It’s Always Plan B
February 8, 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.’”
“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.