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
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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.

What, aside from the obvious, made this teaching job different from others? At the end of the day, is teaching simply teaching?

From the archives:

"Where Ghetto Schools Fail" (October 1967)
The author, a thirty-year-old Harvard graduate and novelist, describes the sequence of events that led to his dismissal from one of Boston's Roxbury schools—for bringing into his classroom reading materials he felt bridged the gap between the ghetto environment of his pupils and the prejudices and irrelevancies of their antiquated textbooks. By Jonathan Kozol

At the end of the day, teaching in jail is not teaching. In a way I really broke faith with my fellow teachers, who were doing the job precisely as it's meant to be done. That is, they taught their classes, despite being locked away in the dark, despite being cursed at, despite serving as a turnkey and secretary and toilet repairman to the jail school. They basically soldiered on in that quietly heroic way that Jonathan Kozol writes about. I hope they forgive me for breaking faith, and if they don't, I hope they'll be willing to talk to me about it. Anyway, they kept to the rules and I sort of bent them. I felt that I risked pushing the kids yet further into their private worlds by insisting on a conventional high school classroom tone, and I felt that the kids stood a good chance of being affected by my assignments only if they read voluntarily, curiously, happily, with their defenses down. At the same time, reading a book in a class for the pleasure of it was an idea that settled in like an unfavorable judicial ruling. No one would impose a penalty like that on himself of his own free will. So I basically begged the kids to finish certain assignments. I kicked them under the table when I thought that would help, and I bribed them. I badly wanted to them finish certain short stories. I'm sure I'm not the only English teacher to have hoped that extreme, embarrassing measures would produce... well, something. I'm sure there are tons who are better at making their ideas work than I am. And in my opinion, almost every measure an English teacher takes—with the exception of deeds committed by people who teach theory to graduate students—is a strange and wonderful offering and should be celebrated that way. Anyway, my teaching wasn't teaching in a normal high school sense. It was too lawless and too personal. It was too much interrupted by the impinging real world of jail: people would come to class after having spent the night in the hole, after having dreamt of being free, after watching their roommates return to the cell covered in blood following a fight. We'd have to spend the class discussing all of that, and often times those discussions turned into a kind of extended, badgering argument for suicide. If the next twenty-four years were going to be as bad as the previous twenty-four hours, the argument went, the kids should really consider stringing up. No one did commit suicide while I was in Woodstock, but the people I taught had, or said they had, a Samurai-like attitude about it: when the time came, if the time came, they'd do it in an instant.

You rejected conventional safeguards in the facility's classroom in an effort to create an open, trusting, and humane environment. What is it about your personality that let you drop these safeguards?

Okay, here goes. When I was spending more time in jail than I do now—that is, last year—I was failing in life so routinely, so comically, that I really warmed to kids who had more reason to be contemptuous of themselves than I did. In retrospect, I wasn't a catastrophic loser—just an averagely committed, persistent one. I didn't like myself at all. I had fun with failure, or tried to. It was fine with me if the people in jail made fun of me; I tended to agree with them on most of the important points. This didn't earn me anyone's respect; if anything, it earned me the lasting disapprobation of pretty much everyone in jail. But it did make it so people weren't worried by me. No one mistook me for someone on the make. There was a part of me, perhaps, that wanted things this way. If I cast myself as a hapless, good-hearted, universally inept, wanna-be inmate—and some of my students did think of me that way—then, I thought, people would like me. They didn't. As a Dale Carnegie strategy it was a big washout; as a strategy that allowed my students to speak openly about their lives, it worked. Well, sometimes it worked. There were long stretches when people simply lied about their lives, and carried on inventing absurd, heroic personas for themselves. Those were interesting moments, too.

You established a close relationship with your student Laird Stanard, who came to the facility after shooting and killing his mother. How and why is it that you and Laird bonded? Did it disturb you that you could find kinship with a person who committed such an act? How is Laird faring now?

How is Laird faring now? I'm glad you asked. Laird is suspicious and angry. I'm not sure it's accurate to say that he's passed into a world of regret and sorrow. I hope that's coming for him in the future, because he could be, if he wants it, a strong advocate for people who made disastrous errors as little kids. This might occur—I think it can occur—at some point in the future. But, in my opinion, he'll have to walk through his personal, in-house valley of the shadow of death, which might take him years and years. I hope it will, anyway; I hope he'll make the journey into an excruciating trial for himself, and I hope he'll gain strength from what ensues. Before he can speak with moral authority about his own experience, he'll have to be able to say, credibly, that he's set out for places unknown in a mood of penitence, and that he's on the way back. First of all, the legal consequences of the crime, which percolate to this day, have to quit their bubbling. When all of that distraction is silent, Laird can—I hope he will—begin his long voyage home.

