Friday, April 27, 2012

"I'm on a mission from God." --Blues Brothers

Here's when you know you have had moderate success in the classroom: when, after studying poetry, rhyme, and general phonics throughout National Poetry Month (April), a student says something like, "You know, I woke up in the middle of the night and had a poem in my head.  I didn't get up and write it, but it was there."

Of course, I got all excited and told him that's what happens to real writers, that often writers keep a notebook beside their bed.

Let's make my gratefulness even more intense:  this is a guy whose native language is Spanish, who had to earn his GED in this country and barely wrote anything before going to jail.  He shows me pictures of his GED graduation.  He has earned certificates for completing hours of education.  I am so proud of him, and I tell him, whether he gets embarrassed or not.

I'm kind of squishy that way.  I tell my students I am proud of them, that I know they are working really hard, that English is difficult, that I worry about them and spend evenings making up lessons to "torture" them.  "I love my students," I tell them.  Some of them have no problem saying, "Your students love you, too, Mrs. G.," which is what they call me.

I don't bother trying to get them to say my last name except to explain that my married name is Gotthardt, which means "heart of God."  Then I tell them my maiden name is Mercurio, which means Mercury, the Roman deity considered to be messenger of the gods.  "So you're in big trouble," I say to them.

Names mean a lot.  I have students named after saints and angels. I tell them, "Only angels get into my class."  They laugh because they are no angels, but they also know I am serious.  Bad behavior will get them booted for good.  This is one reason I love my job, outside of it being so fulfilling:  I don't have to put up with much.  I always said I would never want to teach K-12 because I don't want to have to spend the whole day telling kids not to eat their crayons or sending them to the principal's office.  "If I wanted to teach kids, I would," I say to my class.  "I like teaching adults, and I like teaching here."

On the other hand, I tell my students they are my kids, that I've adopted them.  Some of them really have childlike mentalities because they never had a childhood.  Others have seriously undeveloped skills, and many others, only an elementary school education.  A goodly amount of my students have learning disabilities.  I know a lot of them also have mental illness.  I don't go into any of this with them because when we are in class, the playing field is level, and I don't want to get into their personal lives.  "What you do you there," I say, indicating to the hall and cells, "is your business.  What you do in here is mine."

Teachers in correctional facilities, like anyone else who works in that environment, have to keep their wits about them.  We have to inventory what we take into the class and what we take out.  These folks are creative geniuses.  A piece of tape can cause more mischief than most would imagine.  We don't use tape.  We don't staple papers or use paperclips.  Though we can give out regular pens so long as we count those we receive back, I never do.  I prefer to give them the high security flexi-pens.  If they need to take the pen with them to do their homework, I let them.  Otherwise, they have to buy their pens through the commissary.  If they work in the jail, it can take them a long time to earn the money.

I have great respect for my students, especially those who come regularly and do their homework.  I've got some guys who can barely spell "cat," but who don't give up.  They are tenacious.  I've got college ready guys who take on challenges even though they are GED grads and lack writing proficiency.  And I've got everyone in between.  These guys really make the classroom a community, with higher level students helping out lower level learners and when possible, working together outside of class.

Not only do I get to see my students' academic progress, I watch them as they develop spiritually, emotionally and socially.  Many of them attend Bible study, church and other programs designed to help them get back on track.  They get counseling.  The self realization they develop from participation is phenomenal.  The things that come out of their mouths are positively inspiring.  Last week, I had the class do a fill-in-the blank poem about what they are learning.  The easiest thing for them, of course, was to write "English."  But after that, they were on their own, having to take the assignment for homework (or back to their "hotel rooms" as I call it, to their amusement).

I came out of class yesterday refreshed and inspired.  Their struggles are everyone's--learning to cope, to interact with one another, to have patience, to make better decisions, to have hope, to look forward to a better future in spite of a difficult past. One guys wrote, "I am learning to be gentle."  Another wrote, "I am learning not to get angry when I feel disrespected."  I am reminded all the time that we as human beings are interconnected, that no one is an island, though we often feel or pretend we are.

