Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Monday nights at the prison

I taught my first creative writing class in a jail when I was 20.  The class offerings at the jail consisted of: Alcoholics Anonymous, a Baptist preacher's weekly visit, and my poetry class.  The Atlanta Journal Constitution came and did a news story on my class because it was such a crazy concept that any sort of arts education would be in a jail in Georgia!

From then on, I was hooked.  I got a year-long fellowship after graduating college to travel around the country teaching creative writing in prisons.  I drove across the country (my mama came with me on the drive!) to San Francisco in August of 2003 to start my first class at San Quentin State Prison--I'd turned 22 just days before I started.  So funny when I think about it.  After four months at San Quentin, I went to Miami to teach at the Federal Correctional Institution there (international druglord Manuel Noriega was there at the time!), and then drove all the way up to Vermont, where I taught classes at Chittenden County Correctional Facility, Dale Women's Facility, and Northwest State Correctional Facility, a prison with a radical sex-offender treatment program, an organic garden, and an entomology lab.  Crazy.

After the year was done, I moved to San Francisco for graduate school, got a full-time job, and taught creative writing one night at week at San Quentin as a volunteer.  I loved those classes so much.  Eventually, I was too crazy-busy to do it anymore; I was working 40+ hours a week at a group home and finishing my masters thesis, and I had to take a break from teaching at the prison.

But this past Monday night, I started up again, and it was wonderful.

I sat at a table in a classroom right off the H-Unit yard, surrounded by inmates wearing "PROPERTY OF CDC" denim shirts & pants.  One of them had written quite a bit in his life, but the rest were inexperienced with poetry.  I was teaching imagery, and shared Ezra Pound's famous poem:

                                        In a Station of the Metro
                                    
                                        The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
                                        Petals on a wet, black bough.

I yammered on and on about imagery until I was pretty sure they got it.  When I started explaining metaphor, and the metaphor that IS this poem, I said:

"There are two words that are implied in this poem.  Right between the two lines.  Pound didn't write them into the poem, but they are there--we infer them.  What are they?"

There was a long pause.  Finally, one of the guys, still looking down at the poem, said:

"are like."

And seriously, y'all--it made my whole week.

32 comments:

Adri said...

As a high school reading teacher, I can tell you that I am completely moved by this post :o) It's such a wonderful thing the work you do...

-Adri
www.macheriecreations.com

Ren- Lady Of The Arts said...

Lovely- I have known from tidbits that you have shared here about your work- but I love this recap! Glad you are continuting to follow your passion.
How is Ms. H doing?

nicoleciomek said...

What wonderful work. This is such a special thing you are doing and it sounds like you have some incredible experiences because of it. Thanks for sharing this moment with us.

bananas. said...

i'm so not a poetry person...unless the words of a poem are attached to a melody and/or beat (as in lyrics)...but your passion for the art is inspiring. i think it's awesome what you do. you're pretty amazing..just so you know.

ps. i drove pass andalu (sp?) on sunday and thought of you. i will make it there one day. i swear.

Krystal said...

that is so incredibly cool that you do/did that. this story gave me goosebumps, that's really cool :)

Micaela said...

it gave me goosebumps too!!!

and touched my heart.

you're some kind of wonderful, you know that?!

xoxo

Morgan said...

This is so wonderful! How great that you do this and love what you do. And thanks for the bday wishes - so sweet!!

Meredith said...

How amazing! I'm sure I would have cried in that situation...what wonderful work you do.

Kate Kiefer said...

love that, claire!

Marz said...

How amazing to combine your passion for poetry and the prison system!! I am in awe of you Claire. To think of you traveling cross country on a road trip with your mama pursuing what makes you truly happy just inspires me. So glad you are able to teach again, I know how much you must have missed it! Thanks for sharing the special moment you had on Monday night. You are amazing Claire!!!

J. said...

I just love this. What an amazing thing you do...
I love you!

Pat said...

Don't you just love those "AHA" moments? I still get that with tutoring. It's makes it all worth it!!! :)

Leeann @ Join the Gossip said...

Wow! That (YOU) is (are) pretty amazing! Were you scared when you started way back when? Good for you. This is such an inspiring post :)

danielle and dinosaur toes said...

it sounds like you've done so many amazing things in life already, and you're still so young!

i can imagine how excited you were getting that response!

and, is scott peterson at san quentin?

Summer {Bisfor...} said...

you really are one of my favorite people. you make me want to become a better person. i love you.

Summer {Bisfor...} said...

PS --

I would,
____ _______!

Jax said...

I was reading this and thinking "holy crap this is amazing!" the whole time! Way to go, girl! This is such interesting and inspiring work! Please share more of your experiences doing this! I love reading about it!

bklyn76 said...

i think the work you do is amazing...and honestly, you re-invigorated my need to teach this past year. seriously.

Meghan said...

That is so amazing. Seriously, Claire, what you do is so special - and the fact that you do it while working full-time is incredible. You have such a big heart!

Kristin W said...

So inspirational! Glad you could find time in the madness to get back to something that makes you happy and benefits others :)

starnes family said...

OK, I'm dying to hear more about your travels and teaching. So awesome!

Chic 'n Cheap Living said...

Aww I love that story inspiring lady!

this free bird said...

I'm gonna start bawling. Claire there will be a movie about you some day. Mark my words.

xo,
Carrie

this free bird said...

By the way - suddenly my life is useless

Erika said...

Can I just say that you are one of the most inspirational people on the planet? You're always doing something wonderful to help others - love!! :)

Mrs.B said...

You are an honor to the teaching profession. Thanks for all you do! It makes us all look good!

chelsea rebecca said...

this post is incredible!
its so wonderful what you do! and inspiring!!

H. Gillham said...

Well, heck -- I feel like the last one to get to read this, but I am totally proud, and with your permission, I would like to link this to my blog.

As a proud teacher?

May I?

ag. said...

How amazing! This is so moving. I hope your work continues to inspire you as it has just done for me!

Karena said...

Claire, I did not know this about you...how great to give back this way!! The experience you cited was so wonderful!

I will visit more often,......Come and join my amazing Giveaway from Splenderosa!

xoxo
Karena
Art by Karena

Michelle DeRusha@Graceful said...

Coming over from your former teacher's place -- lovely to meet you here, Claire. I love, love your story and your heart. Wow -- that is cool. I admit, when I read your question about the two missing words, I didn't read on right away -- I went back to read the Ezra poem, to see if I could figure it out. I didn't. No lie. Maybe I need to sit in on your class about metaphor!!

Faiza said...

ahh what a win! i hope that you continue to have moments like this to remind you that your compassion and love and belief in people is a GIFT that you have. thank goodness you have the good sense and selflessness to share it <3