Larry Efird: Lessons from a classroom in prison

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 5, 2018

One of the most rewarding, yet oftentimes frustrating, parts of being a teacher, is having to hunt down a summer job every twelve months. Of course, no summer job can equate to the same amount of salary as a full time job, but anything helps to pay the bills for two months. (It also gives me a realistic perspective on the minimum wage debate.)

I’ve done everything from custodial work to adjunct college teaching, depending upon what job was available during a particular summer, and every time I have come away from the experience having learned something new that I can use in my “real” job in the fall.

This summer, I found a position teaching a humanities-based technology class in a state prison, designed to help 12 inmates finish up their course work on an associates degree through a local community college. It’s one of the positive things North Carolina is doing to lower the recidivism rates among our prison population.

It was an eight-week class which met for two nights each week. My students ranged in age from their early 20s to their mid-50s. I would describe it as an “honors class” because each of the students was hard working and motivated. I encountered no discipline problems or opposition, whatsoever. I could say it was because they had no choice but to be cooperative, but I think the truth is that despite the setting, each of them wanted to accomplish something positive in the midst of their incarcerations.

Before I started the experience, I asked a man in my church who had done Bible studies with inmates how he personally approached them. He told me to think of them “as people like you, but ones who are wearing different clothes.” That was perhaps the best advice I could have asked for because it allayed any anxieties I had about entering a world surrounded by coiled walls of shiny barbed wire, stacked at least 15 feet high.

The students did wear “uniforms,” but all people are individuals whether they happen to be dressed alike or not. I was the odd man out being able to wear something with color since they were all in khaki or gray.

It made me appreciate something as small as the freedom I have to wear any shirt I want to pull off a hanger. I also appreciated being able to get in my car and drive home each night, leaving the barbed wire behind.

The first night I met the class, one of the men asked me if I had ever taught in a prison before. Because of his tone, I think he was asking because he wanted to make sure I was comfortable. It wasn’t said in the way a 15-year-old might pose a similar question to a first-year high school teacher.

Instructors aren’t supposed to get overly acquainted with their students in a prison for security reasons. But just because I couldn’t freely discuss the details of my life — or theirs — didn’t mean I couldn’t care for the students doing time in front of me.

(Some of the high school students I have taught thought they were also “doing time” in my class so the challenges of teaching can be somewhat similar despite the location!)

I was never told not to care for them. Telling a teacher not to care for his or her students would be the same as telling a surgeon not to care about his or her patients when performing an operation.

One night I told a student how much I appreciated his diligence and that I had really enjoyed reading his essays and chapter responses. He thanked me, almost apologetically. At some point in the conversation he also told me he would be in prison for life.

I wasn’t prepared for that. All I could say was what I’ve instinctively said a thousand times before: “I’m proud of you.” It’s what teachers naturally say to their students when they know they are working as hard as they can.

I’m not sure who learned more this summer — my students or me. But I am sure this is one summer job that meant much more than a paycheck ever could.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis during the school year.