September 19, 2016

BETWEEN BARS | Out of Necessity

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Photo Courtesy of DeviantArt

When the cart rolled into the classroom, several of the students immediately left their seats and walked over. I followed suit. It was a steel double-sided cart, the kind that librarians use for shelving books. A few titles caught my eye: a complete encyclopedia of African American culture, Drown by Junot Díaz, and Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The students and I shuffled about the cart to get a closer look at the selection. I remember that when I was in elementary school, the librarian would roll a library cart of books into my classroom to encourage kids to check out something to bring home.

The room we were currently in certainly felt like an elementary school classroom. Faded wooden chairs and tables spread out evenly in rows, facing a blackboard at one end of the room. The walls were covered with visuals: a world map, a math poster detailing order of operations, newspaper clippings from the week, inspirational quotes, and so on. A box-shaped air conditioner protruded from the wall, sputtering sporadically as if to clear its throat. Through the windows, we could observe the movements of people in the classroom across the hall.

Judging from the titles I named on the book cart, you might have guessed that I was not in elementary school. In fact, our classroom was located inside a maximum-security prison compound. These students were not children. They were full-grown men, convicted felons who, having passed an entrance-level exam, qualified to take courses offered by Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). CPEP courses count as credit towards an associate’s degree from Cayuga Community College. My room, however, was a study hall. Along with three other tutors, I was assigned to help students with their homework assignments.  

The first student I worked with showed me his assignment from his writing class. He wrote a response to the prompt: “Why read?” The student began reading aloud his response to me. He compared the relationship a reader has with his book to that of a parent and newborn child. The baby needs to be held as lovingly and gently as possible–it needs human touch to imbue it with identity. Its caretaker also needs the baby’s love and affection. “Why is it that we read out of a necessity of obligation?” he implored. “Read rather out of a necessity of want.” In other words, read because you can’t live without reading, just like a mother can’t bear even the thought of separation from her newborn child. This image of mutual interdependence between reader and book, parent and child, left a strong impression on me.

I have tasted the vicarious thrill of living through books. I used to read a lot, all of the time. But reading has become increasingly pedagogical for me. In my room I have a box of books I’ve acquired from many of the classes I’ve taken at Cornell. They come in all sizes, some more frequently opened than others. For me, reading out of necessity has often meant skimming pages, locating conclusions and talking points, and identifying the author’s purpose. To my chagrin, my schoolwork does get me to read out of necessity, but not the kind of necessity that the student was referring to. He certainly wasn’t talking about reading assignments. But neither was he talking about pure leisurely reading. I think he was getting at the notion that reading should be an essential aspect of our lives, like a daily meal that we can’t live without. That is to say, reading is a personal necessity beyond its place in academia and leisure.

I was still thinking about his essay when it was time to go. Nothing compares to how quickly the hours burn up inside an Auburn classroom. When it’s time, the correctional officer pops in and calls the students by cell group. They file out of the classroom as abruptly as they came in. They wave their quick goodbyes and walk out, their standard-issue green pants reminding me of the difference between us.
We are the last to go after all of our students have left. On the way out of the school, the correctional officer turns off the lights as we take the last few steps toward the door. Because there are many tutors in our group, it takes a while for all of us to get out the door. For a few seconds, we walk in complete silence down the dark hallway. It’s a fitting moment for me to begin to process what I’ve learned inside the Auburn classroom.