When I was 23 and went into the field of education, I never thought it would be something for which I would develop such a strong passion. Writing and Literature were always the undercurrent which drew me into the ocean of words, but as a practical person, I knew I would be loathe to find a career with more international appeal and necessity than that of an English Teacher. The marketability is an excellent fallback to avoid becoming a Starving Artist. The problem is that, as an actual classroom teacher, it’s a conundrum to find the hours to complete your writing. Lately, I’ve been stalled on a cycle of being too tired to write because I was giving too much of time to my students. I told myself that in the summer I would devote all my hours to my novel, the outline of which rests in a file beside this one. The novel itself is a document of scattered development which I haven’t opened since the end of June. I blame lack of time.
I’ve written previously about my inspiring students, but seldom of those who lag in the shadow of the successful. One of the most important things I’ve noticed as a teacher is that some children fall through the cracks; mainly the boys. There is much chatter in the media these days about how to catch our boys before they slip into the crevices beneath the boards of society. In each of those lost men’s faces on the news, I see that of an adolescent who once had dreams and promise, but got lost in the forest of poor choice.
It was late spring when I reached out to the Rehabilitation and Development Coordinator at Her Majesty’s Prison Service Anguilla with an offer to begin teaching English Literature to inmates. The process of orientation and preparation led to mid-July, when I entered the HMP to meet my class of three hand-picked individuals. The classroom environment itself was, ironically, more comfortable than that at the high school. The room was freshly painted a creamy white and an air conditioning unit dutifully churned out processed arctic air. There was no graffiti tagging on the desks and no one had ungratefully torn any of the motivational posters off the wall. Although, with its cleanliness and ordered environment, there was something missing. The noise of optimism didn’t dwell there, instead hung a sense of dejected acceptance somewhere nestled between the posters.
I sat at the clean, unmarred teacher’s desk and lined up my materials. Cell phones are not allowed on the prison compound and my addiction to social media as a time minder was showing. I lined and re-lined my pen parallel to my laptop, dry erase marker and volume of poetry. It would have been an apropos moment to say a clock ticked the time by, but the one which hung next to the white board was silent as the second hand made its steady rotation. Lost for how to occupy my existence without my phone, I stood by the door and watched as the first of my students made his way to the humble classroom block.
The loose ends of his du-rag trailed forlornly downwards framing his round face, the peak of it like a hood on his bent head. The standard-issue white tee and shorts made him blend in with the others so that, were he to deviate from his path, I would lose him in the herd of incarcerated men that dotted the basketball court beyond. He was grown in the way a boy is when he hasn’t finished maturing. His gait was not that of a cagey being as I had expected, but one of a creature accustomed to the routine of domestication. He moved with obedience and deliberation. The escorting officer unlocked the door and smiled as he said something indiscernible which elicited laughter between them. It was an ease of comradery that, observed in any other environment, would have marked them friends.
When I moved back to my seat behind the desk, I felt his gaze imbibing my movements as the other two students flanked in behind him. I walked like I didn’t know they watched me. It would make my work easier if we could all pretend I wasn’t a new female attraction in a prison of fifty-odd men. The first to enter had shy doe-like eyes that never left mine as I greeted them. Something about his attentive nature stirred the desire to hold my knowledge out like an offering to them. He took the middle seat. Another sat to his right and slouched back in the chair, taking ownership, his face arranged in a scowl. The third sat in the next available seat and carefully stacked his books and papers on the desk in front of him. The fact that I would leave this area for freedom in 59 minutes while they would remain for countless more quiet secondhand passes filled the rest of the space in the room.
I smiled and tried to begin the class as I would any other. I pretended we didn’t have a ghost observer in the back because (for my safety) I wasn’t supposed to be alone with them. They palmed the brand new poetry books provided specifically for my course and we spent time going through the list of poems together. I let them choose which we would discuss. When I asked who wanted to read, the man in the middle with the shy eyes began to speak, but looked up at me for permission. I nodded a go-ahead. He read the poem with the correct cadence, his voice clear and in possession of the words like he had read it before. As a teacher, you can sometimes gauge a student’s fluency through their ability to read unseen passages. His was well controlled which surprised me as I had formulated an unfair preconception based on his situation. The other two men nurtured this revelation as they astutely identified the literary devices and discussed the effects of such with one another.
Sitting there, behind the clean desk, in the room with no defaced walls, I saw a lesson taking shape not of my design. As always, learning is a two-way conduit. When I left on the first day, I told them they could read any of the other poems on the list and return next class prepared to discuss.
“Should we do an analysis of each one?” said the one with the discerning scowl.
A laugh snuck through as I pointed out that there were twenty-one poems on the list and only two days between our classes. “You probably won’t have time to do all that,” I said.
“We’re in jail. All we have is time.” He held both hands in front of himself plaintively as if I could see the abundant mass of minutes cradled in his palms.
My laugh twisted into something awkward and self-conscious before it took its own life. I looked down at my own hands and stuck one inside the other to hide the fact that I had no time. When I looked back up, they were smiling at me.
“It’s cool, Teach,” he said, sensing my unease. I started to realise the scowl was a permanent feature that didn’t unveil his true emotions. “We gonna see you next class and have all our stuff written.”
When we met again, they were in their seats before I arrived. As I took my chair, each of them handed me their notebooks with all twenty-one poems neatly analysed. It wasn’t perfect, but neither were they, neither are any of us really when you take the time to think about it.
If you would like to follow along with us, our list of poems, taken from the CSEC English B syllabus, is below. Later, we will be looking at the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the play The Tempest.