As ever, surprises

The poster for the book group has been out of date for over a year — it was designed by the ante-penultimate person in charge of the group, now long gone. Right now no one is charge of the group – the job has instead been rolled into a more general administrative position. I worked with the philosophy department administrator on a draft for a new poster, and the men in my group last week had a lot to say about what should go on it, and what should be left off it, including of course some surprising things. Will I ever get to the point in this work that I am no longer surprised by the differences in assumptions these men bring to the world? I hope not. There is not a week that goes by that I am not shaken out of my dogmatic slumber by something someone says in our meeting, always interesting, always provocative, though sometimes also sad or depressing. They universally rejected the language of “book group” and “book discussion” for the new poster, for the surprising reason that no one in prison would know what those things are.  And they asked me to look carefully at the old one on the entryway hall on my way out that evening and note what is distinctive about it. The old poster would have been at home on an elementary school bulletin board: cutesy font, and even the drawing of an apple worthy of a toddler’s first words book. But: “We’re reading Plato! We’re reading Dante! We are doing college level work with world renowned Hamilton professors! SAY IT ON THE POSTER!” When I demurred about the inflated self description, they chimed in about conferences I’d presented at in the previous year alone in Vancouver, D.C., and New York. So the current working model for the poster text:

DO YOU WANT TO EXPAND YOUR MIND?
W I D E N Y O U R H O R I Z O N S ?
BE A BETTER PUBLIC SPEAKER?

If you answered YES, then this group is for you! Sign up to learn about GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE AND PHILOSOPHY REVIEWED BY AND DISCUSSED WITH RENOWNED PROFESSORS FROM HAMILTON COLLEGE.

Meeting time: 6:30, various days of the week.

Was it unsettling that they remember my work travels so well? No. It’s part of what is important to this group about their connection to us; they are grateful, to be sure (you’ll not work with a more actively, explicitly grateful group), and they are indeed impressed by our work lives and accomplishments. But at least as important, what matters to them is that they matter to us. It’s a virtuous circle. There is always the suspicion that people who do work like this do it because it makes them feel good, or strokes their egos, or some such combination that adds up to their real motives being basically self interested, or even selfish. No way to test/disconfirm this hypothesis (which reveals that it is more a tautological matter of faith than a belief grounded in empirical reality): the greatest satisfaction from this work comes from seeing how being taken seriously intellectually transforms these men, their self image and confidence, their own growing pleasure at mastering difficult ideas and texts, and above all else, finding their voices. There’s a social dimension to the group too: they listen to each other and in time begin to respond to each others’ intellectual identities: whether it’s teasing one one guy for his attachment to the dialogue form, or turning to another to hear what he has to say in response to an argument in the text that we have come to know he will take issue with. Lo personhood! — it is not about me. So unless you think teaching is a fundamentally selfish line of work…of course you don’t.

Now to state the obvious: the general mode and mood of prison is dark and grim, from  the disgruntled guards to the hunched over men hurrying or limping through the yard to the ancient crappy classrooms in the school (“school”?). Yet in all my years of working with this group (groups, really, since the men come and go) all but a very few meetings have included laughter, and lots of it, often enough to get the guards down the hall up off their chairs to rush down to make sure all is well. All is well.

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