Penance: On Teaching an At-Risk Populace.

Sometimes, the student is a felon. When this is so, he will likely tell me in the first draft of our first formal essay, a narrative. He may write it directly: When I was in prison… He may feel the need to finesse it with euphemism: For a while, I was away, and no one visited. He is, on average, seven years younger than I and used to disclosing this upfront, lest it come to preclude opportunity, lest it force him to temper his personal investment.

If you are to change your perception of me, the sentence seems to suggest, do it when we our in our separate homes. Give us both time to sit with this decision.

This is different, then, from the students who write during our first-day icebreaker, of who they’d like to meet, living or dead, then tell our small circle of strangers, “My father.” It is different, too, from the questions they say they’d ask: Why did you leave? Where have you been? Did you love my mother?

These, they have no problem saying aloud the first time ever I’ve seen their faces. They do not look up from the page or read our expressions as they speak. But airing the words enlivens and steels. The writing is for them. The sharing, also.

For the narrative, there is no such prompt. They give whatever self-definitions they will. The felons share their convictions. The privacy they afford me, in marking their pages alone, is not for empowerment but protection: a gift for me, a shield for them.

In either case, at the lectern or alone, I do not wince at their sentences. A College Composition course is a confessional, and you must never flinch when you take confession.

Sometimes, the work reduces the likelihood of recidivism; sometimes it reinforces it. The student whose eye is a lomographic lens, every reaching beyond the confines of campus, may have learned this way of seeing during his bid. The young man for whom a syllabus seems a cell and a sentence is not likely to make it to midterms.

Whether he serves or flees, he leaves something indelible: a smile, either wan or determined; an evocative paragraph or a series of curiously used words (impropriety, boastful, besmirches); an essay that, with a bit of commitment, could stand alongside the work of R. Dwayne Betts or Nathan McCall.

It is then that the distance closes. They are no longer abstractions for whom we advocate or persons we are taught to fear. They are not cinematic constructs nor guileless innocents devoured by their environments. For better or worse, they have become their own men, their identities writ large in decisions they will never forget, in charges they keep close to the vest, in quickly-scribbled statements of conviction.

But in my courses–for better or worse–no felony can define them as fully as their scholarly interests can liberate them. Like everyone else, they enter as blank slates. So do I.

Each term, we earn each other’s definitions.

3 responses to “Penance: On Teaching an At-Risk Populace.”

  1. Great piece. So much has been written about how teachers affect students, but little has been written on how they affect us. It’s a beautiful, touching thing, really.

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