(Inside a State Prison)
What is fear? What does it mean to be brave, to show courage? Where is the actual courage and bravery if one is not afraid? According to a famous John Wayne quote, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” My favorite quote on this subject is from Eddie Rickenbacker (WW-1, Ace Pilot) “Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared,” Rickenbacker was awarded the Medal of Honor for participating in (and surviving) 26 aerial combats.
I spoke about my fear of public embarrassment or humiliation in my first blog. I was afraid to write a blog post for that very reason. In this next post, I would like to discuss my fear of teaching college classes inside a State Prison in Northern Ohio. It was a fear I first dealt with in 2015. Fear of the unknown. The only thing I thought I knew about prisons came from Hollywood movies. Here is my story. My second blog.
Fear of the unknown! Everyone can identify with this common fear—that first day at a new school, job, first date, etc. The less one knows about the situation, the greater the apprehension can become. Our minds and imaginations can create greater demons than those that may exist.
Today was the big day! The much anticipated (at least by me) first day of teaching college courses to incarcerated felons inside an all-male State Prison. I couldn’t help but contemplate the long winding journey I had traveled to lead me to this moment. I was required to attend special training, intensive background checks, and enough paperwork to choke the entire prison population. Would it be worth it, or a waste of my time?
Was I afraid? Yes, I was terrified. I have experience dealing with groups of men. The U.S. Army, teaching in urban inner-city colleges, volunteering with the Boy Scouts, and working with at-risk youths. But, inside a prison filled with convicted felons? No, none, zero, zilch. It was time to put my money where my mouth was. All my life, I had professed to believe in redemption, in second chances. Time to proof it, Tom.
After a two-hour drive from my home, I was in the parking lot of the vast prison compound, it was 6:00 a.m., and I was nervous. Carrying two heavy plastic see-through bags containing my teaching paraphernalia, I headed for the front entrance. Somehow my feet (of their own accord) had been moving me forward.
The remainder of the entry process remains a blur in my mind. I can only recall snapshots of the entire hour-long process. I signed the visitor/contractor timesheet and showed my contractor’s picture ID badge. Nervously watching my teaching tools fed through an X-Ray machine on a treadmill. I was repeatedly questioned about who, what, and where, emptying my pockets, removing my sports coat, shoes, and belt, and walking through a metal detector, being wanded by another hand-held metal detector held by a grim-faced Corrections Officer (C.O.). He looked like an NFL lineman (a mad one). I was waiting on a heavy metal door to be buzzed open. Standing in a cold, dank concrete hallway as, another grim-faced C.O. (who could be a twin of the first one) rechecked my badge. He opened a heavy iron-barred door slamming it shut with a loud, angry bang! Yet another sign-in sheet. Yet another heavy metal door being buzzed open. Finally, I was on the ‘inside.’
Another C.O. pointed me in the direction of the education facility. I walked through a hallway bustling with felons in faded blue denim outfits. Most of the prisoners were looking my way with probing looks. I just nodded my head at each prisoner that I passed. Finally, I spied an old wooden sign that said EDUCATION over an open door. The doorway led into a dark concrete stairway leading upwards until I lost sight of the end.
Shouldering my heavy see-through containers crammed full of books and teaching tools, and with an audible sigh, I began the long Mordor Trek. When I was on the verge of taking a break and catching my wind, I spotted a faint yellowish flash of light above me. Finally, I arrived winded and out of breath at the top, greeted by a C.O. with yet another sign-in sheet.
This C.O. was older, sported a considerable potbelly, and probably never played for the NFL. He was the perfect example of the power of seniority. The C.O. gave my shiny new badge a cursory glance. He asked no questions of me and offered no answers. He mumbled, “Room eight.”
When I entered the door to the class, I paused in the doorway. The incarcerated students were already lounging in their seats, waiting for me. The C.O. with the potbelly was straddling a wobbly three-legged beat-up desk some hundred yards down the long hallway. Once I shut the classroom door behind me, I would be alone with forty felons.
I had been provided with a ‘man-down’ button. A small grey square with a button on it. It reminded me of a garage door opener. I had been assured that if I pushed the button, help would come running fast. I hoped that the rescue service referred to wouldn’t be the pot-bellied C.O. I was sure he couldn’t manage to run the entire hundred yards without a break (or two).
I saw every pair of eyes intently on me as I dumped my teaching tools on the table in front of the classroom. I paused to look around the room at the broken tables and chairs the students hunkered around. Many had books and papers in their laps due to needing more desk or table space. Behind my teacher’s table was an old, battered blackboard. I felt my jaw drop!
