Class Update (4-1-2011)

For all intents and purposes, today's class started last Saturday. I say this because it was on Saturday that I spoke with the two no-shows. They actually sought me out. One of them was very sorry for missing the class. He pleaded his case and asked what he could do to get back into the class. Since he was so repentant and honest in that he had forgotten about the class, I agreed to speak with Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE Coordinator, about keeping him in the class. I even sat down with the gentleman for an hour in the library on Saturday to brief him on the material I had presented in last week’s class, and to administer the pre-test.

The other no-show, a man with a not-so-good reputation, also spoke with me about the class. Because of his reputation as a bad guy, something I was able to verify with my own eyes, I explained that there was nothing I could do. This in itself was a half-truth. It was true that I was not in charge of the official attendance roster, but not completely true because I could have gone out of my way and spoken with Mr. Batton about getting the guy back into the class. In the end, my actions were moot, as the man went to the Education Department staff and obtained permission to stay in the class.

Throughout the week I was pleased to see my students approach me, explaining to me how much they liked the first class and asking if I would look over their homework. I think these discussions were a boost to their confidence, and mine, too.

Of all of my students, three stood out. The first brought me a religious essay that had strong poetic overtones. He really surprised me with his insights. He has granted me permission to provide an excerpt of his work titled I Believe for my readers here:

"I can write because I am free. I am free because I can write. My mind leaps out of its cage. My thoughts rebel. With the Fire of Solomon's strength, I break out of the manacles that would yoke me to the ass of their mindless morality.

"I am free!

"I am what I am because I am free. I am free because I am what I am. I will never be enslaved because my spirit cannot be bound. I have been baptized and immortalized in the living fountain that flows from the side of the Crucified...

"I am free!

"I think for myself because I am free. I am free because I think for myself. I think therefore I am. That is what it is to be alive. But believing is the precious fruit that springs forth from the womb of thought, it is so much more. Belief is the life in living...

"I am free!

"I cannot be chained because I am free. I am free because I refuse not to be. I am free because I am alive and because I believe. I believe in something greater than me. I believe in a Savior who shed His Holy blood to set me free.

"I am free because I believe!"

As anyone can see, this is quite a work to be brought forth from the depths of a prison. The insight is uncanny and the concepts certainly very high-brow. I for one can't wait to see more!

The second of my students to really stand out was my top scorer. Our discussion was focused on both the homework and on his desired class involvement. He explained to me that he has desired to write a novel for quite some time, but that he had never felt "ready" to do so. He further explained that he would like to write chapters instead of the regular homework assignments. I told him that I was more than ok with him doing so. In fact, I was ecstatic to hear he was so motivated and ambitious. As for his class involvement, he shared with me that he would like for me to not draw attention to him. He was concerned with any attention, good or bad, that I might draw upon him. I understood his thoughts on the matter and agreed to be careful. After all, in prison dull is good because it doesn't draw any attention. I guess that in an environment such as a prison it is better to be unknown than known and wishing you were unknown.

The third of my students to really stand out had an interesting quandary. He couldn't afford to type his manuscript on the typewriters, around a $30 investment in supplies to start, and he couldn't afford to use the computers, which cost 5 cents per minute. He inquired about me typing and editing his manuscript for him. In the beginning I was open to his plea. But once he explained to me that this was not a five page manuscript, but a 20-some single-spaced work, my time-woe's red flag went up. I wanted to help him. I mean, I really did want to help him. But, I don't even have time to finish my own school work, writing, and class preparation as it is. Luckily, I was able to work out a compromise with him. I agreed to edit his manuscript on paper, and I connected him with a friend who does typing. My friend agreed to do so at a reduced rate because the manuscript concerns a religious topic.

As the class approached I realized two things. One, I needed to type up a homework assignment page so everyone would have both a reminder of the homework assignments and the exact guidelines. This way any confusion would be clarified. Two, I realized that the final exam needed to be reworked. So, I spent a few hours amending the final exam. As it stands, the final consists of 49 multiple choice and true/false questions, 10-vocabulary matching options and 1 extra credit essay question. Certainly a hefty final to behold. My goal with this final is to up the ante; to raise the expectations of ACE classes with the hope that others will follow. In a high-minded way, my hope is to herald a new era of quality into the Education Department. Perhaps this is an idea better suited for my mind alone. But, I'll share it with you anyways.

