It’s Always Plan B

8 Feb 2016

“Never forget where you are.”

That’s one of the first things I was told when I started teaching classes in the prison. Initially, the warning seemed absurd; if you’ve ever been in one of these places, you know that  you can no more forget where you are than you could if you were to suddenly materialize at the bottom of the ocean. It was also vaguely threatening, redolent of sudden attacks, and covert manipulations by desperate, irredeemable men. For the record, I have never experienced any of those things. But there is wisdom in the warning, nonetheless, and I often receive stunning reminders of “where I am” just as I begin to feel comfortable.

For instance, last week we were talking about deductive reasoning, and what can happen when you try to make a deduction based on imperfect evidence, or no evidence at all. I admitted that the very first time I entered the prison I had thought to myself, Here there be monsters, but where? That got a laugh, plus several nods of the head. Then, I asked if they had had any deductions about college before actually starting the program. (For many of the students, “college” might as well have been “Timbuktu” for all they knew about it.) I was expecting answers that touched on anxiety, course load, fear of the unknown, etc.

Instead, one student said, “I remember wondering whether or not the teachers would treat us the same as their other students.”

“Do you mean if we would ‘dumb down’ the classes?”

“No, I meant if you would treat us like everyone else does.”

“Treat you like inmates.”


This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, right in the middle of a presentation on APA style, one of the students raised his hand and announced, quite calmly, “Mister G., I have question about ethos.”

Now, a question about ethos should not be surprising in a composition class. But this was Science Writing. Ethos had not been mentioned once since the start of the previous semester, when I’d casually mentioned it as one of the elements of persuasive rhetoric. To have it come popping out of the underbrush at that point was a shock.

I lowered the strip of toilet paper I’d been using to clean the White Board, and waited.

“You said that ethos means ‘good character.’”

“Yes. Partially.”

“Well, given who we are,” he continued, gesturing vaguely to the rest of the class, “why would anyone ever read anything we write?”

Experienced teachers know the occasional need for an extemporaneous “Plan B,” that sudden, vertiginous swerve down a road you never saw on the map, but which you must navigate at high speed with only slight pressure on the brakes. In the prison classroom, it’s always Plan B. Every text hits bone. Words have consequences. Rhetorical concepts, long ago discarded as boilerplate, are discussed endlessly, dissected and rebuilt, not just in terms of essay writing, but of freedom, justice, identity.

Your lecture notes are worthless, then. So are the skills of which you were once so proud. Even if you used to thrive on spontaneity, challenge, and surprise, your intellectual agility means nothing when you have been stunned into silence by a grown man who has been made to feel worthless. At that moment, you will remember where you are.

And why you’re there.



78 Responses to “It’s Always Plan B”

  1. sdalton43 Says:

    This was very thought-provoking, Mike. I am always fascinated to hear/read about your experiences teaching in prison. And, for the record, I would be very interested in reading the work of your incarcerated students. Would you ever consider posting one (or more) of their essays here? Would doing so violate protocol in any way? Please pardon my ignorance in the matter.

    By the way, does Plan A ever work – even outside the prison?

    Thank you for genuinely caring! – Steve

  2. I think at this point we may even need a Point C 😉

  3. Kudos to you, for your work,

  4. Gavin Says:

    Amazing. Those last two lines.

  5. Ori.46 Says:

    Different when you’re wrongfully imprisoned.

  6. I love this post. This post made me think a lot and was very well written.

  7. It’s always hard to deal with hard people.

  8. Fascinating. Teaching in a prison sounds intriguing.

  9. Interesting take on the concept of Plan B. I admire your work, as there are many who are not willing to work with the damned, and help them redeem themselves. But the fact that you are makes you that much better of a person — keep up the good work.

  10. […] I awoke to reading rmgosselin’s blog, a reflective post about teaching in prison from an Associate Professor of English in New […]

  11. I’m quite astonished actually, you clearly have a sense of purpose & absolute determination to carry on despite the obvious obstacles. I applaud you!

  12. Great post. It reminded me of a book I read by Chuck Colsen on prison ministries. I was intrigued by the unique culture and the difficulty to reach these hardened prisoners. If we follow Christ’s example, these are the people we would spend time with and minister to, despite the challenges. I’m curious as to your experience with faith in prison.
    Thank you for your work and your post. MichaelJ

  13. ninja network Says:

    Reblogged this on Engineer Marine Skipper.

  14. I like this “Ever text hits bone. Words have consequences.” Because you never know which words hits when and to whom.

  15. kcarr642 Says:

    This is fascinating and so well written. Thank you for sharing this!

  16. Beautifully written. I run a website for music educators and I believe this would be a post my colleagues would enjoy very much. Would you consider letting us repost your blog on our site?

  17. I plan to follow your blog. Thank you for this profound piece. I’ll be printing it out and sending it to my son. If only you would cross his path.

  18. Iriz Chan Says:

    I felt most at the last part. Good intention, great writing.

  19. Nice words … Really inspiring …

  20. I really enjoyed this post!!
    Check out my blog if you get the chance 🙂

  21. I really enjoyed this post!!
    Check out my blog if you get the chance 😀 ❤ 🙂

  22. somawrites Says:

    Words have consequences.In this instance the choice of words would count greatly,it will either affirm a belief(negative) or instil a new one(positive)… great post!

