Acknowledging the Pain and Anger

There are students who try to get kicked out of class. It reminds me of foster children who know exactly what they need to do to get kicked out of a foster home. They figure it’s going to happen anyway, so they might as well get it over with. Some probably don’t believe they can pass the GED Test, or are too lazy to try.  If they can get kicked out by “mean Ms. Chamberlin”, then they can blame me instead of themselves.

These guys, especially the younger ones, will get really angry and rude. They are often very intelligent, but they’ll do whatever they can to get thrown out.  So, knowing that, I visit with them, let them know I’m aware of their plan (even if they don’t realize what they’re doing), and usually I can get them to decide to stay and try.

I’m reminded of one young man; I’ll call him Mr. Marlon*. Mr. Marlon was about nineteen, was angry and hollering most days. He was very volatile, but I also could tell he was extremely intelligent, probably almost genius level.

One day while the men were in the library, as a last resort, I took Mr. Marlon out into the hall to talk with him. I took a chance and told him what I believed to be his life story. I must have hit a nerve, and was apparently very correct in my assessment of his life. He started to cry, and I was thinking, “Oh, Jan, what did you do now?”

We talked a long time and he started telling me what had happened; he had been in foster care because his dad used to hit him on his head with a rifle. Mr. Marlon wanted to stop the cycle; he had a young child himself and didn’t want his son to grow up the same way he had. And he certainly didn’t want his son to get into trouble, also ending up in prison.

Just by acknowledging all of that and letting him know that I understood and would try to help him, Mr. Marlon’s behaviors totally changed. He calmed down, and he ended up not only passing the GED Test, he earned an “Honors GED”.  His scores put in him the 99th percentile nationwide.  Finally, Mr. Marlon became one of my best tutors.

I never knew what happened to Mr. Marlon after he was released. I generally never know once they get out of prison. But I think something turned around that day. At least in my class, his behavior changed and he became an asset to the classroom, as well as a much more educated young man.

These examples illustrate that sometimes discipline and security are better maintained when we try to understand the reasons for the outbursts. Often, this eliminates future problems. At least it did with those individuals.

Acknowledging there is pain and anger helps immensely. I often tell them, “If you’re not at least somewhat angry or depressed, I’d think something was wrong with you. If I lived here, I’d be crying every night.”

Some of them admit to me they do cry every night, as quietly as they can, and I respond, “You’re bound to be depressed, and angry at someone or something, or even at yourself. I try to make this classroom a safe haven where you can come to get away from being in prison for a few hours a day. Obviously, we have to follow some rules. But this is, hopefully, a place where you can control at least one thing. You can work on improving yourself and go home a better man. You can’t control anything else in here or at home, but you can get more educated and improve your chances of a better life.”  This usually softens them up.

Having someone acknowledge their pain, though not allowing them to dwell on it, opens up their learning potential.  

Note I said “not allowing them to dwell on it.”  I’m not a counselor, I’m a teacher.  So I don’t spend a lot of time listening to their stories, excuses, or complaints.  Sometimes, it is necessary in order to assist them in getting onto the path to learning.  But it’s usually a matter of acknowledging their pain and getting back to work.

*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.