison teaching career.
Copyright by Margaret French