for one year I taught first-year composition classes in a college program in a
state prison one hour from my home in Tennessee. At the end of each semester students
are asked to complete a questionnaire and write comments concerning their teacher’s
performance. One day near the end of the spring semester the principal brought
the evaluation forms to our classroom. After I excused myself, I found a small
windowless room opposite the staff restroom. Seated before a computer was an inmate
whom I had not seen before. I learned that he was serving as an aide to one of
the teachers in the GED preparation classes. He was approximately forty years
old with flecks of grey in his dark hair.
When I apologized for disturbing
him, he grinned and said, “I’m just playing.”
I dragged a chair into the
room and took a seat where I planned to stay until the students were finished
with the evaluation. The aide introduced himself as Phil and immediately began
“If I had a gun with one bullet, I’d put it to my temple and
fire,” he said. “On second thought, maybe I’d take out one of these convicts in
the morning class. You ought to be here during the mornings,” he said. “The chaos
is unbelievable. A pencil is supposed to last a week, but these morons ask for
one each day. They can’t keep up with the paper they’re given-- or the books either.”
Phil already knew that I came from the University nearby to teach the
college class. He volunteered that he attended the high school in the town where
the University is located.
“We moved to Tennessee from Rochester, New
York, when I was a junior,” he said. “I wanted to take a foreign language, so
I signed up for Spanish during my first semester at the high school.”
you transferred from New York, you’re probably about six months ahead of us,”
the woman who taught Spanish told him.
“That’s o.k.,” Phil told her.
the first class meeting, the teacher greeted the class with “Como esta Ud?” spoken
in a Southern drawl. Phil imitated the accent with talent. He did not want to
learn Spanish with a Southern flavor, so the next day he enrolled in the French
class. To his chagrin, he learned that the same woman also taught French. On the
first day she asked the class “Parlez vou francais? “in a Southern accent. Phil
did not tell me whether he completed the French class.
After Phil injured
his toe while moving a teacher’s desk, he was shocked to learn that after nine
months, the injury had not healed. At health services he learned that he has diabetes.
He attributes his disease primarily to the diet at the prison, which is high in
starch and sugar.
As a hobby, Phil carves miniature designs on small rocks.
He sells some of his handiwork to other inmates. Around his neck he wears a fossilized
marine animal the size of a dollar with an intricate design on its surface. I
might have bought one of the rocks except teachers and volunteers are discouraged
from taking cash into the prison. I had no money with me.
Phil also mentioned
that he is serving his second stint under the razor wire, though he did not tell
me what crimes he had been convicted of. After his first stint at the prison,
he worked for a time at a pizza restaurant. He mentioned that he is licensed as
three different kinds of cooks.
Within ten minutes it was time for me
to return to my classroom. Hardly have I ever learned as much about another individual
in such a short time as I learned about Phil during that impromptu meeting.
June 24, 2011 Column
Robert G. Cowser
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