On trembling wings

The classrooms of the educational building do not look like classrooms. The room housing the Writing Skills class might have once been an office, or a place for interrogations. It's a small room filled with gray, light, battered desks, and iron bookshelves. The pale green walls are obscured at intervals by colorful drawings and posters. Beneath one that urges students to ''Be prepared, at any moment, to sacrifice what you are for what you might be'' sits the class, a dozen men of varying ages and backgrounds. On each of their faces, knotted now with concentration, anxiety, or frustration, I see some variation on an expression that says: ''This is impossible. I can't take anymore. What am I doing in this room. . . ?

As their teacher I respond with patient encouragement, periodically stopping someone to correct a mistake or explain a concept; to stress that knowledge is a kind of freedom; that with perseverance they can accomplish whatever they set out to.

This is a challenge they accept gradually. For each man here, learning remains a struggle as formidable as any he is likely to encounter in his lifetime. In order to learn, a prisoner must make himself vulnerable; he must be willing to change, to abandon the prison code of ethics, the cynical values that dominate the prison social structure. In that society education is deemed a waste of time, a ''cop-out,'' a form of giving in to ''the system.'' Prisoners willing to endure such criticism from their peers learn quickly that education is a means of extracting themselves from that system, of overcoming their dependency on the state, of facilitating a new beginning.

Such beginnings are never easy, however, and few prisoners are willing to take the risks. The first entrants to the Writing Skills class (a course designed to prepare students for the General Equivalency Degree examination) come out of boredom, curiosity, or a desire to escape work gangs. I begin with a pep talk and an open copy of Strunk and White - their introduction to English basics, punctuation, usage, grammar, and the parts of speech. Their initial response is tentative and noncommittal. To men accustomed to the colloquial speech and broken syntax of the institution, learning the nuances of English is comparable to learning a foreign language. Within a short time after our beginning, attendance in the class drops down to five students.

The small size of the class eventually becomes an asset, one that permits me to attain a personal knowledge of my students. As I come to know them I learn that each one has had in the past a very negative experience with education. Several had been forced into damaging special-ed programs; all have been dropouts. And each one has been made to feel inadequate or inferior academically , incapable of learning, uncertain as to his own ability. In each case the man's opinion of himself differs radically from the one I've formed, my own realization of his intelligence and potential.

To help overcome the low self opinions I begin to encourage creative writing and self-expression in the classroom. I alternate conventional textbook assignments in grammar and mechanics with exercises in writing and composition. The first assignment is the writing of a letter that descrbes a problem, real or imaginary, about which they're concerned; they're to outline the problem and then propose a solution, addressing the letter to a public official, genuine or fictitious. The response of the following day is enthusiastic and emotional. Topics of discussion range from the dangers of nuclear proliferation to the economy to the criminal- justice system. Several students read their papers out loud in class, accepting commentary, criticism, and feedback from the others. We discuss content and style, as well as form and mechanics. Grammar is analyzed in terms of its effect on content, with students making reference to the text where necessary.

As the writing becomes a regular event, the level of participation in the class rises. One man who'd stuttered badly the first week reads with confidence a paper on the importance of music. A young black prisoner, who'd previously refused to speak at all, shares a written recollection of his childhood in Mississippi. Gradually each student begins to sense the possibilities of language, writing from his memory and imagination feelings I suspect have never been shared with anyone. The act of writing becomes a form of liberation in a very real sense, a context in which the students can be themselves, acknowledging a multitude of feelings the prison has forced them to deny.

On the final day of the semester I notice one man, a young kid named David who entered class late, who thus far has not said anything. I take him to one side and ask him if he's written something which he might like to share with us. With some encouragement, I persuade him to walk to the front of the class, where he extracts from one pocket a crumpled sheet of yellow paper. Shifting nervously from one foot to another, he begins to read, relating in a thin voice the story of a bird, a baby hawk who'd crash-landed in the yard. He tells how a group of prisoners had adopted the bird, helped to care for him, set his wing, fed him. And he describes how after many setbacks and near-disasters the young bird, on trembling wings, had lifted himself into the air and out over the walls of the prison; how he'd circled twice above their heads before vanishing into the blue distances.

When he finishes and falls silent no one in the room says a word. The image of the bird, his struggling ascent to freedom, has been made almost visible, nearly luminous in the young man's words. I understand all at once that the bird's struggle is also their struggle, and that for each one of them there is hope, the possibility of an ascent as triumphant as that of the injured hawk. We sit for a moment in the clarity of that realization, and then stand up silently, walking together from the gray light of the classroom into the pure light of day.

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