Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"My Way out of This Life Is an Education"

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"My Way out of This Life Is an Education"

Article excerpt

I began this particular session of my 1st-year composition class in the usual way: returning the essays the students had submitted the week before with corrections, questions, compliments, and suggestions for revision. And then I sat quietly at my desk while the students looked over their papers and decided for themselves how to proceed-either return the essay to me as it was or elect to revise it-a practice I have developed as a result of my 23 years' experience as a basic writing instructor. The students know they can ask questions at any time, come to my desk for clarification or conversation, or talk among themselves about their essays and my responses to them.

After about 5 minutes, Robin approached my desk and placed her essay in front of me. I looked down and saw that she had printed, in large letters, the following words: "Are you dissin' me?" I could see that she was angry; she glared and me and then returned to her desk. The other students were still reviewing their essays, so I had time to write a note of response: "No, Robin, I'm not dissing you; I'm trying to help you become a better writer so you can succeed in this course." I walked over to Robin and placed my note and her essay back on her desk, and then returned to my own desk.

I was a little afraid to turn my back. Had Robin yelled at me or cursed at me or torn up her paper, there would have been no cause for fear. The other students-all of whom are inmates in a maximum-security facility for women-would have been alerted to the fact that something was amiss and would have made sure there was no trouble. The women knew Robin: she had a bad temper and was often confined to her cell or placed in the segregated housing unit for instigating fights. They would have interceded, I am certain, because they had respect for me and for the work I was doing; but even more important, they would have made sure that Robin did not do anything to put the college program in jeopardy. I knew that Robin had intentionally written a note rather than spoken up in order to keep the other women from knowing how angry she was. This was going to be between her and me-she didn't want any interference.

There was an officer down the hall, within earshot, but I knew calling him to the classroom would lead to questions, discussions, meetings, decisions; it would provide more ammunition for those people who do not think inmates deserve a college education.1 I didn't want any interference for another reason as well. Although this was the third assignment of the semester, the essay I had returned to Robin was the first writing sample she had submitted-I had discovered that Robin's writing and reading skills were so weak that she would probably not pass the course, much less be able to pursue a college degree. I was pretty certain that this was the primary cause of her anger-she had been "exposed." For the first 3 weeks of the semester, she had talked and complained, criticized the readings, joked, and disrupted the class in many other ways, all (relatively successful) attempts to keep me from confronting her about the fact that she was not completing the reading or writing assignments.

I managed to get the other students onto another assignment and I asked Robin to step out into the hall to talk to me. I knew the officer who was on duty that evening; he cared deeply about the college program and knew its value to the women. He would not interfere with a "teacher conference," but he would also intercede if necessary. During that conference, I learned that Robin had a high school diploma but that it had been granted despite the fact that she had "never written one essay, one page, one paragraph, one word," throughout her 3 years in high school. She intimated that no high school teacher would dare to fail her, presumably because she was so tough. She simply did not know what to make of the fact that I had "messed up" her essay, possibly the first essay she had ever written, "with all that shit you wrote. …

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