My students steal pencils sometimes.
Or, they forget to give them back.
I think they think I don’t realize, but I do. The trouble is that I typically realize too late, after they’ve left the classroom or while I’m walking back through security. And then it seems pointless and petty and self-righteous to go back and ask the CO to ask them to gimme back the damn pencils.
Here’s how it works: every week I bring with me a box of freshly-sharpened #2s that they’re free to use in class. I hand out paper, a couple of sheets each, for them to complete the writing exercises, and copies of that night’s lesson, which they can take with them. But they’re supposed to return the pencils, partly because it’s against jail policy for me to give them pencils (occasionally a stern CO reminds me while I blush and nod and promise to do better), and partly because it seems like replacing and replacing and replacing pencils is just a waste of money, mine and/or the YWCA’s. I’ve been doing this for nearly two years now, and given the number of students that pass through the class (a little over seventy in 2011, if I recall), that actually adds up.
Each week I try to remember to mention the Pencil Thing at the beginning of class, as I’m passing out materials. Each week I try to remind everyone as they’re leaving: turn in your pencils. My students are all grown women, most older than me. Somehow that makes this whole situation slightly more obnoxious—the fact that stuff disappears at all, and the fact that I have to point it out like I’m talking to a roomful of children.
“Please give ‘em back,” I said last night, sliding materials to each participant, “because you’ll get in trouble if you’re caught with them, I’ll get in trouble if you’re caught with them, and because, frankly, it makes me look like an idiot if you’re constantly walking off with them. I’ll try to remember to ask if you’ll try to remember to return them.”
Four students left class early for visits, while the rest of us were in the middle of discussing a poem by Mary Wallach. When we were finished, as the remaining women were pushing back their chairs, I reminded them to pass back their #2s. They did, and only then did it occur to me to check my pencil box. It was forlornly empty. I glanced up at S. and K., two students with whom I’d been chatting.
“They took the pencils, didn’t they?”
“Yeah.” K. grimaced. “Walked right out with ‘em. Maybe they…forgot?” S. slipped away from the table and gathered my markers from the ledge of the whiteboard. She handed them to me quietly, an oddly touching gesture.
“Maybe they did,” I sighed. “But probably not.” I was tired, cranky for no really good reason, and in that moment I had to bite my lip against the urge to say something snarky, self-righteous, a complete and utter generalization: you guys realize, don’t you, that it’s in small, stupid moments like this that you either reinforce or complicate the stereotypes that “people like you” can’t be trusted, ever?
I didn’t say that. I was ashamed for thinking it, and I’m ashamed to type it out here. Seriously, Sarah? I thought, what the hell is your problem? At TCJC, my students are literally inhabiting punishment; they don’t need a lecture from me. All of us, myself included, have much bigger things to worry about than pencils, and there I was grinding my teeth about it.
It bugs me that it bugs me.
Yet what is the point of the stealing (or the forgetting to give back, whichever it may be)? And what does it say about me that it’s spark enough to set my insecurities—not just as a teacher— smoldering?
People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this? Surely, part of it comes from my being utterly convinced I’m a fraud.
- Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
Awhile back, I found out that the director of our literacy program, a sweet woman I deeply admire, nominated me for a state service award for the class at the jail. As part of the nomination, I had to write a short essay about why I volunteer as a tutor and about “any specific instances or students that have been particularly rewarding or challenging to me as a tutor.” I blinked at that a couple of times, then I set the nomination form aside for several days, and then I spent a large chunk of Thursday staring glaze-eyed at a blank screen, wondering what to say. I ended up writing generally about what we do in class; I wrote about what happens when it’s going well. Eventually I wrote this:
It’s difficult, then, to single out any specific students or experiences that have been particularly rewarding or challenging. Given the nature of the learning environment and the students, the rewards and challenges have always gone hand in hand; the class has been a steady parade of both. But there was a time one student came in to class waving a letter she’d written as an assignment the week before—a letter to herself, from the perspective of her husband, with whom she’d had an incredibly rocky marriage. She told me she had read it to him, prompting the first “healthy” conversation they’d had in months. Another time, after a writing exercise about plot, a student brought her work in and explained how the exercise had helped her better understand the series of events that once led her to attempt suicide and subsequently, what happened later to make her want to live. Then another time, a student came in weeping after a visit with her grandmother, who’d recently received hate mail on account of her granddaughter, her “trouble-making ‘mixed’ girl.” Coincidentally, the lesson that night was on slam poetry, including one poem dealing with the struggles and significance of being a mixed-race woman. The student read the poem with her head in her hands, eyes wide, shaking her head, interrupting her reading over and over to yelp, “She gets it! This lady GETS it!” I’ve watched students who claimed to hate school argue heatedly—supporting their opinions with critical thinking—about works of literature, issues of social justice, questions of human rights or aspects of women’s experiences; I have seen them weep while reading their own poetry and brief essays. They have told me how a writing assignment helped change their perspective about themselves, or turned into a letter to a spouse or family member that helped address an unhealthy relationship.
