Class Update (7-18-2011): Interpersonal Interactions Gone Awry

To tell you the truth, the week leading up to class was annoying. One of the guys in my class is in my housing unit and he just won't leave me alone. Every day he walks up, pats me on the shoulder, and says "Don't forget to do your homework." He does this twenty or thirty times every day. Usually he does so while I'm working at the computer, interrupting my concentration. As a matter of fact, I've been awake for a little less than 30 minutes now and he just came by to ask me if I did my homework yet. Err.
What makes this worse is that the guy has a bad reputation for doing some odd things with odd people. Suffice to say that he is one of those guys in prison that you don't want to be seen associating with. I take a more open view to this. I try to be nice and responsive to all, but when the guy follows you around, life can be trying. I suppose this is the curse of those who are not directly aggressive, but passively aggressive. I commonly refer to myself being a ‘pacifist within reason,’ something not all that common in the prison environment.
Outside of this mild annoyance, I really didn't have to do much preparation. This week's class was based upon an introduction to book writing with an emphasis on nonfiction book writing and submission. In these areas, I really know my stuff. So, I was ready to go from the start. As a matter of fact, I was more than ready to get started, I was positively eager to get going by sharing my knowledge with my students.
As is my usual routine, I skipped chow and headed up to the FCI-Petersburg Education Department once my unit was called to chow. In case you're wondering, I had normal tuna on yellow fin tuna in a spicy sauce. I then poured crunched up jalapeno chips and several spices on it and rolled the contents into flower tortillas. Who says that you have to eat bad in prison?! You should see the pizza bagels I make!
Upon arriving at the Education Department I met with one of my students in the library. He expressed to me his displeasure at how I had jokingly filed last week's homework in the trash can, a move I did jokingly because homework didn't count because of the missing PEN American Center's 'Handbooks for Writers in Prison.' Turns out he took real offense to this. Also turns out he was a bit manic. For the next several hours he would go on about this, in class and out. Lesson learned. In the future I will be more careful to account for the manic students' feelings. Though, in all honesty, I wasn't trying to be insulting, they were just fill-in-the-blank questions. Regardless, this is an area in which I can employ a more professional demeanor. This was my fault and won't happen again.
The other thing that put me off a bit before class was the displeased gentleman's verbiage. He kept on cursing. Now, I'm not a prude or anything. After all, I am a 25-year-old federal prisoner who does have bright red stars tattooed on his hands. But I certainly don't see a need for so much profanity. Needless to say, the manic gentleman disagreed with me. So, he continued on with his homework ramblings...punctuating his angst with profanity. Hmm.
I won't bore you now with the story of developing a set of morals, something I fully believed happened during my intense religious studies several years ago. But I will say that I am now more socially conscious of my actions and the words that I use. As such, I don't feel that profanities are appropriate for an educational setting. I think they can be employed in a piece of writing depending upon the genre and the audience, but that in everyday interactions, they are a sign of a poor vocabulary. Long story short, I don't think that they have a place in the classroom or should be used by people who are professing to be professional writers. If you want to know more about my growth morals, you'll need to buy my book when it comes out. There is a detailed chapter dedicated to my life’s journey and subsequent growth enclosed therein.
Back to class – as class started, I was pleased to see a full room of students. I started with 17, but am now down to 15. These numbers are very impressive considering we're already on week five of the course. Usually Adult Continuing Education classes have completion percentages around the 50% range. So far I have been blessed with beating the odds.
One of the two students who didn't show up had been transferred on a writ back to court. There's nothing much do to about that, so it really didn't bother me. The other student, on the other hand, really disappointed me. Two classes ago, he had managed to show up to class at 5:30 p.m., but left at 7:00 p.m., thinking that the class was over when it hadn't even started. This resulted in his second absence, which placed him over the limit, hence kicked out of the class. After he spoke with me outside of class, I went the extra mile and spoke with my supervisor about him. She told me that he could stay in class, but that he would have to go see her. He did and she put him back in class, but he managed to not show up again this week. So yet again, I see why I shouldn't have stuck my neck out. This upset me more than a little bit. I was – and remain – very disappointed in the man. What makes it worse is that he lives in my housing unit. So every time I see him, it's like opening the wound again.
Regardless, class went fairly well from 7:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. We ran through everything quickly and I even managed to get the students laughing. During this period, I also managed to employ visual aids via my dry erase board and marker. I was pleased to see that some of the students were even taking notes. By most accounts the class was very informative and appreciated.
