Power to the People!

Here’s some good news, in what feels like a dark time for many people. We do have power.

One of the first things we did in our civics classes was to look carefully at the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches in order to understand their powers and functions, why and how the three branches of government were set up, the interaction and restrictions between them. Checks and balances were set up so that none of the branches would have too much power. We can look to the situation Obama was in as Congress obstructed him, most recently and importantly by refusing to even look at Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

My students agreed that with elections every four years and campaigns lasting so long, too much attention is put on the president, which leads to misconceptions about who holds the power. My students were surprised by the number of actions the president cannot take. Democracies are set up so that the ultimate power lies with the people.

We live in a complicated system and a complicated world. It isn’t easy to figure it all out, but if we don’t read newspapers, listen to the radio, look at lots of sources, we lose our power. The last election laid bare the misinformation that people have about how the government works and who can fix the problems. The president, no matter who he or she is, cannot fix much in our individual lives. So much is up to us, we the people. We need to know who represents us,  this website is just one of many sources: whoismyrepresentative.com.

The Republicans in Congress are giddy about their power right now, holding majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the White House. There is a lot of chatter about their desires to repeal Obamacare—without any viable plans to replace it, which would take health insurance away from millions of people. Kids in their twenties could not stay on their parents’ plans nor could people get insurance with a pre-existing condition. There is talk about saving those two plans, but without the mandate to buy insurance, those parts are not affordable. They would like to privatize Social Security and Medicare. George W. Bush tried this, but he found little support from the American people. No one knows which side of these issues Trump will finally land on, but for people who are worried about issues important to them—now is the time to exercise our power.

Our elected representatives think about one thing all the time: getting re-elected. I heard a state representative on the radio one day talking about hearing from his constituents. “If I get even one letter on an issue, I pay attention to it.” In Michigan, legislators are term limited. In the House, they can serve three two-year terms. In the Senate, they can serve two four-year terms. House members just get there—and they need to start fund-raising and running for office again, which makes it very important for them to tune in to what their constituents are saying.

Though the Senate is the more powerful body and people serve six-year terms in Washington, people in the House of Representatives serve only two years. The House was designed to be more responsive to the people. That only works if we do our job. As one of my foreign students noted on a particularly contentious day in civics class, “Americans have one great talent, and that is to complain.” I complain when I feel powerless. I think a lot of people feel forgotten and powerless. The good news right now is that people are getting organized and engaged in the system. Here are four ways to put pressure on the people who represent us.


1) Attend Town Halls

Most members of Congress hold regularly scheduled “town hall” meetings, where they meet and listen to their constituents, the people who voted for them. If our elected officials are doing their job, they want to hear from us, so we need to stand up and make our ideas and feelings known on the issues we care about. Our job as constituents is to keep our elected officials accountable. If they try and duck a question or we don’t feel satisfied with the answers, we can tell him or her that we will be spreading the word. Or, we can e-mail or snail mail them. Our attention needs to go to our own representatives. Even though it’s tempting to contact other people, if we aren’t voting for them, they will not care.

2) Non-Town Hall Events

Every member of Congress loves holding public events back home that increase their visibility and provide “photo ops”. We can show up and press the questions about the issues that are important to us.

3) Go to District Offices

Members of Congress and state legislators check in at their district offices to meet constituents, sometimes on a regular basis. Their schedules should be available from the district office staff. We can ask for a meeting with them, prepare good questions and ask them. They have no idea how much influence we may have over others in the district, so if we are a member of a committee or a group, we need to say so. They need to know we will report back to other people. If they won’t meet with us, we can get that word out—with the media or on social media.

4) Coordinate Phone Calls

This method is the cheapest and quickest, and it has the best potential to get the attention of a member of Congress or a state legislature. We can organize a group of people who really care about an issue, say Social Security or the ACA. The more people—the better. We can prepare what to say, and when it is convenient for everyone, make the phone ring off the hook! Staff members might ask for our name and address and are usually very friendly. Terms in office are not permanent, and people usually want to keep their jobs! There is strength in numbers and numbers add up!