The final aspect of class preparation for week 2 was the homework assignments. I didn't feel that it was fair for me to just idly assign homework. So, I did the homework myself. I literally sat down, wrote my two 500-word minimum articles, and saved both of my rough drafts and my finished products. Though, I also knocked out a 3,500-word expose' on wrongful convictions and a few thousand word blog, too. Nonetheless I had my homework done, and since I saved my drafts I was able to use them in class as a visual aid. All was well in the world.

The day of the class was hectic to say the least. I had been up until 3 a.m., as usual, finishing some writing work. So, I was tired. But on top of being tired, I also had to finish typing the expose' and the second homework assignment. The problem, though, was that I was waiting on some research materials to come in the mail. Luckily, as 2 p.m. rolled around the research material arrived. So, I finished writing the expose' from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., and typed the revised expose' and homework assignment from 5 p.m. until 6:15 p.m. Talk about a hectic few hours!

At 6:15 p.m, I slammed down a granola bar, drank a Dr. Pepper, and walked over to the Education Department. On my way there, I had one of those experiences that can only be labeled as both disheartening and somewhat terrifying. As I approached the Education Department, I witnessed a group of three black men pretending to shoot at each other and at a seagull. For that matter, they were also attempting to catch the seagull. To me, they appeared to be bothersome, idiotic pests. Unfortunately, I would soon become more familiar with them.

As I passed by the group, one of the three asked me if I had another soda. I chuckled because the answer was rather obvious and said, "No." His response was more than a little surprising. He yelled, "Then Fuck You!" This outrageous reaction really took me by surprise. Here I was minding my own business, on my way to volunteer at a class, and I was being accosted by gangbangers. After the comment, they got in my face and attempted to intimidate me. But, as I've learned with bullies, you have to stand your ground and attempt to find a way out that allows you to maintain some semblance of dignity. So, in an attempt to act threatening, I glared at the one who had cursed at me, and laughed at him. Perhaps this was a foolish move, but it had the desired effect. As I laughed, I pushed my way through them and walked on my way. My goal was to show them that I was not intimidated and that I was not scared of them. Neither was true. After all, a three-on-one is never a good thing. But, I held my head high and didn't allow this scum to victimize yet another innocent person.

Needless to say, my blood pressure was high and my nerves were on end. Luckily, I soon found relief in a classroom with Bill Batton, and the Home Inspection instructor. I explained what had happened and received support and a knowing look. It appears as if they, two white guys, one in his 30s and the other in his 40s, knew intimately how troublesome a place prison can be for a young white guy; I'm only 25 after all. What a sad truth!

As 7:00 p.m. approached, I retrieved my supplies from Mr. Batton, walked down the hall, and entered my classroom where I was greeted by one of my students. It was my extra guy who was in effect ‘auditing’ the class. He was seated, talking with one of the GED tutors. So, I quietly set up the class, retrieved extra chairs, and taped my articles and rough drafts to the dry-erase board.

At 6:56 p.m., I exited my classroom and made my way to the restroom prior to the start of class. I was stopped by a man in a wheelchair. He asked me if I had "seen Zook." I explained that I was "Zoukis." He then proceeded to pull out all of these papers. Apparently, someone had explained to this man that I write for several newspapers; not true. I explained to him that I write for a number of publications, but that I was not a staff reporter for any newspapers. Shrugging my comment off, he frantically pushed papers at me and explained to me this terrible story of how he came to be in the wheelchair.

He explained that through negligent medical care he had lost the use of his legs; really a sad story. He went on to explain some kind of infection while in the BOP's (Bureau of Prison's) hospital. As he related his story, he grew more and more excited.  Finally, at the pivotal point, he pulled a catheter out of his wheelchair's storage compartment and shook it at me. Now that was a surprise! I hadn't bargained for this when I went to teach my class. Since it was still in its plastic covering I wasn't too afraid, but this reminds me of the first time I had seen someone with partial dentures. At that point in time, I was speaking with a man and his teeth started to rotate in the front of his mouth. He was idly flipping them around. I cracked up and about lost it. What an experience! Back to the story, luckily my watch chimed 7:00 p.m. This alerted me to the fact that my class was about to start. I had to cut the man off so I could use the restroom and start my class. I told him that I would meet with him on the following Friday at 5:00 p.m. to discuss his situation.

