Being in class (1)

From our reading list, 2012- 2015:

Audre Lorde, “Silence into Action”
Alice Walker, “Beauty”
Jennifer Gonnerman, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Jane Bartlett
Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story
Ernesto Quinonez, Bodega Dreams
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”
Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”
Sapphire, Push: A Novel
Chimichanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle: A Memoir
Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings, Bad Kings: A Novel
Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More

Since photos are not allowed, see this: a dim squarish, windowless room of indeterminate color lit by ceiling fluorescents, long tables pushed to the edges to make room for a circle of those curved plastic chairs, not curved to any body you know. Shot from above, this resembles a ritual clearing.

This is how you teach: An introductory go-round with names and a question, either connected to the book or not, serious or playful or both. If you could have a superpower, what would it be? I’d fly right out of here. If you were a marine creature? And then you’re in the book: sometimes all or most of the participants have done the reading, and some have gone on and finished and can’t wait to talk about the ending, but often some have gotten the book and others not, some have read and others not. This goes for the college students too. So often you start by asking those who’ve read to share their responses and questions, and this might take us in. Or read a passage together, go from there. You mean to write to a prompt and then share, though often don’t get there, and end around the circle with a sentence or word as you drop nametags into the bag.

All or most are reading Bodega Dreams, so your first go-round, this time, is about characters: a lot of you pick Sapo, Chino’s best buddy who’s making it on the street, because he’s real; and a number choose Blanca, Chino’s wife and a good girl; one goes for Negra, Blanca’s edgier, darker sister, and you’ve been thinking about her too. No one chooses Vera because she’s really evil which means you don’t care about anyone but yourself.

Then the conversation gets going on whether Chino–-who’s struggling with the dual identities of schoolboy and streetguy–is ratting when he goes to the cops. What’s the difference between ratting and telling? This is a nuanced and spirited conversation, with some saying it’s about motivation (is it just to save yourself? is it spiteful, or for some greater good?), and about whether and how you are implicated in the wrongdoing. Last week there was a fight at the jail: not going to anyone as it was coming on but then telling later, trying to make your own deal a little sweeter–that’s ratting.

Kindred opens with an arm in a wall–-physical and symbolic manifestation of a Black woman time-traveling to save a white ancestor. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls” schools young females raised by wolves, now in the throes of cultural assimilation. A graphic in Persepolis parallels the explosions of partying and bombing in Tehran. In these texts you explore the inexorability of the past; the tension of accommodation and resistance; the relationship between celebration and violence.

You know why you’re here. These are exhilarating, nuanced classroom conversations in which you draw on connections between the texts and your lives to sharpen and deepen your analyses.You know why you’re here. These are exhilarating, nuanced classroom conversations in which you draw on connections between the texts and your lives to sharpen and deepen your analyses. Megan Sweeney claims that reading “enables some women prisoners to gain self-knowledge, contextualize their experiences in relation to larger frameworks, mediate their histories of victimization and violence, and develop an understanding of the limits and possibilities of individual agency.”1 Yes, and too, you feel language as alive, ideas as agents in our classroom.

Longtime prison educator Rob Scott warns that while teaching in prison can be exhilarating and inspiring for teachers, this doesn’t mean that you are doing radical work inside. Scott suggests that one “of the roles of radical teaching is to expose the silence on power relations as a phenomenon of choice.”2 You want to do this, try to figure out what he means, what it might actually look and feel like to teach toward this. During planning sessions at the college you explore the implications of power relations in the classroom–-tongue probing sore tooth–-but inside again you shy away: want neither to flaunt nor to deny power, and thus too readily comply with silence.

See now a short, silent clip, black and white: women of various shapes and sizes, skin tones and hair color, wearing boxy shirts and pants or college casual, leaning in to invest, leaning away and withdrawing into themselves, as words meander and then shoot like spit across our circle.

