My uncle's anger kick-started the engine of my thoughts.
"What are you, stupid? Those men don't deserve anything - they're criminals!"
The men I chose to tutor during the advanced rhetoric class in my freshman year were prisoners at the Saginaw (County) Correctional Facility, located an hour away from my campus in Alma, Mich. But they did deserve
help - if not as criminals,as writers trying to clearly communicate some truth.
For 11 students, men and women, teaching prisoners for the service-learning part of class produced a major shift in our thinking.
Looking back on our orientation at the prison, I remember the awkwardness and the fear of being so out of place as we walked across the yard, filled with prisoners in small groups staring at us, some whistling, some playing basketball.
For the prisoners' second class, we assigned them to write about an experience that caused them to see, feel and think differently about something.
Molly, my classmate, sat with a table of prisoners and listened to a man's story about being held at gunpoint one Halloween. At a party that same night, the prisoner's friend offered him his Napoleon costume for a contest. He won top prize: $20.
The prisoner was moved to tears recalling the generosity of this simple act on the same night he looked death in the face. Sitting among prisoners whom Molly had always been taught were mean and uncaring, and seeing them share emotions together in the name of truth, changed everything for Molly and the rest of us.
Our decision to do this project gave us the opportunity to experience a change of perspective. In the learning experience, however, there is also the possibility of negative outcomes.
One prisoner, for example, wrote a make-believe story about meeting me at a bar. Instead of following the assignment, he had fantasized about me.
I felt angry and resentful. But the assistant deputy warden who attended our classes removed him from our writing workshop and even transferred him to another prison.
Her swift action was a lesson to the inmates not to abuse any of the new educational opportunities the prison was trying to establish.
After this negative start, I was teamed up with a prisoner who was excited about learning to express himself through writing. Together, we achieved a goal that was special to him: He wrote an excellent essay about racism in prisons.
When he read it out loud during our workshop's last session, everyone in the prison library applauded. I will never forget the joy on his face when my professor told him that his essay was publishable.
My experience with the prisoners was profoundly educational. For one thing, teaching what we had learned about writing in our advanced rhetoric class helped reinforce and improve our own skills.
On another level, my classmates and I were able to see that prisoners feel emotions like fear and pride, as we do. No longer were they simply faceless criminals.
It was difficult to step within the prison walls to help people we had never met before. Although we were on the teaching end of the exchange, we all learned something.
All of us students left with a different perspective, one we would have missed had we not entered this restricted place that was so different from our own serene campus, with its white chapel and spire reaching toward the sky. In teaching the importance of writing with truth, we experienced truth ourselves.
- Melinda Messmer
*Melinda Messmer will be a junior majoring in organizational communications in the fall at Alma College in Alma, Mich.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society