Unlearning Long Divisions: Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

When Mr. Hoffer walked in on his first day of Language Arts, he reminded me of a linebacker on a football team: tall, muscular, and big.

Adult students who return to school after dropping out have much to teach us about how people learn and what gets in their way–Mr. Hoffer was no different in that regard. At the beginning of a language arts class, I talked to each of my students individually. One particular semester, there were no white students in my language art classroom—the group was evenly split between Hispanic men needing help with English as a Second Language (ESL) and African-American men. These students had two identifying facts in common: all were labeled felons and they were all drop-outs, having left school at differing points. For almost all new students, their first job was to recover their confidence and not fall back into thinking they could not succeed. Almost everyone who returns to an adult education high school classroom needs to work on language skills and the purpose of the class was to address reading and writing.

In addition to being a man of large presence, Mr. Hoffer’s smile was big too. He wore that smile as he headed for the back corner of the room on the first day of class. I learned to pay attention to students who wanted to sit in the farthest corner and in the back row. Often this signaled that they were more nervous about their ability than those who sat in the front of the room.

Mr. Hoffer saw me coming toward him when it was his turn to talk to me and jumped up to find me a more comfortable chair. I thanked him for helping the man who was sitting next to him.

“How do you feel about being back in school?” I asked.

His face clouded and he said in a low voice, “Mrs. Wenzel, I was always in special ed.”

I was surprised.

A few weeks passed as I watched him carefully, noticing that he was always friendly, easy-going, and unflappable. If he couldn’t understand a lesson, he stuck with it until he did, often wanting to figure it out himself. He was reliable, always getting his work done on time, and focused and steady as he worked. He continued to be helpful to other students. People in the office reported that he had offered to help with anything they needed, so he was spending time doing routine office work in his spare time. As I watched him, I kept coming up with the word competent. I saw no special needs. When mid-term evaluations came around, I used the word competent, spelling out his strong skills as a student. He told me no one had ever told him that before. His test scores had improved by the end of the semester, giving him the confidence to take higher level classes. He handled those with ease.

As we prepared for graduation, he told me that his mother was coming from another state to attend, and how excited they both were. His smile spread wide across his face as he accepted his diploma and stood for the photograph with the superintendent. During the reception following the ceremony, I found his mother and told her how much we had enjoyed her son and how helpful he had been to other students–and to the program. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “I never thought I would see this day. He had such a horrible time in school.”

It is easy to pay attention to labels as a teacher. I have done that myself and not expected enough from my students. I wonder how the label of special ed that followed him from teacher to teacher and year to year—and the fact that he was an African-American growing up in a poor neighborhood—affected what kind of expectations his teachers had for him. I wonder about labels, how they get internalized, damage confidence, and affect student achievement. Somehow as an adult in his 20’s, Mr. Hoffer was able to overcome the negative labels enough to succeed in school. But if there was a direct link between his experience as a student when he was growing up and the fact that he committed a crime, as there often is, finding success in a prison classroom was a high price to pay.

Teaching Integrity

in·teg·ri·ty | inˈtegritē/ noun
1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
“he is known to be a man of integrity”
2. the state of being whole and undivided.
“upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty”

I was teaching Civics when I first introduced the subject of integrity to a prison classroom. I didn’t know what to expect. but from the first day, my students sat up straighter, talked a lot and wanted more.

To introduce the everyday occurrence of integrity, we began by informally chatting about how people make choices in their daily lives. We all agreed that very few of us get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and review our firm set of rules about living an ethical life.

In my experience, reading plays had been a very successful activity to do with any group. Because of that, I used Sophocles’ Antigone as a place to start. Antigone is a tragic play, in which the characters face questions of civil disobedience, personal morality, and justice. In particular, the play asks questions about actions in defiance of one’s state. The classic dilemmas presented in the story about loyalty, principles, and the pitfalls of pride reach across the centuries and provide rich discussions. I divided them into groups to discuss which character had the most integrity and which was the most tragic. Discussions were always lively and interesting.

Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, Integrity, discusses Antigone in the early chapters. The work spins out the breadth of the challenges and problems that the characters face in the play. I used other moral dilemmas in Carter’s book to challenge my students, and lively discussions were created with them too.

My goal was to help my students see the complexity in many moral decisions that often involve two Right positions and not one Wrong and one Right.

Twelve Angry Men, a play by Reginald Rose, is the story of  jury deliberations in a murder trial, is another classroom gem. In working through this lesson,  I found that furniture arrangement in the classroom proved important. When we shaped the desks so that they formed a simple square with everyone facing in, the students commented that they felt like they were on a real jury. The discussion on Twelve Angry Men revolved around what it means to stand alone against the group and how the evidence on the surface is rarely the whole story.

Another teaching tool came from the old game of Scruples, which includes a stack of cards with moral dilemmas printed on them. I sorted through the cards, keeping only those that applied to my students and put one student in charge of each card. He had to come to the front of the room and lead the discussion. By then, as a group, they had made a list of some “bottom-line belief statements” like: stealing is wrong, lying damages trust, and the Golden Rule. I loved watching their enthusiasm and the vigorous arguments, trying to let them handle it by themselves. I told them often that it was no different for me to do the right thing in my life on the other side of the prison fence.

The word discernment was new to them, but it was gratifying to see them use it once they understood the concept of taking time and deep thought to work out a problem, a life choice or an ethical challenge–and to work at seeing what was not on the surface: that most problems have no simple answers. I also could have used the Scruples cards as “filler” while waiting for lunch or the bell to ring.

I taught integrity at the beginning of any Civics class, as it gave us some language and understanding about how people learn to be good citizens and live peaceably with others. That being said, the issues of integrity, the problems of moral choices, and the hard human work of figuring out what guiding principles make up ethical living, should not be contained in an isolated educational unit.

My students were adults working on a high school diploma, but these discussions could be adapted to any group of students at any age. I think most people are hard-wired to want to do the right thing, but we don’t talk very much about how hard it can be. The feedback I got was that they appreciated thinking about what they valued and believed.

Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer by Richard Shelton

Crossing the Yard:Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, written by Richard Shelton, is a rare look into the lives of people incarcerated in maximum security prisons. The book tells of Shelton teaching creative writing to prisoners in grim and violent facilities as a volunteer for thirty years. This memoir, written with tough-minded honesty, forces the reader to see the humanity in condemned and forgotten people, and this interface between a committed, compassionate teacher and eager students reminds us of what is possible when people find their voices–and sometimes a new identity–in the process of writing. The stories compel us to see “bad” people in a new, more whole way and recounts the satisfaction of seeing their poetry published in various books, projects taken on by both Shelton and his wife.

The acclaimed poet Jimmy Santiago Baca was one of his students. The book points to the success of art programs inside prisons, and how creativity, especially in the writing of poetry, has the power to both flourish and heal. In the face of constant frustrations when dealing with the repression of prison systems, Shelton is a model of tenacity and courage. Crossing the Yard gives us examples of the triumph of the human spirit, in both teachers and students alike.

Published by the University of Arizona Press
ISBN: 978-0-8165-2594-2
Available in libraries and at amazon.com