That definitely doesn’t happen all the time—not even most of the time…
Because jails and prisons, I wrote, aren’t really designed to foster growth and change and learning and engagement. They’re designed to sedate the spirit. Which is why it’s deeply encouraging when ideas are flying across the table, or women do have some revelation while writing, or they simply express pleasure at a bit of beauty in a work of literature…
Etcera feely-feel good etcetera.
I ended the essay on what I thought was a hopeful note, turned it in to my director, then drove to the jail for class. A few hours later, after the Pencil Thing, I just wanted the dumb essay back. I would scribble a postscript: Oh yes and by the way…
I can think of several reasons I’d steal a pencil or two or three, including but not limited to: if I were watched all day, every day, it would probably feel mighty good to get away with something. At least as my students have described it, when your world is reduced to a few small concrete rooms, all the little stuff matters way, way more than it ever would on the outside. You take whatever small victories you can get, however you can get them. And if that means not having to buy a stubby, high-priced pencil from commissary the way you’re supposed to because a flaky English teacher is handing out shiny, full-sized sharpened ones for free, why wouldn’t you? I would. It’s a little like giving The Man—wherever He may be—the middle finger.
But whether they know it or not, it feels like a sign of disrespect—a big middle finger—to me.
And that is perhaps the point that should concern me most.
It’s embarrasing to tell this story, but one of the things I aimed to do with this blog was swap stories of all shades and share small but hopefully useful revelations about teaching and making art and engaging both in a community setting. So. A few thoughts about those insecurities:
I’ve been mulling over Father Greg’s word fraud a lot these past couple of weeks, turning that passage over and over in my head. Last weekend during a quick visit to my old college town, I confessed to a dear friend, who’s also a teacher, “I spend most of my time winging it. I do not know what I’m doing.”
In fact I sort of wish someone had told me earlier that if I wanted to teach, then I’d probably spend a lot of my time feeling as Father G. said—like a fraud, like I don’t really know much about anything. Is that normal? (I might have heard the answer if I hadn’t dumped the Education half of my English Education degree in favor of a straight-up English degree and another minor because I thought my time would be better spent completely immersing myself in “my subject” instead of blowing it on education classes. I kid you not; I remember that high-falutin’ conversation with my mom.) I also wish they’d mentioned that a good lesson plan is more like a prayer than a plan: you fashion it as intelligently as you can with the information you have available to you, and then you hope it lands in the head or heart of someone who’ll do something good with it. And it certainly isn’t a suit of armor because teachers make themselves vulnerable each time they try to engage a group of students, regardless of the group demographics or learning environment or lesson content.
I’m thinking of the tedious, grinding class-after-classes when students sit and do little more than chew their fingernails and stare at me, or the whiteboard, or the cement walls, when I might as well be talking to lumps of tapioca pudding. And then there are the nights when I can’t seem to collect my own thoughts enough to guide a group of women into any kind of meaningful discussion. Also the nights when I’m just plain tired of teaching at TCJC, when I suspect neither they nor I have learned a thing, when leading that class feels more like an interruption than an opportunity. And what about the Effing Pencil Thing?
No one really mentioned either, by the way, how quickly I’d become so self-absorbed.
My friend is a PhD student in Literature and holds a Master of Divinity. She’s compassionate and critical. She teaches middle-school English. I suspect she knows more about Grace than I ever will. But she has little patience for fools or whiners. She cocked an eyebrow and said, “Seriously? Yes you do. Anything you’ve ever told me about class says you know what you’re doing, Sarah.” I shook my head. No, really, I thought, you don’t understand. (It’s true. Because clearly, teaching middle-schoolers isn’t a daily exercise in humility and vulnerability and winging it. Of course.) She wasn’t exactly saying, Get over it, but she might have been saying, Get on with it.
I’m not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only as a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.
- Father G.