Last class

June 11, 1996|By Mary Ellen Dougherty

I HAVE BEEN teaching too long to be nostalgic about last classes, unless, perhaps, the students are seniors. Even then the feeling is easily offset by festivity. But I felt a certain nostalgia about my final class at the Maryland Penitentiary on May 29. It may be my last experience in teaching lifers.

The Maryland Pentitentiary, traditionally maximum-security, is becoming a medium-security facility. Based on professional rationales about security and effective use of state institutions, the decision is not without implications. Peripheral as many of these implications are, they are, nevertheless, substantial to the people involved.

Ultimate inferno

Most of the men I have taught will be affected. They expect to be transferred, probably to Jessup or to the new prison opening in Cumberland. A surprise to people who are accustomed to thinking of the Maryland Pentitentiary as the ultimate inferno, most of these men say they do not want to be transferred.

They cite primarily three reasons: They hear that there are no jobs and very little available education at Jessup; located now in the middle of the city where public transportation is easy and affordable, they are more assured of visits from family; and they have become familiar with the routine and the climate of the penitentiary. They know what to expect. Change can be dangerous.

From my own specialized perspective, the implications are quite different. I like teaching lifers.

I have been teaching a college writing course at the penitentiary since 1982. Most of my students have had life sentences, some with and some without parole. Many of them returned for several rounds of the course, recognizing the truth that writers move at individual paces, and that they could continue to grow from where they were. I got to know some of them well.

Experience has taught me that I work well with serious criminals. They prove to be serious students. Many of them demonstrate a sense of purpose and commitment in the classroom, the same sense they probably demonstrated on the streets. They take nothing lightly. The ones who decide to remain in the class are diligent writers willing to revise and revise. They are careful critics. They are also mature people.

Having had experience in other institutions with less serious criminals who are proportionately less serious students and in many cases less mature people, I experience a certain reluctance as the current penitentiary converts to a medium-security center.

When I returned in September 1995 to begin a new semester, many of my best writers who would have returned to class with me had been transferred. Over the course of the year, especially in the spring, they disappeared one by one, part of a systematic method to effect the change.

I heard from one of them who was transferred recently to the Annex in Jessup. He said a number of my former students are there, and they have formed a writers' group where they read, write and critique, as they did in class. For a moment I had that feeling that on rare occasions comes to a teacher; it seemed that something of permanence had happened in the classroom.

Creative repetition

My last class was down to a few men. We discussed an essay that had appeared in The Sun (Opinion Commentary, May 21), written by James Foley, an inmate at a prison in Hagerstown. We talked about why it worked, the intelligent and creative repetition of the word ''time,'' the simple and clear language, the evocative structure of the piece.

We also read from Gwendolyn Brooks' ''The Bean Eaters,'' and I told them I had visited with her a few days before when she received an honorary degree from Notre Dame College. We talked about her interest in jails and prisons, her commitment to poetry and to people.

We concluded with an informal discussion of the upcoming execution of a fellow prisoner, Flint Gregory Hunt. One man thought execution was valid when the criminal proved guilty of a pattern of horrendous crimes. Another thought any child molester should be executed. Another thought execution morally wrong in any case. All of them said it was rhetoric. In Maryland, execution would be easier than a life sentence.

We said goodbye. I knew and they knew we would probably never see each other again. They all expect to be transferred shortly. Serious criminals, serious students. They have been good teachers.

Mary Ellen Dougherty, SSND, is associate professor of English at the College of Notre Dame.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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