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.

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.

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