Sometimes, doing the thing you love puts you in an unexpected position. Like trotting awkwardly through a prison yard with armed guards screaming at you to "RUN! RUN! RUN NOW!"
When I was a graduate student getting my MFA in creative writing, I had the honor and privilege of participating in the renowned Cornell Prison Education Program as a student instructor. Every Monday night, a handful of my fellow grad students and I would drive an hour up the lake and through the snow to Auburn, New York, a small town with a very big prison. There, after passing through a series of security checkpoints (more on those later) and the prison yard (a lot more on that later), we were ushered into a classroom -- which looked shockingly like every institutional classroom I've ever been in -- to lead a dozen or so guys in a workshop in creative writing.
We were supposed to be the "teachers." We were in our 20s and early 30s. We were all white. We were serious, but trying not to take ourselves too seriously. We weren't trying to save anybody. We were just there because we liked writing and other writers, and because there was a need for teachers. There's always a need for teachers.
On the one hand, it was an opportunity to talk about writing with some of the most dedicated writers I've ever met, behind bars or outside. It was a teaching experience unlike any other I've ever had, and the most respectful, thoughtful, meaningful classroom environment I've ever been in. It was probably one of the most worthwhile things I've ever done, as a teacher or a writer -- not because of anything I did, but because the men in the class were so committed and honest. And it was also a strenuous weekly exercise in checking my privilege.
On the other hand, it was harrowing and deeply weird. As you might imagine. Partly because the school year kicked off with a stabbing.
Auburn Correctional Facility, the oldest working prison in the country, is where the archetypal black-and-white prisoners' uniform debuted, along with execution by electricity, and the justly disparaged "Auburn method" of forced penal labor in combination with solitary confinement. Alexis de Tocqueville visited and wrote about Auburn in the 1830s, not entirely approvingly. Auburn is where most of New York State's license plates are made.
It's a maximum-security men's prison built on the old-school model: The main building, which houses administration offices and men's quarters, takes the shape of a square around a central yard, with outbuildings on the perimeter for classrooms, workshops, and the like. Our classroom was in an outbuilding on the far side of the prison from the front gate, and in order to get there and back, we walked through the yard.
On the way to class, the yard was empty, but keenly watched through the prison windows by some of the men -- a few of whom liked to use our passage as an opportunity to bark like a dog, or to offer unsolicited advice about my butt, or my hair, or the apparently inescapable aroma, even from a distance of several hundred yards, of my pussy.
To be clear: these through-the-window-pussy-sniffers were not the men in our writing class. I know this because by the time we arrived at the prison each week, the men in our class were already in the process of lining up to join us in the outbuildings. More to the point, I know it wasn't them because the men in our class were unfailingly courteous, and for good reason. None of them would have done something so stupid as to yell out a window at a woman in the prison yard; primarily because they weren't jerks. But also because doing something like that could cost them admission to class, which as many of them told us, was the one thing they had to look forward to every day of every week.
It was clear to all of us teachers that the men for whom we crossed the yard intended to come across to us (and to me in particular as the one woman in the classroom) as gentlemen. Not only in the way that they comported themselves toward us, but in the way that they acted with each other, and even toward the corrections officers who escorted us, and them, into and out of class.
We never went anywhere without officer escorts, and neither did the men in our class. The men were usually taken in a group to the classroom buildings to wait for us teachers to arrive and depart, and sometimes they waited outside in bad weather for no discernible reason. Weather was the least of it, of course. Every week, the men who made it to class were making it despite considerable obstacles, the biggest of which was simply prison life itself, a minefield of rules and lockdowns and uncertainties, a series of hammers in the process of being brought down, usually by the officers. Who, I should say, were just as courteous, for the most part, as the men in their charge, but who had a lot of perfectly good reasons to dislike us.
Corrections officers at Auburn had an ambivalent relationship with the Cornell Prison Education program long before my particular group showed up, and long before the night in question, which I swear I'm going to get around to really soon, like in a second. But you need to understand: We Ivy League grad students were there to offer imprisoned men college classes for free, as part of a severely hobbled but still trucking prison education system that had endured a devastating blow in 1994 with the withdrawal of Pell loan monies for prisoners, but still survived in a handful of small prisoner education programs, like what CPE was when I participated.
No one was offering prison guards free college classes.
But the officers were going to bring us to our classroom and back anyway, and they were nice enough about it, even though the class could be seen as disruptive ("I CAN SMELLLLLL IIIIIIIIIIT!"), maybe even dangerous. Dangerous to them, mostly, since if anything happened as a result of our being there, it was their trouble to handle, not ours.
On the way back from class, which was invariably demanding and sometimes emotional, we teachers would be escorted by the officers through two security checkpoints: One at the exit to the classroom building, and another at the re-entry point to the prison yard. At that time of the night, the yard was never empty. Ten p.m. was outside time, and most of the men went out into the yard to smoke and talk in groups.
Teachers were under orders to walk in a straight diagonal line directly from the outer gate across the yard to the inner gate, with an officer leading and an officer following. This was standard procedure whether there was anybody in the yard or not, actually -- we did the same lineup-and-straight-shot on our way in, too. The only difference on the way out was that we were announced: "Teachers coming through!"