The other stimulating part of class had to do with the questions asked of me. People really wanted to know more about certain topics. For example, several of the students inquired into how to properly format their work when submitting to the upcoming Pen American Center Prison Writing Awards. For those of you just tuning in, I won two awards earlier this year for my works 'Healing Bin Laden' and 'Jesusland.’ I was glad to be able to give them detailed and practical advice. Actually, I reviewed several pieces that several of my students wanted to submit. Some were great and some were so-and-so. Boy would it be great to see one of my students place! I'll have to keep in contact with them for the next few months to find out.
The PEN Awards discussion actually jogged my memory. I had forgotten about the September 1st deadline. So, I had to kick myself into high gear to submit. This year I will be submitting two pieces: One in fiction which is the novelization of my award winning screen play 'Healing Bin Laden.' The other is an article on prison education entitled 'The Great Escape.' So, cross your fingers. We'll know the results in March of 2012.
As the 8:00 p.m. move was called, several students left. As I've noted before, I allow this, but am not the biggest fan of it. The reason for allowing this is because there will always be a few who don't care about the subject at hand. They're in the class only for programming credit. So, instead of causing an issue where I have to make them stay or have to report them, I allow the ones who want to leave to do so at 8:00 p.m. with the understanding that they will miss needed information. The rest of the students stay until 8:30 p.m., when the recall move is announced.
After the students who wanted to leave filed out, I prepared to cover the final examination. But before we could embark on preparing for the final, the manic student spoke up. He started by using several colorful four-letter words. It appeared as if this forty-year old man wanted to show that he was a big boy and could curse if he wanted to. In the process of showing his intellectual stature, he was again lamenting on the fact that I had not graded the previous week's homework. I again explained to him that it wouldn't be fair to grade his homework and not be able to grade the rest of the class, too. But he didn't want to hear it. He didn't care that this was the first week in which everyone had the necessary materials. I attempted to move on to the final, but he wasn't having it.
Now he wanted to have a discussion on profanity. He felt that he should be able to use as much profanity in his writing and/or in the class as he wanted. He then aptly demonstrated that he had a fluent vocabulary in four-letter words.  As he did so, it became obvious that his command of the English language, outside of curse words, was extremely limited. I attempted to turn this into a teaching moment. I showed how, instead of calling me some sort of name, he could utilize a more appropriate word which would further the scene and picture created. For example, instead of calling me a "Fu@%ing Idiot" he could have said that I was a "perplexing pedagogue with idiosyncratic mannerisms." Not that I agree with this, but that it would have held his readers longer and would not have turned off other readers. Needless to say, he was not amenable to suggestion.
At this point I had had enough of this nonsense. I firmly, but respectfully, told the man and the rest of the class that we were now going to cover the final. At this, everyone became quiet so that they could prepare.
What I did was go through the final and ask the questions, but reworded them. I also placed an emphasis on the knowledge behind the questions, not the answers themselves. For example, one of the true/false questions is: "A prisoner is allowed to publish under a byline." The answer to this is true, but the history and meaning behind it is the important part.
First, this question allowed me to explain what a byline is (the line in an article where the author's name is located). Then, I was able to share the history of how federal prisoners were not allowed to publish under a byline until 2009. I explained that before this they had to use pen names or remain anonymous. This gave the students both a sense of urgency and pride at being able to do something which other prisoners had fought for (e.g. having their real name appear with their writings), and it allowed me to explain what a pen name and a pseudonym were. This explanation elicited even more questions, all of which were important to the students.
As 8:30 p.m. rolled around, I was tired and my throat was sore. This is usually the case after class. I was tired because it takes a lot out of a person to not only teach a class, but to compete with divergent personalities for several hours. In this regard, my experience is lacking. I really don't know of that many 25-year olds who are in charge of 15 men, who are all a number of years older than themselves. I guess I am where I should be after all.
Looking back upon this week's class, I see what I think is growth in myself. I feel as though I am better prepared for future classes because of having to deal with the several challenging interpersonal exchanges with difficult students. I see areas where I can improve, and I see that I need to reel in discussions which serve no productive purpose. I guess that my class is a lot like life. Things don't always go as planned, but growth occurs regardless of ease or difficulty. Actually, I've discovered that I grow much more when I have turmoil rather than smooth sailing. With this in mind, perhaps I grew that much more with this class than the easy ones.