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.