As a teacher and a person, my biggest problem is that I want to be liked. This might not be such a great problem except I currently teach in a medium-security prison. Sometimes an illiterate crystal meth dealer will make fun of my shoes and it hurts my feelings.
One of the first things a beginning teacher hears is: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” According to conventional wisdom, the beginning teacher who treats students as friends will discover that children don’t really know how to be friends yet, which means they will treat you like toilet paper. As one bartender put it, teaching is a lot like bartending; basically, you are the one person facing the wrong way in a crowded room. A huge part of being a teacher is not essentially a question of love and like. It is one of crowd control.
This teaching advice mirrors my prison training. In prison, worrying about what someone else thinks is considered a sign of weakness. During my orientation, this old joke got a good laugh: how can you tell if an inmate is lying? Answer: his lips are moving. Inmates say someone who is too sensitive is “soft,” and I think I have a reputation for being a bit of a marshmallow. I’ve certainly had a lot of dictionaries and paper stolen out of my classroom.
But, to talk about my shoes some more: My wife bought me a pair of Cole Haan loafers. They’re black leather but have a rubber air-sole to make them comfortable for people like myself or Donald Rumsfeld who stand up all day. They look a little strange and I said so in the store, but they were also very comfortable. My wife insisted I have them and made them a present on the spot. I have a kid in class — or rather, he’s a man, but young enough to have acne — and he thought my shoes were pretty funny looking and said so without thinking. I barked at him, pointed out his wrinkled khaki uniform, his dirty t-shirt and oversized boots — asked him if he thought I wanted his opinion on how to dress. “Nope,” he said.
And I worried that night. I replayed that conversation over and over.
In the fifteen years I’ve been teaching, I’ve certainly experimented with fascism. In prison, school is a privilege that’s easily taken away. Sometimes it feels good to throw someone out of school. I wasn’t afraid of my student. I’d insulted him to his face and if he had continued to mock my shoes, I would have written him up in such a way as to keep him in prison a little bit longer. I don’t work in a field where the customer is always right, after all. But nevertheless, it bothered me that my student didn’t like me and that he probably liked me even less after I put him in his place.
The obvious question is: why should I care? He’s the one who should be concerned. He should be worried whether or not I like him because I’m the one with power in our relationship. But for me, the fact that he doesn’t like me means he is not happy, and I feel responsible for the happiness of everyone in the room because it is my room. I’m the teacher. His unhappiness feels like a failure on my part, and I worry about it. I don’t know if ultimately this makes me a good or bad teacher, but it’s my way of doing and fumbling things.
I don’t want to live in a world where the powerful ignore the pitiful. When the strong forget the feelings of the weak, it makes me sad. I don’t want to live in a nation of torturers, and yet, when I read the news, it seems obvious that I do. My government wants to keep its prisoners in chainlink dogpens for years at a time. I can’t believe that it’s come to the point at Guantanamo Bay where inmates want to die so badly that they must be tied to chairs and force fed. I don’t want to believe my president goes bike riding while Cindy Sheehan lies crying on his doorstep. I’m told he has his reasons, but I’m afraid it’s all about power. I can’t believe the president would go for a bike ride if Bill Gates or Osama Bin Laden were crying at his driveway.
Maybe it is naive of me to want everyone I know to be happy, but I do. And when I am the only person in the room who has been to college or who has a job, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make it happen. I can’t leave it to the illiterate crystal meth dealers to make everyone happy.
One thing I’ve heard in prison is “I wouldn’t wish this place on my worst enemy,” and every time I’ve heard it, I’ve thought to myself how false it sounded. Who wouldn’t wish misery on his or her worst enemy? The fear I’m talking about — the fear that someone, somewhere, isn’t happy, that not everyone is in love with life — this bothers me and it’s a problem that has shaped my working and professional life. But it’s a problem I would wish on my worst enemy. And my president.
Indianapolis-based Chris Huntington works at Plainfield Correctional Facility.