Being in class (6)

You enter with cardboard boxes: cupcakes with crazy colored icing and Philly pretzels with mustard, soda: a celebration for our last day of this school year. You are in the gym–- displacing the much larger Muslim religious group, and you hear complaints about this in the waiting area–because this is the only place you can bring food.

A large echo-y room where we converge under basketball hoops. The loudspeaker periodically statics out your conversation, a kind of blackout poetry in motion. Is the guard who tilts back on his chair outside the glass enclosure close enough to hear?

Your book is Orange is the New Black, you’re ready with questions and critique. When the first response is “this is prison lite,” many nod. Then she offers in a feathery voice, dazzling smile: I identified with this book, I feel just like Piper!

What?! You’re not like her, she has this, we don’t have any of that! (Not to mention that she’s white, comes from wealth, goes back to wealth and safety of a kind that seems just a fantasy from here.) Maybe because her prison is federal, they do say that’s different.

I wish I was on as much Prozac as you must be!

No, she says, living here–-in jail–-it’s living, for now, living where I am and experiencing what’s here, being here.

(Yes, and 17-30 years, depending.)

A woman in a black headscarf calls out: Oh no, I’m not doing that, they’ve got you institutionalized.

Oh no, do not say that to me!

And later, your colleague: In what ways are we also becoming (or how are we already) institutionalized?

Even those with genuine interest in change operate within the landscape of educational and correctional racism and classism…all players within the free market, creating a contradiction that is not often discussed: the interests in fighting ‘the system” are tempered by the fact that those actors are themselves “the system” and operate within the rabbit hole of the free market.1

Down this rabbit hole, the conversation winds deeper: Some women talk about what they’ve done to get here–-answering the question we don’t ask–-and a college student, passionately: College students are doing a lot of this same stuff on our campuses, the drugs at least, and they’re there, not here! We talk about who is here and who is not, who is living here and who refuses, the many names of refusal tattooed on arms, bellies, breasts.

A woman, animatedly: Mostly I just sleep, that’s the only way I can get through the time. (Just last week you learned from your students that this woman–mostly absent from our class this semester, or sitting silent and disengaged, or walking out–was an energized, highly involved participant in the other class last semester.)

Side-stepping the split between abolitionists and prison educators, Angela Davis maintains that we should work to “create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system.”2 And your colleague: But making this environment “more habitable” can indeed help to make it more permanent.

Again: the problem of our being here.

You have pulled in tight to hear each other over the crabby PA, sweet and saltymelding on our tongues as you struggle with our lives and beyond our lives, with what we can do here and how to change this system in which we’re all–with increasing clarity–-interconnected. And you’re feeling that not unfamiliar sense that even as you all reach hard, the questions too are hard, so gnarled and knotty, until finally she breaks in, the continuing sinner who you’ve known since coming here, who’s been here years longer than anyone is supposed to stay: No wait, and you’ve never heard her talking urgent like this: Can I just say something? What I do, what we try to do is connect with each other, I try to be there for you…

All are listening now.

Like I’ll say your name for something good, I’ll let you know about an opportunity, I’ll stick with you…we got more power together.

Weaving between what is immediately available as a story–and what your imaginations are reaching toward.3

The end of class is rushed: the officer off shift but his replacement not here, so he’s on you to leave. You go around, say a word about where you are: troubled, angry, complicated, upset…not the litany of inspired, content, thankful from other classes. A lanky and regal woman who often brings a sharp social analysis gives you this feedback for next semester: You’ve brought us books that really delve into the questions, now we need some solutions!

And then they are gone and you are emerging through gates and into the balmy brightness of a May afternoon. It is the Friday before graduation, and one of your students, a senior whose focus and ebullience has helped to carry your group, is crying, hard.

  1. Fasching-Varner, et. al, “Beyond School,” 423.
  2. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 103.
  3. Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 4.