I know how hopelessly self-important this sounds, but that shout always made me feel a little bit proud. “Teachers coming through.” I'm descended from a long line of educators and teachers, and I don't know of many other places on Earth where anybody pays attention to a parade of teachers, besides in prison. Trash-talking nutbags aside, teachers were respected in that place. We were like ambassadors from another planet.
The yard was big. It took several minutes to cross. We weren't supposed to make eye contact with anybody. I'm not sure whether the other teachers ever did, but I don't remember anybody ever actually trying to make eye contact with me. Except for the one time that somebody got stabbed.
Here We Go
It happened the second week that we were there. The first week had gone smoothly enough, but as teachers and first-time visitors to the prison, we were still getting used to the scanning and the hand-stamps and the preposterously shiny floors and the endless lining-up and the unsmiling professionalism of the staff. We'd had two classes, both exhilarating and exhausting. We were already in the practice of drinking a lot on the nights we taught at the prison, and not even together in a bonding, chummy way, just drinking a lot, completely alone.
I wouldn't compare the toughness of what we were doing to anything really hard, like serving in the military or doing time in jail -- we were just teaching a creative writing class, obviously -- but still, it wasn't easy being there. I was glad to be doing it, every second that I was doing it, and just as glad not to be doing it every second that I wasn't.
On our way to the gate that let into the yard, we passed our class, huddled up in jackets against the chilly, wet, fall night. They said thanks again, we said good night no thank you see you next week, and the officers led us past. We always went ahead of them. At the gate, the escort at the head of our line picked up a phone in the wall to tell an officer across the yard that the teachers were coming through. A red metal door, impossibly tall, swung across and open, and we were led into a short, dark passageway. In front of us was the yard, the starry cold night, lots of guys standing around doing their thing, whatever it was.
"Teachers coming through."
Someone outside echoed it. "Teachers coming through."
That was when we noticed a guy leaning against the wall near the gate, smiling. He had his right ankle up on his left knee, and he was rubbing it. He said, "My ankle hurts. My ankle hurts." Then he smiled at me. I think I smiled back. We kept walking.
"Here we go," someone behind me said.
Behind our little processional, there was a sudden scrum of movement, mostly shuffling. You could sense it more than you could see it, like being just ahead of a plume of smoke. You could hear short shouts; you could hear some people running. You could hear guards. Then suddenly they're running at you, those guards, and shouting at you, and reaching for the weapons hanging on their belts.
I looked around at the teachers behind me. Are we going to run? Really? They all looked as uncertain as I felt. Run? Wouldn't that look weird? Like we were afraid of these men? Wouldn't that send the message that we thought they might do us harm? Wasn't that the opposite of what our being there at all was meant to communicate?
More guards now, running hard in our direction. Some of them surrounded us, shouted at us. "RUN! RUN NOW!"
We'd already seen officers respond with force to seemingly minor infractions -- they would end class early if it looked like the guys were getting too "into it." So now how seriously do we take this threat, if that's what it is? We're not supposed to be on their side, or even on the men's side -- we're supposed to be above it all, somehow, free-floating, independent, outside the rules that govern this place but acquiescing to them nonetheless in order to graciously share of our great, accredited, supernova talents. How bad is it going to look if we, with all our noblesse oblige, skitter around on command like marbles after a sharp shot?
We take off at an awkward trot, book bags bouncing against our legs. We are trying to maintain our collective dignity. We are not trying to look as if we're overreacting. We don't know yet that someone behind us has been stabbed 12 times.
Teachers coming through. It was the signal to put something terrible into motion that almost ended some guy's life.
Weren't You Afraid?
The "UI," or "unusual incident," happened in our second week, as I said, but it didn't prevent teachers from coming back after the ensuing prison lockdown, which canceled class for a week. There were a number of lockdowns that canceled class that fall and the following spring, but teachers kept coming back to the prison, and they're still going there now. The program has grown in strength and size since a big funding shift in 2009. For the first time since the 1990s, there's a real conversation happening about funding educational loans for prisoners. If you can possibly do it, if it's within your power, you can volunteer for the Prison Education Project or donate to the Cornell Prison Education Program yourself.
Whenever I tell people I taught at a men's maximum security prison, I'm asked if I was afraid to do it, and in response I usually tell this story, the story of the night that we probably should have been scared, but were too dumb and conflicted to even know it.
The truth is, I wasn't scared, that night or any night. I wasn't scared, but I was stupid, and after that night especially I knew it, which felt worse than fear. In fact I never felt stupider in my life than when I was teaching that prison class. What, after all, did I have to teach them? Not much, as it would turn out.
We live in a country that has 25% of the world's prisoners. We live in a country where between the 1980s and the early 2000s the prison population increased from a few hundred thousand to a couple million. Where we lock up insanely disproportionate numbers of people of color -- 1 in 6 African American men (or 1 in 3, depending on your data source), 1 in 100 African American women, 1 in 36 Latino men. There's a lot to be afraid of in these numbers, among them the unthinkable inequalities baked into in our system of justice.
There's not a lot to be afraid of in a classroom full of men determined to learn and understand and communicate and think. There are assholes in prison, make no mistake -- assholes who will take advantage of an opportunity to end someone's life. There are also men who will take advantage of an opportunity to change someone's life.
They taught me. They taught me to write even when you are scared. Write because you are scared. Write around the scared. Write to the scared. Write to make fear into something like belief in yourself