Citizens behind bars have very little power, so one of the lessons I wanted to convey was that my students were able to wield some power politically. They did not believe me—initially. Our high school program inside prison had its funding threatened and cut all the time. Our students worried constantly that it would be eliminated. We invited a state representative, a Republican who had been in adult education himself, to visit our Civics class. He was very impressed by the students and encouraged them to write letters. I made it an assignment, telling them they could write to whomever they chose. In a state-wide coordinated effort, we did manage to delay some funding cuts. For a while, our program had a federal literacy grant, and that was threatened too. When three men said they wanted to write to Vice-President Dick Cheney, I balked a little, thinking he would be the last person to support such a program. My students reacted with, “You said we could pick!” I backed down and a group of five men wrote heartfelt letters about how much they valued being in school. The letters went out at the end of the year, pleading with Mr. Cheney not to cut any of the small federal grant we were receiving. I promptly forgot about it.

When I came back to school in September, our program director handed me a large package. Attached to my students’ letters was a page that went right down the line, the “chain of command,” from the vice-president’s office to the attorney general, to the head of the Bureau of Prisons to the regional director, to our warden, to the prison educational office and then…across the hall to our high school office. Except for the local people, everyone of these people had signed off, several of them commenting, “It is obvious how much these men value being in school.” I was shocked—and couldn’t wait to share it with my students. I will never know if Dick Cheney had anything to do with it, but our federal funding stayed in place. Even better, my students felt like they’d been heard.

I know it’s easy to feel like we don’t count and that we are powerless to affect any change. We can expect some confusion and conflict. As Obama says, “Democracy is messy.” Our job is to hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire. If they don’t do their jobs—they can be beaten either in a Democratic or Republican primary or in a general election. People must be informed and we must vote. The system sometimes feels like steering a large ocean liner in a storm, but it works far better when people are aware and make their voices heard. 

One last thing, some wisdom from a few of our Founders:

When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

—Thomas Jefferson

Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you.

—Benjamin Franklin

The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.

—James Madison

Power to the People!

Voting is…Falling in Love!


Voting is…Falling in Love!

“When people asked me what it felt like to vote for the first time, I answered, “What does it feel like to fall in love?” said Desmond Tutu, social rights activist and retired Episcopal archbishop of South Africa. America is supposed to be the world’s beacon of democracy, so we should never take voting for granted—nor should we deny it to anyone who can legally vote.  It is no small thing—nor is voting responsibly easy.

2016 is a year filled with chatter about both rigged elections and voter suppression. Any search of voter fraud issues brings up lots of fact checks about how rare it is: Trump’s Bogus Fraud Claims.

Voter suppression is the other far more important story. People of color and women have endured all kinds of tactics since our beginnings. Abigail Adams cried to husband John, “Remember the ladies!” Though black men were given the vote after the Civil War, all kinds of tactics from poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses ensured they could not vote. (Black grandfathers had been enslaved, therefore black people could not vote, but the grandfather clause protected poor whites from literacy tests and poll taxes.) More modern kinds of intimidation continue from purging voter rolls; from flyers, billboards and robocalls that give false information; from tactics that make voting more difficult like ID laws, difficult procedures to register, cutting back on early voting and polling places that favor people of color.

I am interested in the disenfranchisement of many of our returning citizens coming out of prison, who face huge obstacles in voting in many states. The chart is this article: State Felon Voting Laws shows current laws and regulations: 20% of states may take people’s right to vote away permanently, once again saying, “We will never stop punishing you if you’ve served time in prison.” Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have unrestricted laws allowing people behind bars to vote.

I have fond memories of my students in prison organizing and carrying out presidential elections. As an election inspector in Michigan, I had access to the authentic forms and procedures needed to register, to vote and to count the votes. My students elected two co-chairmen each time, who took everything very seriously and followed the rules to the letter. It was painful to talk to my students about the importance of voting, because some of them were people going home to states that would make it very hard for them to vote—if ever. As an election inspector, I watched people voting for the first time look very nervous. Those of us who have voted comfortably need to recognize how intimidating it can be. I was moved by this man’s story from the Marshall Project and how much pride he takes in voting after being in prison.

A Former Prisoner on Voting for the First Time in his Life

Voting is no small thing. It says so much about taking charge of our lives in concert with other citizens. It says, “I count too.” It’s like falling in love to know you have a stake and a voice in your future and the future of your family and community. All of that makes it sacred. To make it difficult to vote, to make such a fundamental part of our democracy intimidating or to take it away completely is to deny someone their humanity. It should never happen.

