I taught my first creative writing class at the ACJ (Allegheny County Jail) this week. I thought I’d be nervous but the moment the fifteen male inmates walk into the room and sit in a circle, I feel calm, comfortable, eager. I suppose that’s how a teacher should feel approaching his/her first class. The inmates seem excited to be here, looking forward to something new, something different, interested to hear what I have to say.
A range of inmates participate. Through introductions, I learn that a few are writing 400-pg novels, some have never written before in their lives, and others just want to do something that might better who they are. I think they deserve a second chance.
I’ve been worried about teaching in a jail, worried that I might label these individuals, whether subconsciously or not, now that they’re locked up. I’ve worried that I might filter too much of how I act or what I say because these students have made mistakes, decisions that have led them behind bars. I fear that all these worries might uncover a truth about myself that I don’t want to see, the truth that as much as I try not to judge, I do.
We free-write towards the end of class. They each choose a prompt and we write for thirty minutes, teacher included. For a moment while I’m writing, I forget where I am. I feel a circle of writers around me, an energy that feeds the room, a creativity that travels from head to head as we sit in silence, crafting. I look up to think of a word, scan the short haircuts of still men around me, and forget I’m in a jail. I don’t notice the red of their inmate suits; I just see their pencils moving.
For a few of the students, this is their first time attending a class at the jail, and for one it’s his first time in a writing class. After the free-write, he shares his work. He wrote about how he was born into a single-parent household with a mother addicted to crack, how difficult it was to fight his circumstances, how it seemed inevitable that he would get into drugs, start using, start selling. He holds the face of a sincere child when he reads, the voice of a friendly neighbor and he listens intently when other people speak, nodding his head slightly, absorbing the words like dry wood in a needed rain.
A second chance. I re-think what I mean by second chance. Based on my first three hours with these inmates, and my first writing lesson with them, I start to believe that they never really had a first chance. I don’t know all their stories yet. I’m sure I’ll find out more through their writing. But this new student, who was so eager to share his first piece of writing, represents the whole room for me. He was born into circumstances out of his control, and so what if he wasn’t able to overcome them and turn everything he knew into good? What if he’s not looking for a second, third, fourth chance at life? What if he’s searching for the first one he never had?