There is something about working with the most needy students, the ones who are often abandoned because they are given up on as losses, that is more rewarding than anything else I've done in my life.  My mother says to me all the time, "What about going back to being a college professor?"  She is referring to my former years as a classroom adjunct teacher.  She is worried about my safety.  I explain I am where I am supposed to be, that this is the best job I have ever had, that I want to teach more classes there.  I tell her I am safer in jail than I am in a college where students sneak in guns and drugs, where gangs are more able to operate.  My students are a known quantity, and besides that, I don't get murderers.  She says she watches the news and hears about all the shootings in schools and on campus, and that, in some sick way, makes her feel better about what I am doing.

My mother works in a low-income school and knows first-hand what behavioral problems students bring with them.  She has to deal with those problems, many times without proper support because budgets are prohibitive.  She's in Florida, one of the worst states for education, poverty and homelessness.  She gets this illusion that working in a college is better.

What she doesn't realize is that I've always been drawn to the underdogs, that some of my favorite students attended a (rotten) business school and were from Southeast DC, which is not known for being safe or advantaged in any way.  Two-thirds of my students had disabilities of some kind.  Ninety-nine percent of them were below the poverty level.  Many of them were working and were the sole supporters of their families.  They had babies and young children.

My students described having to step over druggies to get down the hallway.  They've watched gang violence right in front of them.  They had to take public transportation to the suburbs, which means their commutes were often more than an hour long each way and required a mile walk from the bus stop to the school.

Many dropped out, leaving them with massive student debt and no skills that would get them a job to pay that debt.  Even those with criminal records (which many had) were promised gainful employment.  Students were either set up in low-paying jobs or couldn't get jobs at all. I fought the school, academic and state hierarchy.  I denounced the system that looked the other way as students weren't getting the support they needed and were being ripped off.  I finally quit working in the industry because I felt like I was aiding and abetting organizations that were defrauding students and ruining lives.

But this was a conundrum, because I also felt I was abandoning my students, and I could never explain to them why I had to leave.  If I told them, I could potentially leave them hopeless.  About four years ago, I ran into one of my ex-students who told me she had gone on to community college and graduated. I told her I was so proud of her.  It is always fantastic to hear stories like hers, and I meant what I said.  But she had been an "A" student all along, lived in a decent community, and, unfortunately, is a minority.  My experiences with career colleges have not been positive.

Community colleges are fabulous institutions, and I recommend them to anyone.  I graduated from an amazing community college.  The instructors there also taught at places like Harvard and Brown.  The education I received was superb.  I used to think I wanted to stay in that system, to earn my Ph.D. and get on a tenure track.  My Ph.D. program turned out to be bogus, and, apparently, community colleges cannot hire many full-timers.  I could have made a living as an adjunct, but my life and focus had changed.

I've worked in other traditional college settings as well.  Though the students were well behaved and I liked them, many of them were attending on mommy and daddy's dollars.  Most of them were in decent situations, though I won't pretend they didn't have their own challenges.  Night students came into class exhausted but motivated.  They were some of the best students I had.

Some of my day students were dirty rich and had no problem flaunting it.  A couple of students who rarely showed up for class thought they could get away with anything and tried to bribe me for an "A" without completing any work.

These are the things people rarely see.  People like my mother hear "college professor" and think prestige.  They think high salaries.  They think respect.  They blindly believe any institution labeled "college" or "university" is a quality school.

I know I am working in a quality program because I see what the jail system is doing for my students and how these students are progressing.  I used to chuckle at places being called "correctional facilities," or "house of corrections."  Now I don't because these places really are helping people correct themselves and move on.  There is the educational portion, and there is the disciplinary element.

The discipline is absolutely necessary because those who are incarcerated often have little self control, anger management issues and personality problems.  I tell the jail officers they have the difficult jobs, that I get to play good cop.  Everyone's function is crucial, however.  I just know I would have a hard time being the disciplinarian.  I don't accept poor behavior in the least, and I will do something about it, but my personality doesn't lend itself to keeping a poker face. 

I have a problem with private prisons run by corporations with financial incentives to keep people locked up in what easily becomes a dangerous, negative environment encouraging recidivism instead of progress.  And I have a problem with people being treated as things instead of human beings.

Sometimes I say to my students, "I like being in jail.  I have issues."  I laugh.  They probably think I am weird, but one student said to me, "I thank God for you.  Not many people want to be with us."  How's that for making you feel like you're on a mission?          

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