You read a passage from Bodega Dreams about school as utterly alienated from the lives of these characters, then veer into a discussion of parents’ roles in their children’s education. She says she tried to be there to check her children’s homework but often couldn’t be; she jumps in, says, Youhave to be!; but I was working three jobs to put food on the table!; and: my father always checked that homework anyway, no matter what! You got to have priorities! Bodies shifting, voices high, hard, pleading.

And of course in this moment, everyone is here, no one home checking children’s homework.

And yet, Avery Gordon describes our lives in terms of “hauntings”3: we are in more than one place, time, material reality, both here and there, now and then, sitting in this circle and at home, where you might be checking your children’s homework.

And yet, you are in this room in this moment: your splintering voices creating a cacophony of guilt and accusation, longing and regret. What choices do people make, do people have, in light of poverty, race, history; stacked decks, necessary priorities? And time is up. Your colleague starts to close class, you interrupt to say something, anything, about listening/respecting/learning from and with each other; you feel this to be misguided, inadequate; realize later that it misses the underlying stream of desire. Could a politics of desire help us interrogate this “shadow discourse of personal responsibility,”4 the larger picture that embraces social context? Is there an opportunity here to interrogate ways that dominant ideals inflect individual guilt, divisions, and judgments among the people in this room? And even this “near-miss” teaching moment5 begins to lift a curtain on the web of power relations in which you are all enmeshed.

You have dinner with three friends, all social workers, and they take you to task: You’re raising all these trauma-triggering subjects, and then just leaving–?! They ask questions about where the women might go during the week when we are not there. You know they’re trying to support you, feel caught nevertheless.

At your planning session you talk with your colleague and students, share worries about reactivating trauma, consider ways to mitigate: Should you be telling the social worker more? You fear compromising confidentiality. Checking in more explicitly at beginning and end of sessions? You are not therapists.

Fraden notes,

In theory, the disciplines of education, therapy, and art can be clearly separated, but in the jails, in practice,” it may be difficult “to separate drama’s ability to educate from its ability to provide therapy.” Theater director Rhodessa Jones deliberately mixes them up, the education and therapy folded together into what she has called ‘creative survival.’6

You wonder about the relationship between recognizing the enormity of trauma and acknowledging what Avery Gordon calls “complex personhood,”

the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated. Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward.7

You talk with your husband, who works as a therapist. He says that just as trauma reorganizes the brain to shield the self, other experiences can reorganize the brain to open up. He tries to help people move from identifying as victims toward a larger sense of complex personhood, to claim a sense of self that is more than their trauma. Activating this “adaptive resilience” engages a sense of agency, of competence, of a dense, available network of connections. Your role is different, he acknowledges, but brains are porous: what is happening outside is also inside; what happens in book group is part of how people are processing identities: the self is intellectual, people take what you say seriously.

Though you never ask the women why they are here, sometimes stories get told. You hear Fraden’s caution: “Storytelling can be a con game, a trick used against one’s foes. It can also be the beginning of a different drama–a way to imagine, if not live out, a new life.”8 Stories can weave new narratives, skeins of connection. Tuesday morning your team meets, works through the nitty gritty of the upcoming class: which passages, who will do the intro, how about the copying? Also, teaching questions: what kinds of gaps are we leaving that might summon stories “reaching toward” new imaginings, toward each other?

  1. Megan Sweeney, Reading Is My Window; Books and The Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 6.
  2. Rob Scott, “Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison,” Radical Teacher 95 (Spring 2013): 22-32.
  3. Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
  4. Michelle Fine and Jessica Ruglis, “Circuits and Consequences of Dispossession: the Racialized Realignment of the Public Sphere for U.S. Youth,” Transforming Anthropology 17, 1: 20, accessed May 20, 2016, doi: 10.1111/j.1548-7466.2009.01037.x)
  5. Eve Sedgwick, “Pedagogy of Buddhism,” inTouching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003), 154.
  6. Fraden, Imagining Medea, 76.
  7. Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 4.
  8. Fraden, Imagining Medea, 48.