I started each class with the same speech. “I’m your teacher. I’m not an attorney or social worker. What you’ve done to get to this point is not my concern. I’m here to teach you for the next hour and a half.”
Twice a week I entered the Clallam County Jail to teach men and women – separately. Class size varied depending on the jail population. Twice a week, anywhere from two to eight prisoners came to the all-purpose room led by a guard.
Setting the scene: The “all-purpose” room was built with cinder blocks and measured approximately 30’ x 45’. The back wall had windows that offered a view of the recreational yard, also cinder-blocked, with the walls extending more than two stories. There were no balls or recreational equipment, so when prisoners were allowed there for an hour a day, they just walked in circles.
The left wall of the room had shelves sparsely filled with donated paperback books, all pre-screened for potential contraband and content (no serial-killer mysteries or “How To” books). Folded tables and chairs lined the right wall.
I taught in front of the adjacent wall to the hallway. There was a whiteboard and the locked door had a window, ostensibly so guards could monitor.
The first time I taught, the rattle of the keys locking the door behind me gave me the chills, but as the months progressed it became less of an issue.
The teaching agreement with the college that hired me was such that only Level One and Two prisoners were eligible to attend classes, those ID’d by yellow and orange wristbands. That eliminated “red” inmates who were considered violent or who were accused of serious crimes (i.e. rape or murder).
I taught in this atmosphere for almost three years and met countless drug addicts and alcoholics, felons who committed burglaries and robberies to support their habits, a few meth dealers, and on occasion, a prisoner charged with child abuse or assault and battery.
José was awaiting trial for assault. In jail you can be locked up for a year and still be within the guidelines for a “speedy” trial. He was in my class for almost twelve months before I learned (from a guard) the circumstances of his incarceration. He had come home from work and found his wife, the mother of his infant daughter, in bed with another man and beat him up. Police were called and with a court-appointed attorney he was awaiting sentencing. Bail was an impossibility and his lack of English made communicating to either his lawyer or the judge a problem.
But he came to class – religiously. At first, he said nothing, just listened. As an exercise in reading, writing, and communication I brought the New York Sunday Times to class each week and spread it out on the table. I asked each student to pick a section that interested them, read an article, write whatever they wanted to, and then share their thoughts.
It might have seemed like a lofty goal, but the men enjoyed reading the paper. The sports section was popular and any auto news, but so were the front page and the op. ed. section.
“What’s esse going to do?” One of the men pointed to José. I know very little Spanish, but I knew “esse” was a derogatory term. I said, “His name his José and I want you all to treat each other with respect in this room.”
José may not have understood everything I said, but he recognized my tone and at that moment, with an almost imperceptible nod, we established an understanding and respect.
On my way home that day I imagined what it would be like to be isolated for months with no one that speaks my language.
At the next session, I brought a primary notebook. It had pictures to draw and identify; animals, plants, buildings, cars, all kinds of items. I gave the workbook to José along with an English-to-Spanish/Spanish-to-English paperback dictionary.
At the next class he showed me a piece of paper filled with drawings he had recreated from the book with English and Spanish words labeling each drawing. Unlike prison, where inmates have activities and instructional classes offered, jail inmates awaiting sentencing have nothing but idle time. Yes, there’s always a TV blasting in the common room, but there’s little else to occupy one’s waking hours.
José used the time with no one to talk to with teaching himself words. For the next several weeks, while others in class poured over the NYT or filled in the various math worksheets I supplied to keep their minds focused, José devoured whatever I gave him; children’s short stories, assorted nursery rhymes, and poems.
I realized that he must have had his translation dictionary always on hand. I asked him to tell me about what he had read and slowly, in broken English, he described his week’s readings.
I found a copy of the novella, Sounder, on the library shelf. It would be a bigger challenge than he had tackled to date but a week later he brought it back to class. Not only had he read it cover to cover, but he felt a kinship to the father’s character who had been wrongly imprisoned for trying to feed his family.
José answered all my questions and I realized that word by word, sentence by sentence, with his dictionary on hand, he read a book in English!
The next challenge was a longer book. October Sky, is a memoir about young boys in a rural town in West Virginia who decide to build rockets. It took José a bit longer, but read it cover to cover he did.
Around that time another young Latino man was arrested, and José brought him to class. The joy he had in finally being able to speak to someone in his native tongue was apparent. I happened to be going to the city that weekend and went to an international newsstand and bought a Mexican newspaper. The joy and surprise were worth the cost as I passed out the usual Sunday Times and then handed José and his new friend the paper printed in Spanish.
I taught dozens of men and women in those twice weekly classes over three years. I was proud that a record number of students worked toward and passed all the steps in earning their GEDs. Each was proud that something positive, something good came out of their incarceration. But none touched my heart like José. His desire to learn and his ability to conquer all potential stumbling blocks he encountered were inspirational.
Because of his lack of funds for good legal representation and his immigration status, he was deported before I could say “good-bye.” It was doubtful he’d ever see his daughter again or ever make it to the Northwest given his felony conviction, but he taught me a great deal about determination and I am grateful for having known him.