Prison Stories: A Good Apology


A Good Apology

One of the most important lessons I learned from my students in prison was the value—the necessity—of making mistakes. We all make mistakes. All the time. We are not designed to be perfect. In fact, I’ve noticed that perfect people—and people who have all the answers—seldom win popularity contests or find many close friends. Being open, vulnerable and willing to admit what we do wrong does connect us in far more genuine ways.

I learned to ask my students,”Who made a good mistake?” We defined that as one that teaches us something. Learning requires confidence, but a healthy dose of humility is required too. Mistakes help us learn more than doing things perfectly. Lessons learned from mistakes stick with us longer. People in prison are intimately aware of their own mistakes—and, I might add, fairly observant of other people’s missteps, especially those of elected officials. People who live behind bars develop a sharp sense of justice, often because justice has been denied them.

My students and I tossed a lot of these issues around in civics class as we were all learning how to be better citizens by resolving conflicts, shoring up relationships and building community. Many of the men I knew had been hurt—and had hurt others. Many felt betrayed by people who were supposed to care about them:  their school systems, the police and the larger community. Questions about forgiveness and apologies rose up. At a particularly difficult, painful and contentious time in our American life together, I’ve watched people in power apologize. They could have used some lessons from the men I knew behind bars.

We talked about what makes “a good apology,” what to do and what not to do. My students roll played, talked in small groups and thought about the apologies they had experienced. We concluded that most people usually know when they’ve hurt someone else. Together, my students and I came up with a few basics:

      1. Be careful of timing. Don’t wait too long, but avoid trying to apologize when people are still angry and not able to hear clearly.
      2. Some soul searching is sometimes necessary to figure out what we’ve done wrong. Asking the person you’ve hurt how they feel helps too. Validate their feelings. For example: “When I shared something after you told me not to, you must feel hurt and betrayed.”
      3. Acknowledge your regret for your behavior and ask if the other person can think of a way to repair the damage.
      4. Announce that you will try very hard to never repeat the behavior.
      5. Recognize that it often takes time to re-establish trust.

Behaviors that make things even worse are:

      1. Not apologizing directly to the person you’ve hurt.
      2. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
      3. Pulling in a 3rd person without permission from the person you’ve wronged. “Triangles” usually complicate things.
      4. Saying, “So and so does it too!” or “So and so does it far worse than me!”

Ironically, owning our own behavior and apologizing gives us more freedom. It makes us human. It connects us to people. It can go a long way toward healing the brokenness between and among us.

Erick Erickson: The GOP After Donald Trump, an article and a video from the New York Times on October 14, 2016 about a RedState gathering of Never Trump Republicans, shows how upset and unsure people are about the future of the GOP. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I don’t agree with most of their stances on issues, but I wish I could sit down and talk to people who do not agree with me.  No one party has all the answers. I know that for a healthy democracy to work well, we need a healthy party (or parties) on the other side. I love the idea that truth—and often the solution to problems—comes out of both sides listening carefully. Compromise is essential. Our elected officials used to do this in the chambers of Congress, but our deep divisions and the demonizing that is happening in our current politics is poisoning the air and making progress almost impossible.

As citizens in what is supposed to be a participatory democratic system, we cannot let ourselves off the hook by pointing at “corrupt politicians” or constantly demonize people on the other side. Both liberals and conservatives do it, along with shouting and name calling. Our elected officials reflect who we are, and we need to do the work of mending and moving forward. We also need to realize that there are 535 people in Congress, and many still try hard to reach across the aisle and work things out with creative, respectful,  bi-partisan cooperation. They need our support.

I am so moved and impressed by the Republicans in this video who are stopping to ask what responsibility they’ve had in creating the deep divisions. Katie Pavlich from Fox News says she feels demonized by the left for her beliefs. She also says we care about the same issues. I think so too. Glenn Beck says he has been doing some painful soul searching about his part in the great divides. He is wanting to do more listening and says we must start talking to each other and chart a new course. We can all do that! We can listen and own our part in the brokenness and bitterness.

Krista Tippett’s Civil Conversations Project on OnBeing.org has a place to start. With two people holding opposing views, her questions are: 1) What in your own position makes you uncomfortable? 2) What do you admire about the people and positions on the other side?

Part of the problem is our geographic divisions and the difficulty of meeting and knowing people who are different and hold very different ideas. After growing up in northern Michigan with people very much like me, one of my life’s greatest gifts was having the privilege of teaching in a federal prison. Almost no one shared a background like mine. My students challenged me, made me squirm, and made me change my mind about the country I live in. They also nurtured me for twenty-five years. I owe them, and writing my book is one way to give them a voice. Now in this painful and difficult time, I want to meet and talk to people on the other side of the political fence—listen carefully and own my part of the problem. Good apologies are a good place to start and go a long way toward pulling us together again.



Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

The Well-Traveled Path

Our future doesn’t lie in the towers of power but in the well-traveled path from house to house.

Sometimes deep and sturdy wisdom comes in just a few words. This quote comes from NPR’s program OnBeing with David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for his work with interfaith dialogue. This simple sentence speaks volumes to the people of Michigan right now as we grapple with the unbelievable crisis of poisoned water in Flint. Democracy has taken a huge hit, and the people in Flint and in Michigan feel that government has failed them.  

I taught the state-required course in government with my incarcerated students. They didn’t trust the government either.  In fact, the mere word put them in the red zone. Most of them, imprisoned for drug offenses with very long sentences—and most of them people of color—had just cause to distrust the system they labeled as racist, corrupt and unfair. In the early years as I was finding my way, I got a knot in my stomach at 9:30 when my students filed in and took their seats in their least favorite class. Let me simply say we had some miserably bad days. We stumbled along. My first mistake was in thinking that I had to be in charge.

While teaching the course for several years out of the standard high school textbook, I added subjects, watched  and listened carefully. My students were very interested in ideas like non-violence. They were fascinated with The Civil Rights Movement. Because they represented so many cultural backgrounds, mainly African, Hispanic, and Native American, discussions around diversity came up all the time. I had students of all ages and from several religious backgrounds, which made discussions lively and rich. I saw people all over the prison treat each other with remarkable civility and caring. They were interested in issues of integrity.

So, one summer I completely changed the course. At its heart, government is learning how to live together. My students were learning this lesson under some of the worst possible conditions in the country. I decided to focus on good citizenship, knowing they had much to teach each other—and me. Re-naming the course Civics helped a lot. I realized how much they already knew from their lives at home, and by then I knew how well they got along in class.

Prisons have towers, both real and symbolic. They have a top-down, military chain of command with a heavy focus on rules and regulations. Prisons are designed to take control away from inmates. But, I was hearing and seeing how much my students wanted to determine the course of their lives, and being in school gave them that opportunity. Whenever I asked for ideas about class structure and what we should discuss, I got wonderful feedback. I learned to ask each class at the end of every semester what they would add or change for the next group. One man suggested that students read a news article every week and then discuss them together. Nothing we ever did was as popular or successful as their beloved Round Table. I insisted on a circle so that everyone would feel a part of it, but it was their time together and I stayed at my desk where I listened carefully to make sure they were on track. We agreed together that no one was ever left out. If the facilitator didn’t get all the way around the circle, the class insisted on time the next day to finish. The Round Table gave them a voice in a place where they had almost no voice at all.

Being in school, and especially participating in the Round Table, created community and the men said that often. “It’s cool to greet a fellow student around the compound,” one man wrote, “because I know that without school, I never would know the guy.” They were making connections in class, in the Chow Hall, on the yard and in their housing units. They were creating “well-worn paths.” I was seeing many of them take exquisite care of each other. In a communications class one semester, a white man wrote me a note at the end of it voicing his gratitude for the opportunity to get to know black men. He regretted that it was so much harder in the community he had grown up in.

That’s how democracy functions best: when people create community, go door-to-door, sit in a circle and make sure no one is left out. It functions when people have a voice and are heard. It works best when there is a diversity of people and opinions. It functions when people feel important and when elected officials regard every single person as important as anyone else. It functions when the people living in poor communities of color are as important as the people living in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods. It functions best when we try to get to know and understand people who are far different than we are. Democracy flourishes when we  care about each other.

People don’t like to be fixed. It’s patronizing to be told you cannot solve your own problems.  The citizens of Flint are angry about being told they had no voice and no power when emergency managers were installed by the governor. Our emergency managers in Michigan take local control away from communities and school districts. The roots of the water crisis lie in the stripping of power from Flint citizens. From their towers of power, the elected officials in Lansing, our state capital, did not listen. Though the people of Flint went to Lansing and to local meetings with their bottles of brown water, they were not heard. Even when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha tested her pediatric patients and found dangerous levels of lead, she was ridiculed and attacked.

