In these complex social and political times, I’ve been wrestling with how to make the work students and I do in English class, the most relevant, powerful and empathy-building as possible. For the past four years I’ve taught a unit on the prison industrial complex, using a variety of texts, first hand narratives, podcasts, articles, essays , and documentaries. This year, I learned about an organization that provides addresses for LGBTQ people serving prison terms. After corresponding with one of the penpal coordinators, I received a list of addresses from prisoners. In setting up students to write, I explained what I had learned: that the simple act of receiving mail as a prisoner, even a single letter, sends a signal to guards and other prisoners, that that letter recipient has someone on the outside.
This can do a lot for that individual in terms of gaining respect from peers, and also makes a huge difference in that person’s own sense of connection and hope.
Precautions were taken to keep students safe, while also acknowledging many of the stereotypes we have about people who are in prison. I specifically requested addresses from people across the country, made sure that students only shared their first names, and read each outgoing and incoming letter to carefully screen for any safety concerns. These measures firmly in place created the possibility for the following kinds of exchanges to happen:
From an 11th grade student: “I learned that in prison, ya’ll are not treated fairly. I learned that it gets really hard on ya’ll. But I want to tell you you’re more than a number. You’re a person who has inspired a young adult to do his best (me). Do his best in everything. In school, in my personal life, etc. I’m having troubles but you telling me I still have hope helps me a lot. You are not alone. There are people here that really care about you. There are maybe 10 guards calling you your number. But you got hundreds of students screaming your real name...We are all humans. Keep doing what you’re doing. And when you get out, show the world you’re a changed man.”
From a prisoner: “I am glad to hear from you and even more appreciative of your words of encouragement. You are right, I do have a voice. What is also most important here, is that you also have a voice, and you must let it be heard. Your youth is precious, because it is often what indicates what will become of your future. The choices you make are so critical in the life you choose to live today. You must realize that one wrong mistake you make today, can haunt you for a very long time, even a lifetime. It happened to me, and countless other good men who have spent 30 years or more right in this prison. I’ve gotten the chance to personally know some of these great men. You want to know what most of them have in common? They wish they could turn back the hands of time and undo the mistakes they made when they were teenagers and young adults...You must stand up and let your voice be heard. Study hard, educate yourself, and follow your dreams. Stay grounded in your pursuits. And some day in the near future, you can buy your mom that house. We are all in this together.”
I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on this project, but now I am more determined than ever to build my own skills, resources and understandings so that I can teach in a way that bridges these social and political gaps, builds empathy, and provides real-world experiences for the incredible youth I work with, and beyond, to the many people in the world whose voices need to be heard.
Charlie Stephens, English Teacher
Tennyson High School