Unlikely Teachers

‘Tis my birthday. On birthdays, I tend to think about the scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in which Harry draws a birthday cake with the words “Happy Birthday, Harry” in the dirt. When his uncle’s watch strikes midnight, he blows out his drawing’s “candles” and wistfully remarks, “Make a wish, Harry.”


Perhaps I think about this scene because I, too, like to talk to myself, or perhaps because I, too, have grown into the habit of welcoming each new year of my life in contemplative solitude. The result of this year’s birthday rumination follows:

In life, one can find teachers in all places if one is humble and willing to be taught. Over the last year, I have found teachers in remarkable places.

In 2016, I began volunteering at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a federal psychiatric hospital that houses criminally convicted mentally ill individuals, such as John Hinckley. I have a predilection for D-Ward because it houses long-term patients, allowing me to form meaningful relationships as patients recognize me and count on me to return each week. When I first entered D-Ward, I did not know what to expect. Of all things, I did not expect to be thoroughly schooled in the card game Spades by the end of my first shift. Spades is one of the patients’ favorite activities. In many ways, it is a type of therapy because it involves mental acuity, strategic planning, and teamwork. Over the last seven months, a group of psychiatric patients, most of whom have been living in D-Ward for ten or more years, have taught me how to play Spades. Warning: if you ever challenge me to a game of Spades, I will likely clobber you. Why? Because I learned how to play Spades from the best Spades players in the world. Learning to play cards is a simple, yet powerful thing. The act of teaching confers vast cognitive benefits, providing a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Nowadays, when I sit across from “Bill,” my long-term Spades teacher and rival, I actually have a shot at winning. Last Friday, I beat him for the first time, and when I did, he smiled.


If you think finding a teacher in a psychiatric ward is outlandish, just wait.

In 2015, I taught a creative writing class to a group of inmates at Arlington Prison. I will share with you the reflection I wrote after coming home from my first night at prison:

“I taught my first creative writing class at the prison tonight. I was a bit apprehensive on the bus ride there. The hardest part of entering a prison is the unfamiliar ‘woosh’ of the prison doors slamming shut and locking once you are on the inside. At that point, there’s no going back and you could meet an inmate anywhere. Hallway, elevator, corridor. All I carried with me was my Arlington prison ID, pencils, and a piece of paper. I was the only woman in a prison full of men. A row of inmates passed by on the other side of the steel bars. I felt their eyes on my back as I walked away. I clutched my ID tightly and held it up so that the ubiquitous cameras could identify me. The guard wasn’t at his post, so we needed to go down to central command and request a new guard. My more experienced male partner asked me, “Can you do it?” so I went down to central command by myself.

Fumbling with my access card, I opened the heavy steel door and walked out of the room, entering the prison population. Alone. I called the elevator and swiped my access card to go down seven floors. Central command agreed to send the guard up, so I returned to floor seven of the prison with my list of students. I gave the guard my roll call so he could retrieve the inmates from their cells. I sat in the classroom, arranged the desks in a circle, and waited for my students, my inmates, to be released. The first one entered the room. I rose, introduced myself, and he shook my hand. I just broke my first prison rule. We are not supposed to have any physical contact with prisoners. Tattoos, shaved heads, silver teeth, dreadlocks, and navy blue jump suits entered my tiny classroom and took their seats. My last student, a man without legs, entered. ‘Let’s begin.’

After introductions, I began by reading the poem ‘Where I’m From’ and asked the men to write their own poems based on where they are from. Twelve men came to my class, and their poems shocked me. I will never forget one in particular. The man wrote about his home built on broken promises and the fleeting desire for holy matrimony as an anecdote to his wretched childhood. It was beautiful. He seemed to be a religious man. I hope to see faith infuse more of his poems. The class went remarkably well. I had been told that the inmates are often resistant and uncooperative. Thankfully, mine were not like that at all by the end of the lesson. I asked the inmates what they hoped to get out of the class. They responded with alacrity and seemed to genuinely want to be there. I felt gratified tonight, like I am exactly where God wants me to be. I can do a lot of good in this prison.”

Looking back at my time teaching at Arlington Prison, I think I learned far more from my students than they learned from me. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire talks about a new model of teaching in which “the teacher is no longer merely the one who teaches, but who is himself taught in dialogue with the student, who in turn while being taught also teaches.” Freire goes on to explain that through mutual dialogue, the student and teacher become “jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.” In prison, I may have taught my students the difference between simile and metaphor, but they taught me how to write with honesty. Who do you think received the more valuable lesson?

As I enter the next year of my life, I look forward to meeting my next teachers. I have no idea who they shall be, but no matter their identities, I shall delight in learning all I can from them. And hopefully I will be able to give them back something in return.

~Make a wish, Janelle



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