“Children are routinely screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, Hanna-Attisha said. “So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done.” She found that levels of lead poisoning among children tested for lead poisoning had increased dramatically between 2013 and 2015, the year after the water supply started drawing from the Flint River. She immediately held a press conference, telling Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

“[T]hat evening, we were attacked. So I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie.”

–MintPress News, January 30, 2016

Things are tough in Michigan right now, and the nation grieves with us about the damage done to children. I can get bogged down and cynical if I don’t look for hope. There is hope, however. On February 1, 2016, Dr. Laura Sullivan, a global expert on water issues and a native of Flint, was a guest on NPR’s All Things Considered. She said she feels like she is helping her family and that jobs may open up to fix the broken pipes. She said it was their city. She said, “Light is shining so brightly on Flint right now, and we’re going to help you heal your city.”  People from all over the country are donating bottled water. 300 union plumbers showed up to install donated faucets and other plumbing supplies. The 300 plumbers are from local unions from across the country. 1 They’re going house to house.

more “The Well-Traveled Path”

Unlearning Long Divisions: Gifts

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.


 A community can use all the skills of its people.

— Maori proverb

All of us are gifted and talented. Students who return to school after dropping out often lack confidence and experience in being students, making them unaware or unsure of how capable and gifted they are. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences intrigued my inmate students when I mentioned them one day, so I put a list on the bulletin board. Since then, Gardner has added two more to his original seven: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal, linguistic, logical-mathematic, plus naturalist, and moral/existential. I found them all within the men in my classroom, often manifested in surprising ways.

Mr. Romero smiled when he came into class, but then put his head down and worked, saying little to any other students and contributing nothing to class discussions, almost disappearing into his small stature at the back of the room. Every student needed to take a turn at facilitating a weekly discussion on current events, and I wondered how Mr. Romero would handle it. When it was his turn late in the semester, he walked in, took his place and quietly announced that he hoped everyone in the room could have a chance to add to the discussion that day. Some hot-button topics came up with several men talking at once, but Mr. Romero simply smiled, raised his flattened his palms and brought them slowly down. The room went silent. Without saying a word, he had total command of the group. When another shy person spoke up, he said, “Do you have anything to add to that? If you do, we’d like to hear it.” Unlike other people who led the group, he put his own report at the end, showing us that leadership could be more about listening than talking. He showed us it could be quiet, controlled, inclusive and about the group, not about himself. I sat and watched, amazed.

Mr. Zimmer rushed in from science class after seeing a frog dissected, saying, “I’ve never in my life seen anything so exciting–I love everything in that class! I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was in grade school.” He got A’s in science and could not get enough extra work.

When asked after three weeks into a new semester what they had learned about themselves, Mr. Finch said, “I didn’t know I could sing! That choir is the best time of the week for me—I get into it and I don’t even know I’m in prison. I sing better all the time too.”

Students in our art program would proclaim similar surprise at what they could create. Mr. Bell lamented one day, “I’d rather dance than do anything else.”

When we read poems aloud, the class would ask Mr. Richards to read his own, beautiful words strung together from his childhood world in Jamaica. Mr. Carmel, dignified and reserved, wrote words of wisdom at the end of every assignment about living with integrity, about loving people and the meaning of life and death, most of which I copied for myself to keep at home. He would fit into Gardner’s moral-existential intelligence.

I know someone with Down Syndrome, who is tuned into other people’s emotions in extraordinarily perceptive, compassionate ways. When I look carefully at the world around me within my circle of family and friends, I am amazed by how things balance, how what I cannot do, someone else can, how our different parts fit into a whole. Even though we all harbor unknown gifts within us, it reminds me of the many opportunities the people around me have had to develop and use what we do well.

Isn’t this what school is for? A place to figure out our students’ talents and abilities so that they can add them to a needy world? For many people, what we love most is also what we do well, and what we do well adds meaning and purpose to our lives. Many of my students came from failing schools, and they had little exposure to the arts, music, or even adequate instruction in the basic skills. “I didn’t know I could…” was a familiar refrain. Their families and communities need their gifts—to heal from poverty and deprivation, to grow and thrive so that everyone has a place and a part to play. The rest of us need them too, so that their gifts can spread out and mend our fractured, divided world. Otherwise, what immeasurable loss, for the people who never grow into who they were born to be—and for the rest of us who are not enriched from what they have to give.