“You have got to be kidding me.” I thought to myself. If this classroom had a whiteboard, I brought dry erasers and whiteboard markers inside with my gear. What I had been hoping for was an overhead computer projector. What I ended up with was something from Little House on the Prairie. The chalkboard lip held one piece of broken white chalk and one piece of broken yellow chalk. I peered around for an erasure. A questionable-looking dry rag was hanging on a hook beside the broken and chipped blackboard. I straightened my back and muttered to myself, “Man up, Tom. Quit whining and work with what you got.”
I strode briskly to the blackboard, snatched up the broken yellow chalk, and wrote my name in large bold letters. I slapped the chalk piece back onto the lip and spun around to face my class. When my back was to the classroom, I could hear voices murmuring.
I strolled across a white line painted on the scarred wooden floor with the words – NO INMATES ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT! – I strode halfway into the depths of the blue-clad felons who would be my students for the next sixteen weeks. “Good morning, gentlemen.” I barked, giving them my best teacher smile. I heard a few soft mumbles.
I stopped dead in my tracks. “Gentlemen. I didn’t travel sixty-eight miles, leaving my home at four a.m. to get here in time to teach you this morning. For a lame response like that. You can do better.” I took a deep breath and paused for effect. “So, let’s try it again; GOOD MORNING, GENTLEMEN!” I received a loud, boisterous good morning in return. I heard a few chuckles around the room.
My facial expression didn’t change, but inside, I was smiling. Just what I had hoped for. This is just like every other class I had taught. I began striding back and forth across the entire length of the tiny, crowded classroom. As I marched, I made eye contact with every student and held it briefly.
At this point in the story. My fear vanished, much like firefighters who train with man-made fires. Each time they see a new fire, they may feel fear. But, once engaged, in the heat of the battle. The fear diminishes or vanishes, and the experience and training take over.
“Gentlemen, when you first become a teacher, they teach you to ‘establish credibility’ with your students.” I looked slowly around the room. “All those fancy words mean is I need to prove to you, the students, that I have the necessary expertise to teach the subject matter at hand.” I walked over to the despised ‘no inmate’ painted line and planted my feet on it. “So, gentlemen, I am going to stand on this line and introduce myself to the classroom.” I had their attention now.
“When I am finished, our first order of business, all of you will stand up here. Right here and take your turn introducing yourselves to me and the entire classroom.” I pointed to a spot on the floor well past the line. I saw row after row of smiles. “After introductions, the second item on our agenda is to establish the class rules.”I stopped and pointed behind my desk. “I will write these rules of behavior on the whiteboard, er, excuse me, gentlemen; I mean the blackboard.” I had their interest now.
We will all discuss and agree to these rules,” I stated firmly. From the back row, a voice shouted, “My rule will be no homework!” The class erupted into chuckles. “Who said that?” I asked in a calm voice. “Inmate 308187, sir!” came the response. The entire class became eerily silent, waiting on the outcome of our exchange. “I didn’t ask you for a number; I asked you for your name, son?”A hesitant voice“My name?” I saw puzzled looks throughout the room.“Yes, son, I want your name.” a brief silence, and then, “My name is Jeremy Jones, sir.”
I answered him with a smile, “Well, Mr. Jones, when we start to write our class rules, I want you to be the class scribe” most of the class was looking directly at inmate Jones. “The class can determine however many rules they need. I will insist on including two rules Mr. Jones. One. We will treat everyone in this class with respect. Two. This is the most important rule, never forget that learning is supposed to be fun. Can you live with those rules, Mr. Jones?” I heard the lighter tone in his response. “Yes, sir, I sure can!”
An hour later, introductions were completed. My jacket was removed, the sleeves of my dress shirt rolled up, and my tie loosened. The class atmosphere was relaxed and energetic. Mr. Jones was standing at the blackboard well beyond the painted line with a happy smile plastered on his face. He was reciting the list of class rules that he had just written on the blackboard. After sixteen weeks together, the students of that first class began calling me Doctor D. That nickname stuck and is employed today by nearly everyone in the prison system and beyond.
Fear is a compelling emotion. Fear can shape our entire lives. However, overcoming fear is also powerful.
That first day of teaching inside a prison was almost eight years ago. It doesn’t pay very well. It pays the worse wages I’ve ever made as a teacher. It is also undoubtedly the best and most rewarding job I have ever held in my entire life. I have witnessed horrors in this place. Despite the odds stacked against them, I also see much potential for greatness. I have learned more about teaching one day with my incarcerated students than I have in twenty years with so-called ‘traditional’ students. There is still much that is good in this world.
Food/or Dostoyevsky ~ “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.”
I enjoyed this life-changing experience because I decided to confront my fear. I would love to hear from any readers about a time they have confronted one of their fears. Please, share your experience with us.