  23. deeqawil Says:

    Reblogged this on deeqawil and commented:
    Enjoyed reading this.

  24. […] via It’s Always Plan B — rmgosselin […]

  25. naomiilaura Says:

    This is beautifully written

  26. Les Says:

    I think as a teacher you need to have many plans, not just A and B 🙂 Life always sends us reminder when we are too comfortable. Teaching karate to people with mental health problems, I have been through similar situation as you sir. Best learning curve ever 🙂

  27. Devon Says:

    Awesome bit of insight, thank you!

  28. jeffbkr03 Says:

    Perhaps it is the students who may be teaching a lesson of life. There is much to understand by the current prison system, in which the environment does not support the rehabilitation of the mind, from the point of entry to point of release.

  29. James R. Says:

    I’m a high school English teacher, and I feel ya. Thanks for the reminder of “why”.

  30. daramemon Says:

    Words are like bullets, and there is an angel in every sinner, the idea to bring out the angel and nothing better than educating them

  31. Those lines…. really good

  32. If anyone here has a interest in spacde then please visit my website once and comment on it … Thank You !!!

  33. This so beautifully written. Let’s give ourselves the thought of crawling under someone else’s skin and see things from their perspective.

  34. Great Post Thanks. Keep It Up

  35. ahmeliahmeli Says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and I shared it online because I can relate to those emotions on two ends. One, as an urban school teacher, many times my students take me to Plan B. Now, the admin often does not want you to go that way and to leave the lesson plans you are forced to spend hours working on. However, I will always go down Plan B because if it’s what my students need in that moment, then it is the right thing to do. Second, knowing people in the prison system who have taken classes with imprisoned gives me another viewpoint from which to read this piece. Thank you!

  36. Christina Says:

    Enjoyed your writing.

  37. anchitaarora Says:

    I have enjoyed your post thoroughly. It has made me remembered most of my plan ‘B’,and I am really glad by choosing them in the first of them actually have taken my heart out,but then I realized what is the life without a risk..the freedom lies always in the unknown and that unknown is the one who always gives people the most beautiful memories and heartfelt moments…!

  38. jadinblog Says:

    I am inspired by this piece because I have, unfortunately, experienced the institutionalized perspective. I was a counselor for truant youth and their families, trying to keep them in school, but I psychologically rebelled, as I call it, over the course of a divorce. I’ve been hospitalized nine times, but despite this, I have always developed a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. I am, perhaps masochistically, attracted to fixing the problems with society’s treatment of psychology and the people it affects. You seem like a kindred spirit, seeing the best in those of us who experience extreme limitations and offering hope despite intense odds. Thank you and I would love to see more.

  39. The Tea Room Says:

    Really eye-opening, great work!

  40. Excellent article! Thought provoking and helpful, too. I work with mothers in recovery and my emphasis is on parenting but some days the emphasis is learning the importance of not using curse words. I have plan A-Z depending on the day. Have a nice evening!

  41. Great post and insight!

  42. Theodore said it best: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

  43. What a powerful and moving post! Thank you for sharing this with us – I’ve been wanting to teach writing in a prison for a while now. I have to steel myself to jump through all the hoops that are required, and then prepare myself to go in there and expect the unexpected.

  44. I am impressed. To do what you do requires resolve, courage, humility, insight, sensitivity, perspective, and presence of mind, all in equal measure and all at the same time. Most people, I imagine, would find that rather tiring.

  45. Vault Says:

    Definitely an interesting read. Quite enjoyed reading how you felt going to teach inmates and how the prisoners felt about how they considered their character to be bad, thus making the assumption that their writings would be worthless.

    Posts like this are great for showing an alternate perspective of what we usually view to be one-sided.

  46. thehipandthrifty Says:

    That was as sad as it was beautiful. So often when we think of prison we imagine looking in. This reminds us that there are people looking out, too.

  47. It’s so nice to see someone write about inmates remembering that they too are people. The timbuktu references was spot on! great read! thank you.

  48. etteee Says:

    Thx for the nice article 😀

  49. I am a teacher and this is very inspiring, Sir.

  50. sankarshan Says:

    Words have consequences what a quote

  51. The great mathematicians, scientists, thinkers of the world look at how we relate to the universe and to each other. The current school focus seems to be how to be competitive in a global market. We can’t be successful citizens of the world if we don’t understand each other or ourselves. Keep “ethos” in your curriculum. The rest will be learned in time.

  52. Renee Sieradski, EA Says:

    Wow, stunning piece. Everything would cut to the bone and be analyzed differently by someone in prison. And the teacher there to inspire. Loved it!

  53. […] via It’s Always Plan B — rmgosselin […]

  54. v4vikey Says:

    I like your post… it is really good.

  55. emilyx7x Says:

    This is great. Very thought provoking. I have followed your blog as I’m intrigued to read more!

  56. In my limited experience of teaching, I thrive for ‘Plan B’ moments—that’s when you’re able to ‘teach’ as opposed to ‘instruct’. Great blog.

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