the metamorphosis

Who can possibly find time to do the following?…

She continues to study Italian (which she now speaks fluently, with occasional sallies into […] vernacular), reading textbooks from cover to cover three times each. She has also become proficient in German and French, and is studying Japanese, Chinese and Russian. She is devouring the Western canon, and lists in her journals each book she completes. She has become something of a specialist in Existentialism (Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre’s No Exit and Nausea), Magical Realism (Calvino, Borges, Eco), Absurdism and Despair (Vonnegut, Beckett, Woody Allen, Kafka).

Ah, must be that friend who is vacationing on a deserted isle somewhere in total disconnect. (I admit, I made that up, there is no longer such a place methinks).

Actually this is from a Rolling Stones article about Amanda Knox, the “other” media-created monstrosity who, in the end, may well be found innocent of the crime she is accused of committing, in her case the horrific murder of her roommate one day in Perugia. For now Amanda has the dubious luxury of time. I say dubious because this is due to the fact that she is serving a 26-year sentence in an Italian prison. That’s more than enough time to read hundreds if not thousands of books (I wonder if she’s on Goodreads?) and become septilingual to boot.

I’d prefer the deserted island as, I’m sure, would she.

I don’t pretend to judge her guilt or her innocence (although my hopes are on the latter for when the media convicts I tend to grasp even tighter to the importance of truth), but rather to remember here one of my father’s great loves.

He taught, for some time, at a prison in Upstate New York. Economics. Business. He had a way of connecting with people, all people and especially the underdog. Teaching them energized him and this energy no doubt was contagious. It was, in many ways, one of the things in his life that gave him not only the most pleasure and fulfillment but also through which he had the most lasting impact.

Perhaps, he would joke, some of his students were to graduate (from his class as well as their prison “term”) and apply this knowledge to less than admirable professions, but he was beyond certain that the great majority would go on to live productive lives. He said that of all the students he taught these were the most dedicated, the most passionate, the most focused on learning and appreciative of his time and efforts to share his knowledge with them. It was what saved them, he believed, from the absolute misery and loneliness of incarceration. He told me that once he was escorted into the room and got settled he would look up and see them, their eyes all on him opened and ready to learn, hungry to learn.

Oddly enough, some argue that funds allocated to these educational programs detract from the effectiveness of incarceration, as if denying the inmates an education were like denying them any other luxury item, the equivalent of a plush couch or a gourmet meal. How ridiculous! While education is out of reach to many due to economic and social inequalities, it should never be denied when it can be freely imparted. The benefits here are immense and affect not only the inmates themselves, but society as a whole. There is a great deal of research that documents how inmates who dedicate themselves to learning while in prison have lower rates of recidivism and far more successful results in their reentry into society.

I did a casual read of some of the available information on prison education on the net, which is vast, but rather than quote from research studies I’d prefer to share something I came across which made me smile and reminded me of my father’s stories. It was a suggestion in a forum to “The Daily Show” about story ideas by a woman named Mary Murphy.

I am a prison education Teacher. I teach in a Maximum Security Prison. Over half my students are under 21 and they have already killed someone.

Using the threat of detention has a different meaning when you are already locked up. Getting the students to line up after class is easy when you can say ” ok- all the first degree murders in the front and the carjacking kids are in the rear”.
If they do their homework you can give out the stickers that match their gang colors- Latin Kings prefer Red and Black Iron Man stickers- for real.
What would make a good story? Myself and another equally funny teacher are over fifty- kind of frumpy librarian type females who are getting incredible Achievement Results from inmates in Maximum Security Prisons. Any by the way- we are funny as hell. The story about the Latin King stickers is real-

We have found most people have no clue the kind of teaching and learning that goes on behind bars where the students are in a faux boarding school and we do not have to worry about calling parents.

Why is this important to the general public? Most people think the dumb black kids on the corner are dumb as a stump but when they see them in a prison school they take a double look since it looks like friggin Harvard Prep School-everyone is in a uniform.

This is the one place we can prove that black boys from the city can and will read all night- the story idea is not about whether the public school wastes money educating offenders- that is old news. The story is about the kind of passion for education these kids are realizing- after it is too late. It is a wakeup call for all the schools that think they are too dumb to learn- they can and will learn when the teachers understand and respect them.

My friend has written a book on how public schools can learn from Prison Education!!!! By the way- when we are in class with five murders- three armed robbers- two carjacking and ten heroin dealers- there are no guards!!! We have to use humor and respect to get their attention- but we can’t have harback books- binders or anything that can be used as a weapon. Our materials look like Little House on the Praire so we can prove that you can produce results for the tough gangs on the cheap.

While Amanda chose to study Kafka (might she relate to Gregor in Metamorphosis?) and learn Japanese, the average inmate in the U.S. may well not even have a high-school diploma and might be able to complete a GED while incarcerated. How wonderful is that?! With the advances of technology learning might be accomplished in so many ways, most probably at lower cost and with wider possibilities of reaching more.