About me and Laird: I think I initially tried to protect Laird from himself and from others in jail, because he seemed so incapable of doing the job himself. I knew and kind of liked the characters who introduced him to life behind bars, whereas, for him, they were straight out of The Silence of the Lambs. Laird isn't all that helpless now, but once he was. The helpless people in jail get their protection from unsavory types; I wanted to offer him the no-strings-attached kind of protection. More than that, Laird really needed to talk to someone when he first came to jail, and there's no trusting the most trustworthy people in the world behind bars. I guess that goes for me, too. As Laird got used to life in jail, he started to take an interest in my class. I really needed that interest. Laird raised the literacy quotient by a factor of twenty, and that sort of put me in his debt. I was willing to do a lot for him, because he was making my job more meaningful than it might otherwise have been. And no, I wasn't bothered by the fact that Laird had committed a frightening crime. My interest in working in jail originates, I think, in my heartfelt belief that I really was, once, dumb enough and self-absorbed enough to do catastrophic damage. I'm certain that I would have been the primary victim of this blindness, but in hurting myself I surely would have hurt my mom and my dad.

Even Vermont—a state emblematic of small-town, community-based, idyllic America—has become a host for gangs, drugs, and violent teen crime. Is it your sense that the kids you dealt with have gotten into trouble in spite of their rural environment or because of it? Is the ideal of finding a perfect place to raise a family a false one these days?

Vermont as an idyll is no illusion. There really are sheep and babbling brooks and merry village chimes. But there are similar things in nearby New York, Massachusetts, and Quebec, and in those places, people get by with less self-conscious, self-celebrating Thoreau-ism than we require. I'm not blaming piety about nature for the crimes of local teenagers. I do think, however, that the self-sustaining rural village is a fiction that every local drug dealer is happy to deflate. Ecstasy must be imported; ditto Ketamine, and all the other pharmaceuticals that are interesting to local kids. And kids aren't the only ones to use drugs in rural Vermont. I think the Arcadian qualities of Vermont aren't as interesting to some of my students as are the gloomy, horror-story aspects of life in rural New England: the old man who's been lying dead in his trailer for months; the nighttime auto disasters in which New Yorkers are tossed into the breach and return staggering to the road, covered in blood; the "slow" children who push their friends from railroad tresses. Incidents like these expressed the "real" character of the region for my students, whereas the village steeples and the arching elms were effects maintained by people who cared about that sort of thing. Inasmuch as the kids I taught were captivated by the spirit of rural places, it was the spirit of Stephen King that drew their attention. That made for good classes, but it also amounted to a kind of systematic cynicism. "Lighten up!" I wanted to tell the kids, but by the time they got to jail, this advice was much too late, and certainly too little.

Powers suggests that violence by ordinary teenagers can be seen as their response to feelings of nothingness. To substantiate what these kids consider to be their empty, meaningless lives, they commit horrible acts of violence and murder. Theories abound claiming that anger, confusion, malaise, and depression dominate the lives of many of our youth. Do you have thoughts about what families and communities could do to give their young people more of a sense of meaning and purposefulness in their lives?

I'm not sure I agree with Ron Powers's suggestion that adolescents are responding with violence to a sensation of nothingness or blankness in their lives. Some of the kids who've done the worst things have had all the advantages. Surely, just living next door to a forest and a pasture is a kind of advantage, even if the kids don't see it that way. I think it might be useful to think of certain teenagers as sedulous researchers. The newspapers reported this weekend that Parker and Tulloch turned up a British manual on hand-to-hand combat in a local library; before heading off to the Zantops they consulted it for information on the efficient use of knives in mortal combat. This is a kind of exploration into death and dying that I don't think is all that atypical. When my students discussed with me the moments in their lives when they've felt themselves approaching death, they've almost always spoken in quiet, romantic tones. It's nothing to be afraid of, they say; when the time comes, the time comes. The research they've done has taken place over the Internet and at the movies. They read novels and poems; they're literate, lucid people. Some of the best research happens when they're driving down dirt roads at ninety miles an hour; they miss smashing into an oak by millimeters. Data is produced; the effect lingers. Some of the research happens when they've ingested the right amount of drugs to send them to the very far edge of consciousness; it's also possible to have out of body experiences as you rock climb, or better yet, fall during a rock climb, or jump from the rim of a quarry, or from the rail of a bridge. There are thousands of Web sites and dozens of movies every year that deny the finality of death, but using one's own body as a subject for experimentation has a truer, more powerful instructive effect, I think. My sense is that some of my students were working their way toward putting themselves at the threshold of the end; they wanted perhaps to stop a while there, perhaps to cross over; maybe they'd return later. If they didn't return, they wouldn't necessarily be all that sad about missing out on events here. I suppose Ron might say, "Well... surely this is a response to a sense of emptiness on this earthly plane?" Perhaps it is. But you don't necessarily need to dread the emptiness of life as a conventional American teen in order to be interested in exotic, risky travel, particularly when it's so easy, so relatively inexpensive to take off. You need a mountain bike and a small pile of ecstasy.

