Several years ago I was asked by a friend, who was a social worker, to teach a one-evening class in Orleans Parish Prison. I will admit to being apprehensive, but she assured me that everything would be safe, so I somewhat reluctantly agreed.
I remember the maze along the way as I was escorted to the classroom: down a hall, around another, into an elevator, up a floor, down another hall. Heavy doors opened then slammed behind us.
At the end of the trail was what appeared to be a normal classroom except for the armed guard standing in the back. I took my position behind the podium as the class, about 30 male prisoners, filed in. My topic was supposed to be politics and I gave it my best, ranging from the presidency to the Justice of the Peace with stops along the way to add any anecdotes I could think of. (Here Huey Long and Edwin Edwards proved to be a great source of material.) We talked about congress, the legislature and the judiciary. The conversation took more turns than the path to the room.
Now I had taught classes before in the outside world, so I was no stranger to the process, but there was something about the experience that I hadn’t expected – their behavior. They listened intently without yawning or glancing at the clock. When the time came for questions their hands shot into the air. Not all the questions were relevant, but the students were trying.
Our allotted class time was 90 minutes but, even with their enthusiasm, after about an hour and 15 minutes I was done. There was nothing else to say; no more questions to be asked. So, I closed my notes and delivered the good news that they could leave a little early. In a college class the students are out of the room before the word “leave” is completed. These men, however, just sat there. Surely they misunderstood, so I repeated that they could leave. Then one of the prisoners, an older man sitting in the front row, raised his hand and said, “Don’t you realize where we have to go back to?” I paused, blushed, gasped, then opened my notes and asked, “Are there any more questions?” Hands shot up again. Had it not been for the guard, the questioning could have continued all night, but after 20 more minutes he put a stop to it. His inner bell had rung. It was time for the guys in the class to return to their cells.
What happened next though totally surprised me. As they left the students passed me in single file. Each extended his hand and thanked me for coming.
That night back in the comfort of home, I couldn’t stop thinking about those men by then locked away. I had gone there to teach. In the end, I learned a lot.