My Lessons from Prison

Last week I spent three hours with students at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. Part of the allure of my profession from the start has been how much I learn on the job. Never was this truer than my unforgettable lessons from prison. Inmates can earn a two-year community college degree, beneficiaries of Doris Buffett’s incredible Sunshine Foundation. ( I participated in a Creative Writing Class offered by Piedmont Virginia Community College. Students read excerpts from Little Big Minds on the topics of Courage and Humanity in preparation. Their assignment was to be ready with their own definitions of these concepts and with questions for me. They were so much more than prepared.

They were amazing. Eager, respectful of each other and the professor and me, smart, honest, inquisitive, articulate, grateful for their educations, responsible for their lives past and future and focused on the present. In casual conversation before class started, we talked about their preferences for writing in either first or third person, with second person losing the popularity contest. Then there was a show or tell of tattoos: Phoenix rising from the ashes, a bouquet of orchids, Alice in Wonderland, and ones that would get a “do over” as soon as possible. I was struck by the rapport between Dr. Sloan and his students, simultaneously personal and professional, never an easy balance to achieve. I felt right at home.

Students had lots of questions about writing a book, how I got into philosophy, and if there were any philosophers I didn’t like! They talked about their lives and I mine. After our lively discussion of Courage and Humanity, I introduced them to Haiku, the Japanese form of short poems. In three lines of 5, then 7, and last 5 syllables, we found the words to paint pictures of the two topics without relying on the use of “courage” or “humanity.” After writing a number of haikus, without using words or representing humans, they sketched the meanings of the two concepts. Their poetry and art matched the eloquence of their earlier verbal definitions. Courage is to “lock eyes with the raging storm.” It is also the effort to “keep trying to earn self-love.”

My lessons in the meaning of Humanity, our uniqueness joined with our sameness, will stay with me forever. For the first time in my years of discussing the labels we slap on each other, thereby robbing a person of individuality—black and white, Hispanic and Asian, gay and straight, on and ever on—I’ve never investigated what it means to wear the label “felon.” At no point did any student complain about their sentence or deny responsibility for their crime. While they are indeed felons, they are also in fact individuals with names, regrets, family, hopes, emotions, talents. They offered only a few examples of  daily, repeated, painful dismissals of their individuality, each of these cases the result of someone’s unnecessary and careless preconception. Wisely, they understand that the guards are trained not to befriend them while nevertheless offering testimony to specific acts of guard compassion. At the end of our emotional conversation one student concluded for the group: “In my cell at night I can create my own mind and stay in a good place.” In prison no more.

Time ran fast and out, and I’ll return in April for the second part of what we had planned for this day: an examination of the concepts of Flexibility and Serenity from How Philosophy Can Save Your Life.

I asked as class ended what one thing they will likely always remember. For me it was walking across the huge courtyard through door after door after door at last into the sunlight outside the prison. I sat for awhile in my car, opening windows and sunroof, drinking from a water bottle and taking in the view. Looking at the tall fence in front of me, I understood in a new way that the fence was all that separated me from my students. We share our humanity.

To be continued.