Monday, June 7, 2010

Writing In And Out Of Jail

Dear All,

There are caring people and teachers working amongst young people in prisons and juvenile delinquent centres.

It warms my heart as an English teacher when inmates from such places are taught and encourage to write in a thoughtful and meaningful way whether in prose or poetry about their pains, anger and longings.

It's definately not an easy task to teach writing to these groups of people but these two books are a testament of what is possible when there are people who care enough to teach and to guide them.


Writing in and out of Jail

The other day I received a letter from a young man incarcerated at Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison in Northern California. He heard an interview I did on a show called Humankind (and if you find this of interest, see also Speaking of Faith). He decided to write.

The letter is five pages long, crammed top to bottom, and contains mostly social analysis involving education, the conditions in the inner-city, and the state of Black America. Since entering prison, the writer has been taking college classes and receiving rehabilitation counseling. He reads widely, from self-help books to Jonathan Kozol. I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Little, another young Black man in the middle of the last century, who powerfully read and wrote his way from prison into a new life.

There are two new books that I’ll recommend: Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart and From the Inside Out compiled by Deborah Appleman.

Father Boyle is well-known in Southern California as the founder of Homeboy Industries, a remarkable cluster of gang rehabilitation programs that involve job training, counseling, and education. If you’re not familiar with the program, spend a few minutes on their website.

I’ve just had the chance to skim Tattoos on the Heart, though I have heard Father Boyle read from it. I’ve read and heard enough to strongly recommend it. The book is structured as a series of stories and vignettes drawn from Father Boyle’s work with young men and women caught up in gang life. He is a good writer and captures in brief sketches the terribly complex lives he encounters. There is much in the stories that sheds light on poverty and despair and violence, but also on possibility and human development, even in the most seemingly hopeless of circumstances.

There is a potent lesson here, I think, for programs that work with all manner of children and adults – not only gang members – who have had a rough go of it. Programs and classrooms that convey a sense that you matter, that your mind matters, foster achievement where achievement seemed unlikely. To feel intellectually cherished – which also means being intellectually challenged and pushed – enables people to be smart.

Deborah Appleman taught writing in a Minnesota prison and the result is From the Inside Out. It is a collection of prose and poetry written by the prisoners, addressed mostly to those on the outside, to sons and daughters, to relatives, to their younger selves – and some of the most painful writing is to their younger selves. The writing is at times angry and driven by shame and self-recrimination; at other times, it is tender and filled with longing:

My heart breaks at the thought of not witnessing you walking into school for the first time. I know I would have been more nervous than you. I didn’t get to hear you retell every minute of that day as I recall my own experiences from so long ago. I gave all of that away.

Reading From the Inside Out, we’re reminded of how powerful a medium writing can be in trying to render experience and reflect on it. Appleman is a gifted teacher, and she created the conditions for these men to bear witness in print. I can’t help but think about how little a sense we get these days of all that putting pen to paper can achieve. So much of the discussion of Language Arts is characterized by benchmarks and test scores and curriculum guidelines. It takes these guys writing to save their souls to remind us of what else it can mean to write.


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