Yes, I am only 5’2 and 120 pounds, but I can say without a bit of fallacy that in all of my years of teaching, the jail where I taught in Charlotte, NC is where I felt the safest! Of course I have had students conduct full 12 round boxing matches in front of me, tearing up anything that symbolized a classroom, but those were few and far in between. Of course I have had objects thrown at me, threats for my life, and the most vulgar assaults directed towards me, but in the end, it didn’t matter. The truth is, we were family.
Reaching Out to Youthful Offenders
Ironically, an institution like a jail can create a feel of community for juvenile offenders simply because they are scared, preoccupied, and unaware of their fate. In jail, the teachers are like their mentors or parental figures until they return home. More than a teacher, I was a counselor. The students confided in me in their writing and words about the angst that loomed over them concerning their court dates or possible sentences. Some of them were going home and some of them were going to be in prison forever.
Somehow, even though I tried not to, the classroom created a family environment. There was always the big brother of the group, the enforcer, the class clown, and the antagonist! One of my favorite and long lasting students, who waited a year and a half to be sentenced, fell into the first three categories. He changed the environment of the value of education in the jail. He demanded that everyone listen and learn to each lesson. His eagerness eventually affected the other students to follow his lead. It also didn’t hurt that he was 6’4, 250 pounds, and just naturally cool! The impression that he left in the classroom was there until I left and was appreciated.
Everyday coming to work was rewarding as I was able to teach these students where they were lacking. They responded well and when there were talks of ending funding for education for these students, I was the first to speak up. For many of the students, they told me it was the first time they had ever learned anything. It wasn’t because they weren’t taught, it was because they didn’t see the value of education.
Teaching at the jail was an opportunity that very few people get to experience. Unfortunately, I have had more students killed or kill than I can even count, most of my students are in prison or constantly return to jail, and some are even strung out on drugs. Then, there are those students who graduate with academic and athletic scholarships to top schools in North Carolina. Finally, there are those students to whom I write two to three times a year who are sentenced in prison longer than I have been alive. In the short time of being their teacher, I just hope they remember the positive moments we shared as a second family.