One of the more rewarding moments of teaching is when the tables get turned and you learn something from your students.
Sometimes this comes from a different perspective on an issue, and sometimes it comes from a question you’ve been asked and can’t answer that sends you digging for the appropriate response.
And as I learned not long ago, sometimes it comes from where the student is in their life – in this instance, literally.
Recently, I had the honor to give a talk out at the federal prison as part of a lecture series orchestrated by a local university. While I’d been to the prison for a tour and sat in the audience as a guest for a couple of talks earlier in the series, when the day came, there was a flock of butterflies in my stomach in anticipation of my talk.
As I awaited my host for the evening, the supervisor of recreation for the complex, thankfully, my butterflies fluttered off, and energy and excitement took their place.
Walking through the yard to the education building, had I not known I was in a prison, it would have just appeared to be a nice evening with people in transit from their daily jobs and activities heading home. Of course, it would take quite a set of blinders to believe that, but my point is that, at least in that moment, none of the stereotypes of what goes on in a prison were apparent. And that’s where my learning began.
My host introduced to me to every staff member we encountered along the way, as well as many of the inmates he knew on a last name basis (this is how everyone is referred to, both professionally and personally, in the prison). Having been out there a couple times already, there were some familiar faces from the inmate population, and that provided me with an extra layer of comfort.
I’d modified a lecture I typically give in a course on understanding experiences of guests and clients at public facilities. For this new group of students, I wanted them to think about – and draw – the happy memories from their past and their enjoyable daily activities. The goal was to get them thinking about enjoying life, now, and in the future. I asked the students to share what they’d drawn, and many were eager to do so.
Responding to the everyday experience that he looks forward to most, one gentleman said that it’s when the guards open the cells in the morning, and he gets a taste of “freedom” to do what he wants for the day. Of course, I was forced to consider just what freedom really means, but nonetheless, I was heartened by his statement because he chose to make the most of his time behind bars and to make decisions about how to live his life, despite the condition of his circumstances.
Two students’ responses about their most memorable experience of their lifetimes really resonated with me. One referred to his first time snow-skiing with his daughter, and how nervous he was compared to her, yet how that shared activity was so important to their father-daughter bonding, and her being able to trust him to keep her safe. This is something he thinks about to this day, and something he reflects on to help him ward off unhealthy temptations that might keep him from reuniting with his daughter in the future.
Another student chose not a single memory, but recurring experiences he shared with his parents as a child, that of sitting on their front porch swing and talking. He indicated that his parents meant so much to him, and that they loved him unconditionally, and while they’re no longer alive, those memories continue to give him inspiration.
In the course that I modified this talk from, on the last day of class I always play the video, “This is Water,” a curated version of a commencement speech the late David Foster Wallace (DFW) gave at Kenyon College (watch it, it’s amazing). It opens with the old joke about the young fish swimming by an older one, and the older one says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” One of the younger fish responds, “What the hell is water?”
DFW’s point is that sometimes the “most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” He says that we operate on a “default setting,” often oblivious to anything outside our immediate orbit. We can’t see, or ignore, others who occupy the same water.
The last line of the DFW video ponders “life before death,” suggesting that what matters is “the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness. Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over, this is water.”
It’s easy for us to dismiss those who have trespassed against society and get locked up for it. It’s easy to assume they’re bad people, somehow less than us on the outside. But as I was reminded, these folks are not all bad, most of them simply made bad decisions. They’re trying to change, to return to the world, to become better versions of themselves.
And our duty, as a society, is to be aware of them and their needs, and help them when we can, because we all swim in the same water. That was a lesson worth learning.