We can all help. We can take young people to concerts, museums and art galleries, sharing our own gifts and passions; we can invite them into our workplaces; we can develop book clubs and poetry circles and help facilitate groups for problem solving and conflict resolution, building community in the process. Who knows how many quiet problem solvers, leaders and philosophers could have a reach beyond their own lives? How many artists could discover the depth of their gifts? How many people could become doctors and nurses? How many more musicians could enrich the world?

Unlearning Long Divisions: Shipping Crates

 Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

Though our American diversity and its attendant challenges have always created conflicts and divisions since the days when we first became a country, the current chasms between us seem to be growing wider and deeper. We focus on the dysfunction of Congress, but the people we elect to represent us also reflect who we are, and we have as much responsibility in solving the problems as they do. I think about how we can build bridges between us—right in our own back yards, within our families, in our neighborhoods and in our communities. Every act of courage, of kindness and of friendliness is not small, but adds to the larger picture of creating a more cooperative and compassionate world. I would like to address some of the problems I see that create divisions, the first of which follows here. Much of this was informed by my inmate students.

Shipping Crates:

If I’m upset about an issue in the news and hear negative reports about a person connected to it, I don’t automatically check the facts from several sources, especially when the narrative lines up with my politics and values. It seems like a common human tendency to form opinions without very much information when we’re bombarded with media images, squeezed by time and churned up with anger over things that hurt our hearts.  All kinds of people and groups who don’t share my worldview end up in my head like they’re in shipping crates, nailed shut so that no light can get in and with labels stamped firmly on the outside.

The students in my prison classroom constantly upended my crates, pried them open and erased the labels. Sometimes they dazzled me with the light in their boxes that forced me to see people and difficult situations in a whole new way.

Mr. Dunn was my student in several classes, and I rarely saw even a hint of a smile on his middle-aged, frowning face. He wasn’t a very confident student, but he did do all of his work. What really bothered me was that I had no relationship with him, no eye contact and no conversations about anything. I had him in a box with labels that said grumpy, unfriendly and most important doesn’t like me. I kept trying to talk to him, but got no further than a few humphs. He didn’t seem to brighten up anything or anybody, and I didn’t think he was adding a darn thing to the group.

One day another student blurted out an insult about gay people, and a few others laughed. Someone else added another offensive comment and an argument followed, heating up as it went along. I tried to stay out of such conflicts, wanting them to learn to solve problems by themselves. All of a sudden, Mr. Dunn’s deep voice rang out as he looked around from his customary seat in the middle of the room, “I can’t believe my ears! What in the world is the difference between how you’re talking and the prejudice we feel as black people? Gay people are no different than any of us, and I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” The room went still and silent—and the subject was dropped. I was as surprised as everyone else, and told him as he was leaving that I was grateful he had spoken up. I got a usual monosyllabic humph. Later, as he was getting ready to go home, he appeared at my door. Many of them came to say good-bye, but I was very surprised to see this student standing there.

“Come out here Mrs. Wenzel,” he said, gesturing with his hand and moving me into a corner in the hall. “I have something to give you. I know I can’t give you a present, so this can be part of the program. I know how much you love poetry and I know you don’t have it, because I’ve been looking through all the poetry books in the room for a while now. I just know you’ll like it.” He pulled Nikki Giovanni’s Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea out of his blue net bag and put it in my hands. A huge smile spread across his face.

I wonder, do we ever get anyone’s whole story, really know who other people are? It’s so much easier to stay on the surface of things, keep our first impressions and maintain a distance. The prison fence keeps us on the surface–and at a distance. It is a powerful label on the shipping crate of the prison itself. The fence tells us that the people inside are so dangerous that we can’t see them or get to know them. Distance creates stereotypes of people all the time.

It’s easier for me to stay at a safe distance from people who struggle so much more than I do than it is to get closer to them and try to understand the box they are in. The men I met in prison over 25 years allowed me to get closer and hear their stories, so unlike my own, often making me uncomfortable as I began to understand the opportunity gap that existed between us. They taught me to investigate my notions about people and situations I know nothing about. I need to do that more often. I need to at least admit I don’t have all the information, that it’s nailed into the crate, and I don’t see any light—about human beings who might be as scared and uninformed as I am. I need to recognize the danger of distance and that I rarely experience things first hand. I need to remember what it feels like to have a black-eyed pea in my hand.

Don’t Think
“The most important thing
I know
about teaching
is that the teacher is also learning.
Don’t think
you have to know it all.”
–Nikki Giovanni, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (HarperCollins New York), 2002, 109

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.