Graduate student Anne Hayes shares a memorable moment from her experience teaching in a Virginia correctional center:

When the Adult Basic Education teacher retired, I volunteered to teach her class weekly for a month or so while they found a replacement.  One memorable moment was when we read a Carl Sandburg poem, “Fifty-Fifty” from Honey and Salt.  Carl Sandburg is deep, but his language is fairly easy to read.  There’s nothing more demeaning to adults struggling to read than putting childish, simple literature in front of them.  I asked for four volunteers, each to slowly read the poem aloud in his voice.

Each man read the poem, and we paused for a minute to let the words sink in.  This repeated until we all heard it four times.  

As we started the discussion, the men quickly pointed out that this man is breaking up with his lady.  There was a sigh.  We had all experienced a break-up. 

Another added, “And they are dividing their stuff!”  Yes. 

Then a man sat back in his chair, “Yeah, but don’t you see?  They are trying to divvy up things that can’t be divided.” 

“Ahhhh,” around the room.  “That’s deep!” a man said, shaking his head, adding, “Cause you can’t play anything with half a deck.  You can’t cook anything in half a frying pan.  And who would rip a Bible in half?” 

Others dove in with examples and ideas.  I asked what they made of the last part.  One man quickly volunteered, “He’s saying that women are tough to figure out, and that’s the truth!”  Being the only woman in the room, I laughed out loud, and so did they.  Several shared their experiences of when they didn’t listen to a girlfriend or wife and when they didn’t feel heard.

This experience helps me explain why education is meaningful, and particularly so in prison.  In discussing a poem, these men were sharing ideas and personal stories, and they were connecting with each other.  We all bonded in the shared experience of discovery.  It is a humanizing experience.  By “humanizing” I mean that when we read, think, and discuss something as simple as a poem, we acknowledge that it holds meaning for us as well as for others.  We grow in that we know a little more about ourselves and the human experience.

by Anne Hayes

Anne completed her doctoral degree in 2012 and is now Dean of Institutional Effectiveness and Special Projects Southside Virginia Community College. She gathered data about the experiences of institutionalized men taking education courses for her dissertation.

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