On Gifts Received from Students

“Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift is, that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought…The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells…”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Gifts” (1844)

Here are a few of my favorite things: A strip of homemade venison jerky in a Ziploc bag; a small jar of preserves; a drawing of a dragon circling a mountain, on lined notebook paper, as yellowed and curled as a medieval manuscript; a handful of “thank you” notes, ditto; a Baby Metal concert flier, snagged from Narita International Airport; a Kinder Egg, smuggled in from Canada; a silver-wrapped box of chocolates from Ginza, decorated with hand-written kanji and a sticker that says, “Best eaten before January 2016.”

These gifts from students come in handy whenever my Imposter Syndrome starts to act up. They’re also a reminder that, at some point during the semester, I said or did something, probably without realizing it, that made an impression. It’s always nice to know that you’ve been on someone’s mind, especially when what was “easily associated with you in thought” was that time you used the video for Kendrick Lamar’s “i” in class, or when you pointed out that Stanford University actually has an expert in Zombie Studies on its faculty—in other words, when a student learned that their own songs are not necessarily unfit for Our Halls.

One of my favorite gifts, though, came from inside a place not designed for giving and receiving.

Last semester, one of my incarcerated student wrote a textual analysis of the fantasy series, Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, by Laurell K. Hamilton. The paper was technically perfect and a lot of fun to read; it would have been right at home at The Mary Sue, or We Are Geeks of Color. The best part, though, was the manila folder it came in. The student had removed the cover from one of his Anita Blake books and painstakingly taped it to the front of the folder. When I handed it back to him a week later, he said, “That’s okay. You can have it.”

During the years I’ve been teaching in the prison, I’ve heard and read some memorable things. Enough of them, in fact, that I should be immune to shocks by now. Hah. If I ever do get to that point, I’ll quit. So a little context is in order here.

First of all, the students have to buy their own pens and paper, and, in a computer-less environment, we use a lot of paper. According to an April, 2017 article by Wendy Sawyer, at The Prison Policy Initiative, the hourly wage of incarcerated people in New York ranges from 10¢ to around 62¢. So this folder didn’t come cheap, even assuming it was available at the commissary.

This dearth of resources is one the hardest challenges to overcome, and any college offering courses in prison needs to carefully consider what materials will be required for each class and find a way to get them where they need to be, and at the right time. Or else find a way to do without. As one of my students wrote last semester, when I asked the class to come up with requests and recommendations for future professors, “Please remember that you are the only place we get what we need.”

And supplies are just the beginning. The students have no way to do research, which is one of the most valuable skills that people learn in college, especially when writing papers. That’s the really worrisome part: incarcerated students are almost completely dependent on us for information.

According to Michael Brawn, a student at the University of Illinois, in an article in the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs called “Higher Education in an Era of Mass Incarceration: Possibility Under Constraint,”

[T]he central tenets of critical pedagogy are challenged in prison spaces because these classrooms are enwrapped within a network of power imbalance and control. When students are wholly reliant upon teachers for access to information, can the goals of critical pedagogy be achieved? Information in prison is provided to us as it is deemed necessary by authorities in charge of the facility. As one can imagine, living in this kind of informational vacuum can be very frustrating. Unintentionally replicating this power dynamic in the classroom creates an oppressive space that works against the spirit of critical pedagogy.

This is a humiliating situation for the students, and a troubling one for the professors, who don’t like to see themselves as the face of the DOC.

But it was the disembodied book cover that hit me the hardest. I always got the impression that books had an almost sacred quality in prison, used for entertainment, education, and personal growth. And that’s true in many cases. The Prison Book Program, a Massachusetts group that donates books to inmates, once got this request:

“I have only been reading now for about 21 months. I am 46 years old and when I get out of prison, my son will be 11 years old. And I would love to be able to read and write to my son. So please if you all could see to help me I will be able to help my son when I get home. A dictionary will help learn how to spell big words.”

And one of my own students wrote an essay about finding a copy of Plato’s Republic in a trash can almost immediately after arriving in prison, and spending the next month lying in his cell, soaking up every word. The story seemed a bit too perfect to be real, so I checked.

“Is this a true story? Did you really find a copy of The Republic in a trash can?”

“No.”

“Ah.”

“I found it on the ground out in the yard.”

“Oh.”

Plus, books are hard to come by. Many books are banned outright, and all reading material has to be previewed. Books are preserved, and frequently shared, just as my students sometimes ask me to bring in extra copies of articles they particularly liked, so that they can share them with non-college friends.

Yet this student didn’t seem to think much of destroying his book to embellish a manila folder. And for what? To contain a 5-page, handwritten paper that didn’t even need to be paper-clipped? It’s possible that I’ve romanticized the role of books in prison, just as those of us teaching college classes there tend to portray an environment bounded by scarcity, violence, and control as an educational utopia. The students are not fooled, anyway.

It’s also possible that the casual giving of this particular gift reflects a certain relationship with property. Prisoners don’t own anything, at least not anything that cannot be summarily taken, or smashed during cell inspections, or misplaced after a sudden transfer to another facility, so maybe giving things away is easier than it is for those of us with possessions still to lose.

I don’t know.

As Emerson wrote, “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” What did this student give? Some of his own scarcity, certainly, but also some of what he finds to be important: doing something well, and expressing himself as fully as possible under the conditions in which he lives.
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