Cold Comfort: The Classroom as Refuge

“Church Stone Shelter,” Julia Kivelä, archdaily.com

It is a truth universally acknowledged–among my colleagues, anyway–that the best classroom experiences tend to come from the ancient pedagogical practice known as “winging it.” Sometimes, that means veering into a side quest when it seems profitable enough. At other times, it means walking in totally unprepared, relying only on your own knowledge, enthusiasm, and wits, if you have any.

Recently, a western New York snow storm hit our region, and the driving was bad. It reminded me of Robert Service’s poem, “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill“:

You know what it’s like in the Yukon wild when it’s sixty-nine below;
When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads through the crust of the pale blue snow;
When the pine-trees crack like little guns in the silence of the wood,
And the icicles hang down like tusks under the parka hood…

Like that. Anyway, it was a struggle. I didn’t make campus until 9:04, leaving me no time to prepare for my 9:05 class.

The lights were off when I got there. Three students were silhouetted against the back windows. I turned on one bank of yellowish lights and started engaging them in conversation about the storm while pulling off my parka. By and by, more students came in, sharing stories of having survived the drive or clawing their way up the hill from College Village. We bonded over the storm and, with the blizzard raging outside, we few, we happy few, had our class.

Oddly enough, I once had a very similar experience during a winter funeral in Indiana. The field was exposed to the elements–the only shelter a canopy just wide enough to overlap the grave by a few feet. Just as the service started, a snow squall saw fit to move across the fields. The mourners moved in closer and closer to the canopy, until we were all huddled together, arm-enwrapped, around the coffin.

The storm and the shelter call each other into existence. The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, writes,

The house derives reserves and refinements of intimacy from winter; while in the outside world, snow covers all tracks, blurs the road, muffles every sound, conceals all colors. As a result of this universal whiteness, we feel a form of cosmic negation in action. The dreamer of houses knows and senses this, and because of the diminished entity of the outside world, experiences all the qualities of intimacy with increased intensity.

And he quotes the French writer Henri Bosco: “When the shelter is sure, the storm is good.”

Not all shelters are sure, though, just as not all storms are snow. The prison classroom, for instance, is always vulnerable to the forces of “cosmic negation” that beset it on all sides. The very programs, themselves, exist by sufferance and permission can be revoked at any time. Meanwhile, everything is subject to surveillance and control, from lectures to reading materials to classroom space. The use of tablets, while beneficial to the students in some ways, leaves every piece of writing exposed to the elements.

It’s always tenuous, always fragile. In the prison, the classroom acts as a place apart, but only conceptually–the shelter exists wherever learning takes place. In his “Open Letter to Prison Educators,” published in Critical Perspectives on Teaching in Prison, prison poet Malakki (Ralph Bolden) writes, “When you appear, a special place comes into existence that allows us to be a different us than the cell, chow hall, yard and day-room us…the place where you have your class becomes defined and sanctioned by the group as a sort of sacred space.”

It is also a space where fresh identities can exist for a little while, away from the constant drumbeat of humiliation and degradation, a space where the students can be treated like human beings–although even that treatment feels like a violation of the rules, just another potential negation by the forces of “correction” if not handled with the utmost finesse.

The sacred is not synonymous with shelter; temples have been ransacked before. And every prison educator knows what it feels like when the bell rings, the shelter crumbles, and we have to abandon the students as they go marching, in double-column formation, straight into the teeth of the storm.

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