“I Can’t Believe all the Sh*t I Don’t Know”

We have a lot of students with low self-esteem. One student I’ll call Mr. Miller* was really, really smart, but he just wasn’t doing anything in class. It dawned on me he didn’t know he was so smart.

Mr. Miller cracked me up one day when he was looking at a world map, and said to me, “I don’t understand why they even label the oceans. Why do they have an Atlantic Ocean, a Pacific Ocean, and a Lake Michigan? When you’re in a boat and you’re just driving along, or you’re in a ship and you’re riding along, there are no signs out there that say what ocean it is. Who cares what it’s called? Why’d they even have to name them? You just have to go across them.”

I spent a little time explaining to Mr. Miller about the massive amounts of water in the world, and what it would be like if we didn’t delineate the exact location of the oceans, lakes and rivers. Finally, something clicked with him and he said, “I can’t believe all the shit I don’t know!”

After that, he was fine and on his way to learning. He now understood there was a lot to learn and maybe there was value to it. And he finally believed he was capable of learning; that he was intelligent.

Mr. Miller eventually passed the GED Test; you’ve never seen a prouder man. “Ms. Chamberlin, if it was allowed, I’d take you to dinner because you’ve helped me so much! Don’t worry; I’d bring my wife, too.” And he smiled his toothless grin. Gratifying situations like this happen all the time.

I used to think all of the students coming in and out of my classroom had low self-esteem. But I soon realized there are some students with very high self-esteem. A cocky attitude was misinterpreted as low self-esteem. But some of the criminals actually do have high self-esteem. They have no problem with themselves and think that everything about them is simply wonderful. It baffles me, but even though a man commits a crime, he may very well have no esteem issues whatsoever.

Power struggles are frequent. Usually at the beginning, a student tries to establish his turf. He’ll show a bit of “gangster mentality.” He may try to act like he doesn’t care. He is probably afraid, but he doesn’t want anybody to know. He may be embarrassed, but doesn’t want anybody to know that, either. Instead, he tries to control me and everyone in the room.

Depending on the man, sometimes I have to get stern and let him know who’s in charge.  I let him know he’s in “my territory”, or on “my block”.  Usually, that is the end of it, and he’ll settle down.  For another guy, I might give him a few days and he’ll settle down on his own. Some guys just have to see how much control they can grab. It’s just another issue we have to settle before learning takes place.

*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at www.lockedupwithsuccess.com.