Interviews March 2002

Teaching Behind Bars

Teaching Behind Bars

An interview with Theo Padnos, who got to know teenage criminals from a unique perspective—as their teacher in jail

What traits define gifted, successful teachers? Partly, it's a capacity to use their knowledge of certain subjects to convey meaning about the world in a way that will engage and inspire their students. Good teaching requires that a teacher believe he or she is helping students to be both ethical and intellectually curious. The best teachers know that they can somehow influence those in their care for the better, and that no matter the circumstances, no student is beyond hope. What happens, then, when the classroom is housed not in an elementary or high school but at a jail? How and what does one teach kids who, as a result of their crimes, have already been given up on by society? If society has written off these adolescents, why shouldn't their teachers? Is any attempt to teach in such a facility futile?

In 1999, Theo Padnos, a young Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, began teaching in such an environment. Unable to find a university teaching job but eager to put his teaching skills to use, Padnos accepted a part-time position teaching kids at a correctional facility in Woodstock, Vermont. There he faced not only the usual challenges that accompany classroom teaching, but also the more intimidating task of working with prison inmates. Padnos hoped to use literature to show his students that they were not as alone in the world as they imagined—that many others, in many different eras, have had comparable experiences. Unlike other teachers, Padnos rejected customary safeguards in his classroom, aiming to divorce the classroom's environment from that of the jail's and create an atmosphere in which kids could actually learn and would feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts and fears. He found that their daily discussions came to be laced with themes of violence, suicide, and, very rarely, penitence.

Padnos's teaching experience is featured in Ron Powers's "The Apocalypse of Adolescence" (March Atlantic), an article that explores the increase of lethal violence committed by so-called "ordinary" teenagers from rural, idyllic Vermont communities—kids perceived as intelligent, sociable, and caring who have wealth, good educations, and loving and supportive families. Powers focuses on several recent high-profile cases including that of James Parker and Robert Tulloch, who are charged with killing Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop, and that of Laird Stanard, who, after shooting and killing his mother, was sent to jail and became one of Padnos's students.

Padnos, who is writing a book about his year and a half spent working at the Woodstock facility, now teaches at the Parole and Probation Department in Burlington, Vermont. His story speaks of the extraordinary challenges he confronted in the classroom of a jail—a place almost unimaginably different from its counterpart in the conventional American high school.

We corresponded by e-mail last week.

—Caitlin Riley


The atmosphere in which you taught was far from ordinary. Emotionally, what was it like to work with teenage criminals?

Here's what it was like to work with teenage criminals: It was like a happy afternoon at a carnival. It had the feeling of a downmarket kind of country fair with lots of freaks and sideshows. We were sort of restricted by a no-movement policy. We hardly paid any attention to that. None of us were expecting to wander around in jail; rather, we thought we could arrange a celebration on site with the other sensible visitors. We were strangely, fanatically determined to make the whole experience into a rollicking good time. The older people thought of Woodstock as a "mom and pop" jail; the younger people thought of it as a sort of indoor Bread and Puppet theater with obnoxious guards. Actually, we spent a lot of time learning to like one another, learning who we could pick on with impunity, learning who to be afraid of, and learning most of all how to pretend and act as though nothing mattered. The kids relied on the TV a lot for help in everything. I relied on the kids' discussions to keep myself involved as a teacher, and when those dried up, I relied on my syllabus. The sense that the kids' victims or anyone else's victims, for that matter, were distantly present in some way—perhaps through reports in the newspapers we read, perhaps through jailhouse rumors of their testimony, perhaps through the uneasy consciences of the kids themselves—this sense was infinitesimal. It hardly existed. Local jails just aren't places in which people are penitent; the crimes are too recent, the news reports are too frankly accusatory and cold. The consequences of a confession are too great. When regret was in the air—and these moments were rare—it was an unsettling, frightening thing. It was sort of like sitting in the back seat during a car crash—I had an excellent view, a perfect, slow motion sense of what was happening, and I wanted to prevent the imminent mess. That was probably the wrong instinct, because those kids honestly don't get much chance to confess to anything in public voluntarily, but I sometimes interfered all the same. I felt the kids would be too harmed by telling the truth in class; I felt the other prisoners would turn them in in a heartbeat, adding a few gory details as they did. In a way, the safest thing we could do was to discuss literature, and for the sake of a good class, I tried to choose disturbing, truth-evoking books. In theory, disturbing books and disturbed kids would produce interesting classes. In practice, that theory often fell apart. Occasionally, it worked alarmingly well.

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