A writer friend recently told me that the one thing she never ever denied her children when they asked for it was a book. Wise woman. Lucky children. We are not all so lucky.


10 thoughts on “the metamorphosis

  1. Wonderful post.

    Many people get so mired into the position of punishment, that they dehumanize not only those they seek to punish, but themselves. It’s easy to live in a black and white world, more difficult to see the shades of gray.

    I love that these women are addressing the education system…we need more people like this.

    1. I suppose anyone in a job where they are facing on a daily basis such challenges runs the risk of putting up walls and dehumanizing the other. Actually both sides fall in this trap and it is understandable. Sometimes it’s easier to slip to the black or the white, the gray taking more effort.

      With naive hope I think that education might be one way to crack open that wall, for both teacher and student. But I speak not from first-hand experience, and recognize that it is not easy to teach, let alone such difficult cases. I am in awe of these people too!

  2. Great post Tracey. Education changes one forever, which I can attest to first hand. I went back to school after twenty seven years and in a different country and the world changed! A lot of it has to do with someone just believing in you also, that you can learn, that you are worthy of an education. The human spirit can rise to such belief and soar. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Beautiful! A twenty-seven year hiatus, and renewing your education in a new country to boot! Congratulations!

      Yes, as you say we all need someone to believe in us and we need to believe in ourselves, something not always so easy when life has been difficult and where praise is either non-existent or offered only for the wrong achievements.

  3. So glad you decided to write on this subject. I worked in the NC state prison system for almost 10 years. People still ask me if it wasn’t the most awful experience of my life, working with the most terrible people in society, “Werent they mean, disrespectful? Weren’t you scared?” In almost 10 years of one-on-one counseling I had probably less than two hands worth of people who were disrespectful toward me. Why? Simple. I gave them respect and love, yes love. If we respected all our kids (and each other as adults) and truly cared about one another, I know it would be a different world. Wish we could talk more in person over a glass of wine, Tracey! I’d love to hear more of your father’s experiences.

    1. Arggghhhh, I wrote a long response to your comment and it seems to have been eaten up and swallowed!

      The gist of it was that I am so impressed that you spent those years counseling and that you’ve come from it with such a wonderful attitude. Respect and Love, yes. Surely you made a huge difference in many lives during those years.

  4. This is a thought-provoking post with a wonderful message. Although at times I slip back into the unproductive mindset of denying access to “luxuries” in prison, I still know that it is the best for all aspects of society. If people feel trapped in a bad situation, they will do the unspeakable. I think back on a story I heard about the Great Depression when my mild-mannered Grandfather hid in the bushes to jump the next person who passed because he refused to go home one more night without food to feed his family. (For the record, he did not follow through and instead when he walked through the door he was met by his wife and two girls telling him he had received a job offer.)

    As far as Amanda Knox goes…she went to the same high school as my kids. No one would ever say she had tendencies to kill…and yet here she is, locked up for 26-years reading Kafka and learning languages like a drunken sailor takes to a new port and 24-hour leave. I hope the truth comes out…and I hope you keep writing.

    Great post…wonderful in fact!

    1. I love the story of your Grandfather, Annie! So many lessons there…

      I don’t think that denying access to luxuries in prison is unproductive, but as I said in my reply to Carol, maybe privilege and luxury can be defined differently. Even if they are not, they can each be used as motivation and incentive to encourage respect and good behavior. But then you get into the whole thing of whether or not their behavior has improved truly or if it’s a temporary survival technique.

      I’m not sure about Amanda Knox. I read a few things about the case, perhaps fascinated a bit by it because I was once a rather naive girl who loved languages and travel and new experiences, spending most of my twenties abroad. I have lingering doubts about her guilt and see how the media jumps to conclusions (and publishes them with wild abandon) that are perhaps not fact based. I hope that she is indeed innocent and is found so, the story of her involvement too strange for me to swallow. As for her literate pursuits, I suppose if I were in her situation I might do the same, either that or fall into a catatonic state of depression. Who knows what she did, or what we might do?

  5. Really interesting post. As someone who never has as much time as I want to read and write, mostly due to the need to go to work and make a living, I admit I have fantasized about being locked somewhere with my books and someone who brings food. I have often thought that students would learn better if you made education a privilege rather than a requirement – somehow make them understand what a gift education is. Maybe that is what makes the kids in prison such good students – maybe it’s easier to see in there what a gift it is to be able to get an education. Just a guess.

    1. Absolutely, I agree, Carol. It is a privilege to learn and in the case of prison education only those who show that they appreciate that and are motivated to meet the challenges should be granted that privilege (although others might be encouraged to reach that goal). I think there’s a difference here between privilege and luxury. The students in my father’s classroom worked really hard to get there and to remain there, and their attitude and respect of the privilege they’d been granted is what enabled them to succeed.

      Actually in many countries not only is there no such thing as “social promotion” but even the privilege of college admission and choice of course of study is totally based on the student’s shown aptitude, not whether or not they can pay the bill.

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