Sticks and Stones

 

Sticks and stones

can only break

bones, but words

can shatter the

soul.

Adam Savage

Words that label can do awful, long-lasting damage. Many words and terms need updating as we become more aware of their effects. Other words, phrases and concepts need much new thought and introspection as the world changes.

In education, words are like rusty old ships covered in ugly barnacles that need to be retired. Other words need care and attention to be used with sensitivity. Students of all ages pick up labels put upon them—and sometimes live into them. Special ed can be loaded up with negative attachments. Many of my prison students had been labeled special ed and put in separate programs. It took a lot of work for them to realize that it had been an inappropriate placement and that they could be hard-working, competent students. The achievement gap has all sorts of negative attachments, and it is used most often about students of color. The implication is that students aren’t really capable, that they are always far behind, that closing the gap is difficult to impossible. If we change the term to opportunity gap, we not only see it in whole new ways, but it puts the problem on the system, on adults—and not on students who are behind and not achieving.

We use all kinds of words to describe kids who are in trouble with the law: juvenile delinquents, punks, hoodlums, gangbangers, troublemakers, and goons among them. Bryan Stevenson calls them children, not even teenagers. In 2012, he argued passionately before the Supreme Court against putting children in prison for life—and won, using the 8th Amendment about cruel and unusual punishment. Compelling arguments were made about the development of adolescent brains and diminished culpability as they grow and change. Calling young offenders children changes everything.

In the 1990’s the use of super predator, used to describe young people as stopping at nothing to do harm, leaked into the public. Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy,

“Influential criminologists predicted a coming wave of “super-predators” with whom the juvenile justice system would be unable to cope. Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remoreseless” children lead nearly every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution. Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.” (1)

The 1990’s became a decade when mass incarceration increased dramatically, as did the life imprisonment of many children. Stevenson goes on,

“The predictions of “super predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super predator” theory to disclaim it.” (2)

Incarcerated adults fare no better with a long list of derogatory labels: criminal, crook, robber, gangster, thug, lowlife, villain, mobster, convict, offender and felon, among them. When President Obama visited a federal prison, he referred to the people inside as incarcerated citizens. That changes  perceptions too. Using the word citizen alters the image of an incarcerated person. It refers to someone who’s been locked up and is serving time for a mistake, but it doesn’t automatically infer that the person is bad. “We are all far more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Stevenson. Many people are now referring to people who are released from prison as returning citizens,which sounds far more positive and hopeful than ex-felon, which immediately conjures up the image of a bad person—or at least the suspicion that the person is still interested in bad behavior.

6,000 people are being released from federal prisons in the next months, almost all of them convicted of non-violent offenses. But, our prison practices have changed dramatically in the last forty years, and we are far more reluctant to release anyone who has committed a violent crime. The suspicion is that once a violent person, always a violent person. I’ve known far too many men who’ve committed violent crimes and worked hard to overcome their tendencies for violence and become kind and loving people. Given the 2.2 million people we have in prison in the United States suggests that we aren’t very hopeful that people can change and transform their lives.

We could think of violent behavior as hurting people who don’t deserve it. If we added the practice of inflicting unnecessary harm on people, then all kinds of things are violent: capital punishment, solitary confinement, imprisoning children for life and putting them in solitary confinement. Civil asset forfeiture, the police seizing people’s possessions with a mere suspicion that they might be guilty of a crime, is unnecessary and inflicts all kinds of harm on innocent people. That’s violent too, as is excessive bail and fines for already impoverished people. It seems violent to tear parents away from children for drug offenses and lock them away for decades, when the person, the family and the communitry as a whole would be far better served by mental health services. The draconian sentences that disable people when they are released, denying them the right to food stamps, housing, licenses and assistance when released from prison could be called violent. To create so many barriers for returning citizens to put their lives back to together is to say to them, “We’re going to make things as hard as possible when you get out. You will never pay your debt to society.”

Denying citizens the right to vote is violent and unnecessary. People who’ve served time in prison are denied the right to vote in many states. If someone has never had a birth certificate or cannot drive and manage to get some other kind of identification, a situation many poor people find themselves in, they lose their right to vote in too many states. They may have voted faithfully all their lives. They may have fought hard to win the right to vote. They may have been badly hurt in the struggle for votes. To then deny them the precious right of voting is violent. It says, “You aren’t part of us. You don’t matter.” It damages people’s dignity. That’s violent too.

Calling undocumented immigrants illegals or aliens—or even worse illegal aliens, puts them firmly in a place of other, not like us, not deserving of care and concern. Ethnic slurs deserve a whole other blog. I’m writing a week after the terrorist attacks on Paris, and already people are conflating Syrian refugees with terrorists, and steps are being taken to bar refugees from our shores. That’s answering violence with more violence, inflicting more terror and suffering on people who’ve already lost their country, their home and any security they might have had.

I’ve noticed that the people running for office who criticize polite and careful language are the first to loudly object if they feel disparaged or labeled unfairly. Being careful about our language makes us sensitive, gives our common life together more civility and harmony. One of the first realities of working in a prison was this simple truth: if we treat people with kindness and respect, they respond with kindness and respect. Being careful, polite, kind and respectful makes us more gracious and graceful, qualities we still have but may have forgotten. Language needs to be used carefully, and the words we use often need careful thought.  We should not be in the business of “shattering souls.”


  1. Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, New York), 2014, p. 159.
  2. Ibid., p. 160.

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.