It appeared as if the man wanted me to write an article about him, something about the sub-standard medical care that had confined him to a wheelchair. On one hand, I really felt for the guy. It couldn't be easy losing your mobility, in prison no less. But if I've learned anything from my experiences with prisoners, it's that anyone can claim to be whoever they want to be in prison. Lying about who you are and what you did appear to be a way of life – which explains all the rap stars and millionaires that can be seen begging for $0.25 Ramen noodle soups over at the commissary. So while I will listen to the man and give him my honest advice, I will not be staking my reputation as a journalist on his story, real or fabricated. There is simply too much for me to lose by doing so.

Class went exceptionally well. I started out by passing back the pre-tests, calling role, and reviewing completion of homework assignments. Since there is no educational base-line for ACE (Adult Continuing Education) classes, I grade upon completion, not content. Every single person had completed the homework assignments with the exception of my two previous no-shows. I had anticipated that these two would not be able to finish their work. So I advised them that if they couldn't get the work done in time, they could double-up for the 2nd week's homework. While I anticipate receiving the assignments from one of them, I don't expect the other gentleman – the one with the bad reputation – will complete his assignments.  Just call it a gut-feeling.

I found checking homework a bit unnerving. I think the reason for my anxiety here stems from three primary factors. One, I'm a 25-year old who is checking up on persons who are all older than myself. Two, I've never taught a class before. And three, inside the prison walls there is a power and role distortion. While I am a teacher, who should theoretically have authority (power) over my students, I am also a young guy, who is not very demanding (power) or violent (power). This provides a quandary. I suppose the issue is that inside prison a person's physical attributes and tough demeanor are paramount. I'm probably reading too much into this. But, anyone who has ever walked around inside of a prison can tell you that perceived status, which is an important factor anywhere, is even more important in prison.

After documenting the homework assignments, I turned to the board which held the finished and rough drafts of the homework assignments I did. It appeared as if the whole visual aid idea really paid off. Almost everyone was interested in what I had done. S, I spent some time explaining how I research, outline, write, and revise my own work. The other visual aid that I was able to produce was a sample of a query letter out of the 2011 Writer's Market book. The students passed around the book and appeared to be pleased with it. I promised to make copies and distribute the query letter to them next week. Actually, I think that I will copy and distribute my own query letter from when I was submitting "Education Behind Bars" to publishers.

As the class progressed I was able to answer one question that I couldn't the previous week. Someone had asked how much Playboy pays per article. While certainly not something I cared to know, I did dig through my 2011 Writer's Market book and I was able to find rates and submission guidelines for a few other magazines of the same caliber. Do note that in my better judgment I realized that this was not the best track to go down, but I wanted to find a way to get them interested in what we were learning about in class. Plus, they had brought the question up. Regardless, while the class seemed excited, I had to burst their bubble by making the discussion an educational one. I took the pay rates and divided them by the word-counts noted for each market. The truth was that most paid around a quarter per word; not a huge sum.

We also broached another risque topic. This was the realm of highlighters, paper clips, whiteout, sticky notes, and publication. The office supplies discussion had to do with how one could procure them, something not sold in the commissary. While maintaining a professional distance from the topic, the suggestion was proffered that such supplies could be bought on the recreation yard or around the prison through the underground market.

As for publication, the discussion revolved around where certain lines are. For example, the prisoner-writer can publish a book or an article, but they can't "run a business." Also, the prisoner-writer can submit articles, but can't be a "reporter." And last, the prisoner-writer can make money from a book deal, but they have to delegate the monetary management responsibilities to someone outside of prison. Suffice it to say, this discussion was about the gray chasm of shadows.

