My Lessons from Prison, Visit 2

Creative Writing students wheeled through the classroom door in good spirits, eager for us to get started. This would be my second and last three-hour class with this particular group of community college students at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. I also was raring to go—anticipating a lively discussion followed by their reading  (and in a couple of memorable cases performing!)  their written work on the topics of Flexibility and Serenity from How Philosophy Can Save Your Life. Could flexibility help with the constant stresses of prison life that they had depicted in vivid detail? Was serenity possible in the tiny cell with the ever-looming, ominous click of the shutting door? Here's what I learned. Here's some good insight for use in any circumstances.

Yes, the willingness and ability to adapt to change was essential—it was for one student the only way to survive a life of constant surprise like a sudden move from the “college” to the “hood,” two cell blocks with wildly different living conditions.  Another linked flexibility to easier interactions: Learning to be flexible will allow “me with my temper to compromise and I can help my roommate do the same.” One introspective student lamented the one thing she’d most like to change and can't: her past actions that brought her to prison. When she expressed concern about facing ironclad negative opinions of her when she is released, another classmate suggested that she could change her response to any and everyone, that she could be flexible in her own opinions and actions. Several students described times that they had been wrongly “disrespected,” and resolved to find new and better ways to replace old, destructive reactions. Two students debated the wisdom of flexibility in certain circumstances—perhaps standing your ground and working to change the environment was preferable? But isn't flexibility required here as well? Good conversation!

Winning serenity in the relentless anxiety of their caged world was both their greatest challenge and greatest triumph. Meditation three times a day, even on the top bunk under a low ceiling , brought one student through safely whenever “the crisis strikes.” Her practice steadied her—“this thought or this emotion is only that, and it will pass.” Several students added other benefits of taking time out whenever possible to simply sit and breathe. In contrast, a student claimed that she preferred staying busy all the time, “every waking moment,” to seeking a serene disposition, but she admired serenity in her children. Others walk to find peace, occasionally running when it proves elusive. All agreed that their access to a college education along with gaining various skills in fields such as computing and cosmetology provides more hope than fear about “making it on the outside.” One mother of six insisted that she must learn and practice serenity not only for herself but for her six kids—when she talks with them by phone now and when she’s with them in person at last. She added that she found serenity in the company of other students earning their degrees, “my family.”

As class ended, students thanked me repeatedly for coming to visit, making them “feel that we are not disasters forgotten by the world.” They promised to make sure that Dr. Sloan, their professor, gives me a copy of their magazine of collected writings and will sign their names so I don’t forget them. I’ll never forget them. Good teachers are hard to find.

And I’ll be back.