You compare some of these crimes to "personal movies"—crimes scripted and executed by teenagers that draw on violent film and television. Did discussions in your classroom give you insight into how fantasy affects these kids' behavior?

May I speak from personal experience here? The kind of movie star I want to be is a tougher, younger, strapping David Letterman who wanders the West—okay, any frontier in any suitably rough countryside. I'm wounded somehow or maybe just have reasons for sadness that I don't really want to go into. Naturally, I understand the irony of the situation—the truth is that I'm just playing at being in the spotlight, just screwing around in the sagebrush, and I can't take any of this lone ranger stuff seriously. But it's fun all the same. Every once in a while there really is a serious, deeply affecting moment in the movie in which someone—a beautiful, equally cynical world-weary girl—looks backwards with me at civilization. Suddenly we're not self-conscious and ironic anymore. We're just astonished at the cruelty and cheapness of the world we've left, which seems now to be so clearly a chaotic, meaningless chain of malls...Well, my point is that my movie self is detached in response to all things, and this detachment is a) cool, b) a not entirely unreasonable response to the world, and c) a means of keeping myself at a safe distance from everything. I am untouchable and glad to be there, sort of like a boy religious ascetic. I've fetched myself from the trammels of civilization and am much stronger for it. In this state of mind, I'm also way beyond the law; I look at it as a Martian might. It's interesting technically, maybe, but has no moral force, at least not for me.

Your question asks about the effect of movie fantasies on behavior: my answer is that films in which coolly ironic people go seeking their own truth can be visually magnificent in depicting that quest. They can inspire others to physically imitate the scenes anywhere they like, with or without the cameras. But undertaking the actual invisible, uncinematic work of self-transformation—that's much much harder. More to the point, there's no one out there to show how it might be done. Okay, I take that back. There are a zillion snake-oil salesmen telling you exactly how to proceed, and they're not much help to young men. We don't read self-help books. We don't go to seminars, thank God. We don't even read Whitman. So I say, let's have more "Song of Myself" for kids—the reading of which might actually do something—and less "Terminator II," which will only show a dazzling image of what renewal and regeneration might look like. Not such a novel solution, I know.

You told Powers that aside from a few moments when they were truly engaged, you felt you had failed to transform these kids. You claimed they were "too far gone," and that if and when they left jail, they would most likely return, via violent crime. Do you feel that you or they gained something important from the experience anyway? Do you think it might have been possible with more time or different techniques to have significantly changed any of these kids' lives? Or in your view is such an attempt pretty much futile?

Anything's possible. I think I did not significantly alter—or alter at all—the recidivism rate in kids in southern Vermont. On the other hand, I'd like to spend a lot more time in jail and am trying right now to get another, more ambitious course off the ground. If the Vermont jail education people approve what I've proposed, and I hope they will, then I stand a chance of being able to do something, which is an improvement over doing nothing. The course is essentially an introduction to the humanities that is designed to help students discern and cultivate the values that support a liberal society. Some great books, some short stories that have turned up lately in magazines, some documentary photographers.

Your assertion in the article that you admired your students seems surprising considering why they were in your classroom. What about them did you admire or respect? What were their redeeming qualities?

I admire my students' recklessness. There's a dangerous, anti-social side to their recklessness for which the kids are being punished. There's also a self-sacrificing, life-celebrating side to many of their personalities. On a good day, their heedlessness makes you think of Allen Ginsberg's friends ("angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection..."); my students weren't enough into poetry to persuade you that they were beatniks, but the people who are referred to in "Howl"—those who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard, and jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge and so on—they were poets in deed rather than word. In addition to committing crimes, my students have done many dumb, harebrained, vaguely poetic things. Legal things, I mean, and it's that kind of imaginative foolishness that might make them, some day, into artists. Let's hope.

When adolescents commit horrific, immensely shocking crimes, society often calls for grave punishment—either life in prison or the death penalty. But many critics insist that by focusing our sights on punishment we allow little or no chance for rehabilitation, something that adolescents, in a stage of constant development, should at least be offered. Your teaching style seemed to lean toward rehabilitation rather than punishment. Would you agree? Does that reflect your views on juvenile punishment and sentencing in general?

I think it's insane to punish certain, probably most, teenagers with long prison sentences. According to what I've read, the part of the brain responsible for such adult-like faculties as judgment and forecasting drags its feet in adolescents. It can take up to twenty-one years to grow a fully functioning pre-frontal lobe, apparently. So some kids are not physically and mentally all there at seventeen. Every once in a while, you hear about kids on the news, arrested for murder, who ask the jailers if they'll be allowed to go home at the end of the day. So, my point: if youthfulness is one of the mitigating factors that courts take into account when sentencing young offenders, and it is everywhere, then surely it's worth exploring what exactly "youth" means. I personally think we should enlarge the definition. It would have to be designed so that childish men wouldn't qualify, but underdeveloped kids, like the teenager in Florida who wrestled with and killed his playmate, would have a chance.

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