About halfway through the class an interesting event occurred. The previous no-show who had the bad reputation kept on asking questions that were taking us off-track. His questions had been covered in the previous week's class. Naturally, since he wasn't there for that class, he was determined to halt the class' progress so he could be brought up to speed. To top this off, he even argued with me regarding my answers. He took exception to my comments regarding copyrighting one's work prior to submission to publishers, and to my comments regarding contracts. He appeared to be dead set not only on copyrighting his manuscript prior to submitting it to a publisher, but to using the copyright to somehow pressure the publisher into accepting the manuscript. Clearly this man had never had any success in the realm of publishing. I could only hope that my comments could be heard above his psychosis.

As for contracts, he wanted to know about agreements between collaborators. When I explained that he didn't need to get the agreement notarized, he went ballistic. His pathetic behavior was a 10-minute distraction from the content that needed to be covered. My summation of the situation is this: the guy is a nutcase. The Education Department cannot help him. He needs to be funneled into the Psychology Department, where he is a prime candidate for a round of drug therapy. The episode taught me an important point: I need to keep the class on track and not entertain any off-the-wall or off-topic material. Although one student may have a particular question, that doesn't mean that the whole class should be derailed because of it. In the future I will ask the person to see me after class or I will ask them to hold on until I get to their topic.

As 8:00 p.m. rolled around, my students were looking antsy. Some appeared to really want to go. So in the Google frame of mind, I decided to "Do no harm." I told my students that whoever wanted to leave was welcome to. In all, I think three or four left. Of the ones who left, the no-show with the bad reputation was included. What a disappointment to see them go, but what a pride-bolstering moment to see so many stay.

For those who stayed, I had a treat. I told them what the extra credit question would be on the final exam. Well, to be fair, we were having a discussion on how much money can be earned through publishing a book. This led me to explain that it all depends on the author's platform. This segued into the extra credit question of, "List up to 10 ways to build your platform." Hopefully this will motivate them to stay until 8:25 p.m., or whenever "recall is," every class and pay attention.

At around 8:17 p.m., the loudspeaker in the room came on and announced, "Recall, Recall. All inmates return to your housing units." At this, everyone, except my top scorer and another student, filed outside the door. The other student asked me if I would hold onto his homework for him. I explained that we would be revising it in weeks 5 and 6, so he needed to hold onto it. But he was adamant. He kept on stating that it was done and that it didn't need to be revised at all. I had to take a bit of an authoritative step and explain that the revisions would be graded. So he would need to hold onto the assignment. I then ended this discussion with the comment that I lose so much of my own stuff that it would be risky for me to hold onto anything for anyone else. He seemed rather put-off, but he walked out the door with his assignment. Yet another strange occurrence. It would have never occurred to me to ask my teacher or professor to hold on to my homework. What strange people. What makes this even more interesting is that the gentleman is a GED tutor. I wonder what he asks his students to do?

After this interaction, my top scorer and I discussed the comment I wrote on his returned pre-test. The comment was that I'd like to see him outside of class to assist in any of the literary projects he might be working on. He seemed honestly interested and we agreed to meet at 11:30 a.m. in the library the following day.

After reflecting upon this week's class, I see tremendous improvement. During the first class I was very worried about saying the right things and not running out of materials to cover. This class I found myself attempting to stay on topic so I could fit all of the information in within the allotted time-frame. It was as if I was no longer being chased, but chasing. God willing, my level of comfort will continue to increase. Likewise, God willing, I will not have to deal with roving idiots on my way to class next week. All-in-all, I'm having a very good time being an instructor and can see myself doing this for quite some time.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: While numerous people assisted in the creation and execution of this class, all of which are listed in the first posting, Bill Batton again deserves a special note of thanks. As soon as I reached the Education Department, Bill was there to hand me my bag containing my materials, which is stored in the Education Department, and to help me unwind from my previous ordeal. If it wasn't for a dedicated prisoner-ACE coordinator like Bill, these classes simply wouldn't flow as smoothly or possibly even happen. He deserves a tremendous round of applause for his selfless efforts, which I believe he doesn't even get paid for.


On a final note, I am certainly interested in hearing from those who enjoy this blog. Please don't hesitate to contact me regarding this blog, any particular questions or issues you would like me to address in future postings, or anything else. My contact information can be found in the "Contact Me" page of the site.