Author’s note: Certain names and details have been changed.
My first formative experience as an educator came in a correctional institution.
I volunteered to tutor English and Math for imprisoned adult students working to build literacy skills and G.E.D diplomas. Once a week, I would arrive at the prison and undergo a security search before gaining permission to proceed towards a small classroom located inside the detention center.
The classroom belonged to a dedicated teacher named Miss Anabelle.
I was in my late 20s and not very responsible. Some days I would flake on my weekly volunteer commitment and feel ashamed for letting Miss Annabelle down. Yet, when I reached her door, she would smile and wave for me to come inside. Without hesitation, she would guide me straight to a student in need of assistance, as if we had not missed a beat.
Miss Annabelle was a retired schoolteacher. She commuted one hour each day to educate the local inmates. She had a warm Southern accent and a grandmotherly presence. Her existence in a prison environment was, at times, a curious sight. Miss Annabelle was probably the most physically vulnerable person in there. However, I could tell by the responses of both guards and inmates, Miss Anabelle was loved.
Students came to her classroom from a variety of ages, backgrounds, and educational aptitude. They were ready to learn, and they desired certain skills to meet their goals.
Miss Annabelle tailored individual learning plans to meet their developmental needs. But being just one teacher, she could never give 1-on-1 attention to everyone. This is where volunteers like me came in.
When I started tutoring, I imagined it would be a general engagement for a good cause. In life, there are some interactions that no amount of book knowledge can prepare you for. What follows is just a few of them.
In such manner did I meet Mark. He was a man in his late 50s, practicing handwriting skills on stacks of white paper.
He was a construction worker and a thinking man with a calm baritone voice. Mark possessed a lifetime of work experience with his hands. Mark alluded to tough personal circumstances, and I listened, unqualified to comment. He spoke with dignity that made me feel like the youngster I was. I sensed he could tell me more about real life than I could teach him about phonetic sounds.
His challenge was that despite a lifetime of experience, his inability to put his experience into written words meant his intelligence went unrecognized and dismissed. He could not read or write very well. So he learned to navigate through sharp observation of everything, replicating behaviors that helped him solve problems. For a period of his life, he started and sustained a repair business.
We worked together for the next hour and a half. I wish I could say something incredibly profound transpired. Progress was slow. There were moments of frustration. When the class ended, we shook hands, and he collected his papers to head back to his respective confinement area.
I never knew why he was imprisoned. It did not matter.
In another session, I met Paul. Paul was my age and needed help with math. He was close to completing his GED. I could tell by how quickly he sped through problems that he was motivated to be finished.
I noticed Paul’s hands quivering uncontrollably from time to time without much warning.
Paul quickly absorbed pointers for simplifying algebra expressions and handling geometric equations. We worked on slowing down his speed to increase his accuracy. He got a boost of confidence.
With a trembling hand, he reached for a fresh piece of scrap paper, which shook loudly in his grasp.
“Parkinson’s”, he quickly blurted.
My assumption embarrassed me. I thought he was withdrawing from drug addiction. By the end of our session, I questioned who was educating whom.
My interactions with adult student inmates were limited to academic tutoring. I never spent time in prison for other reasons. Before this, I had watched documentaries on issues affecting prison populations. In popular culture, all that is ever truly known about an imprisoned person is a central biographical fact of a criminal conviction. During my visits, it became clear that I was the ignorant one.
When Miss Annabelle and I were alone, awaiting our next tutoring session, she would educate me further on the hardships that I could not see. She taught me about the reality of learning disabilities and mental illnesses affecting many imprisoned people who were caught in a revolving door of recidivism and poor treatment which society struggled to fix.
Her point was not to belabor the cycles of poverty, violence, addiction, or inequalities that blockaded paths to progress. Miss Annabelle was mostly giving me her experience.
In addition, our conversations helped me understand how much courage it takes for adult learners to grow. It is tough for people to lower their guard under normal circumstances. Try opening up in a tough environment where vulnerability can be fraught with peril. This may be why Miss Annabelle infused her interactions with great encouragement. It did not matter what reading or writing level they were at. Her message to the students was consistently positive. It could be that she was meeting a deeper need than reading, writing, and mathematical skills.
Towards the end, I accompanied Miss Annabelle in a ceremony for Mary. I also helped tutor in math. Miss Anabelle opened the door and waved for the woman into the hallway. She rose with a beaming smile as if expecting us.
Once in the hall, Miss Annabelle pulled the GED diploma out of the folder. The woman gasped with joy. We exchanged hugs and congratulations, smiles and tears. Mary was so proud and began to tell the story of her teenage son who encouraged her to finally finish her high school education after putting it off for twenty-plus years.
Miss Anabelle gave words of inspiration to continue on the path of education and to remain focused on the outside so that she could be there for her son and family.
It felt humbled to be involved in such a major moment in someone else’s life. I had attended a fair share of academic graduations and had heard many rousing commencement speeches. This moment between Miss Annabelle and Mary was the most memorable educational moment than anything I ever witnessed. There was no ceremony, no pictures, no applause.
It was a simple and special moment of just us three standing in a windowless hallway filled with artificial light.
The importance of her achievement shifted this woman’s perspective on herself and her future. One could see the pride and joy in her eyes. I felt fortunate to witness, and play a small role in it.
Regardless of the interactions, I would remember leaving the correctional facility, reevaluating my assumptions about people. Is education simply about what you know? Is education what you can prove that you know? Or, is it what you do with what you know?
Society bestows value on a degree. Yet it cannot be the full story. I wondered what else I still had to learn about life that I could not get from a textbook.
These tutoring experiences happened over a decade ago. I am still learning from them.
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