«EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Marisa Fein CONSULTING EDITOR Robert Johnson COVER DESIGN Carla Mavaddat TEXT DESIGN Sonia Tabriz BleakHouse Publishing 2016 Ward ...»
A few days after writing to the educational director, she called me down to her office. We talked for about twenty minutes, and she was receptive, professional and considerate. I explained that the “PLEASE NO CHEATING!” admonishment written at the top of every assignment was really a priming, a negative preconditioning that was offensive and completely unnecessary in a classroom setting where grown adult men had eagerly volunteered to take the class. Although we were convicts, not one of us in class had given the teacher any indication (by habit or attitude) that we were prone to cheat. I elaborated on the various university studies that had been done to show how such negative pre-conditioning, in a classroom setting, can have a marked correlation to students’ lower test scores. The director was forthcoming in that she had a bias toward her colleague, the math teacher, whom she’d worked with for years. She said that she looked at the “PLEASE NO CHEATING!” statement as “harmless;” but she did assure me that she would give the issue to her supervisor to look into. She also asked if there were any other issues and I explained that this math teacher didn’t want to pass back our pre-tests that we took a month ago and, therefore, we had no idea of our individual strengths and weaknesses. The director informed me she would address all the issues and that I should file a formal grievance if, within the next week, my concerns were not resolved.
As I got up to leave, the director tried to hand the assignment in question back to me. I told her I wanted her to pass it on to her supervisor so he/she could see the letters glowing at the top of the page like a cheap Las Vegas casino neon sign. It was important to capture the visual of the disrespect firsthand.
Within the next week, the math teacher begrudgingly passed back to us the month-old pre-tests. As she weaved between the rows of desks, she shook her head, annoyed.
“This is the part that I hate—I really don’t like handing things back.” She then handed out a second homework assignment and to my delight, there was no “PLEASE 44 NO CHEATING!” written at the top. Finally, my voice had been heard. Someone, somewhere, with the authority to restore a measure of decorum back to the teacherstudent power dynamic, had issued a decree to force this uncompromising math teacher to change her “way of doing things.” But my silent celebration was short lived.
As the teacher finished handing out the assignment to everyone, she began a scolding sermon about how the class was for our own benefit and how she wouldn’t force us to do the work. She went on to state that “some” of the class hadn’t turned in the first assignment and that if people were serious about their education, they’d have to be willing to do the work. She then lasered in on me—I was the “some” she was referring to—and standing in front of the entire class she asked, “Mr. Jackson, are you going to complete this assignment?” I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. This was one of those spotlight moments that defines who you are as a person— when you’re caught completely off-guard, you have no polished, prepared response, no choreographed reaction, and you can feel your heartbeat in the gulp of your throat.
I wanted to respond with a scathing diatribe on how I have a right, as a human being, to “take it personally” when an educator assumes I’m prone to cheat. I wanted to rifle out sentiments of how my self-respect is more important than irrational numbers and Pythagorean theorems, and that it was not okay to casually dismiss such disrespect, particularly when the disrespect has been seamlessly ingrained into the status quo. I wanted to say a lot of things, but what actually came out of my mouth, after she threw the spotlight on me, was a calm and concise response, “Yeah, I’ll do the assignment as long as you don’t write that stuff at the top of the paper.” 45 After class, one of my classmates asked me, puzzled, “What was that all about?” “Nothin’,” I said. “A whole lot of nothin’.” A day or two later, the math teacher was going over problems on the whiteboard, explaining why we had to show our work—showing all the steps and calculations that led us to the answer, when she made a comment about how she didn’t want us to “cheat ourselves.” She then stopped abruptly and said, “Oh, I can’t say that word.
‘Cheating’—that’s a bad word.” With her fingers, she made a zipping motion across her lips. “I don’t want to get in trouble… can’t use that word.” She never looked directly at me when she said this, but it was clear that her big, invisible passive-aggressive assault rifle had just let off a couple rounds in my direction. I didn’t say anything. In my mind, I tried to not allow her attitude to negatively affect my desire to learn. But, in the succeeding days, I could feel my attention evaporate in that class. The math textbook began to feel as if it weighed one hundred pounds. I’m a nerd by nature, so I’ve always loved school. I’m the guy who goes to the library and checks out psychology textbooks “for fun”. So when the always thriving desire to learn began to wither away inside of me like a brown, crinkled autumn leaf three days before winter, I knew I had to absolutely withdraw from that class. Which I ultimately did a few weeks later. Not only was this teacher baiting me with passive-aggressive behavior, likely with the expectation that I’d respond by saying something disrespectful to justify exacting a penalty or punishment upon me, but she was also a very ineffective math instructor. I went over her head to her supervisor with my grievance and she was 46 forced to change her way of doing things. Even in her silence, she continued to remind me of her displeasure.
As a prisoner, I have to deal with irreverent and obnoxious guards every day. I can’t get away from them.
But a disrespectful and disgruntled math teacher—I can choose to remove that kind of drama from my already constricted life.
I’ve talked to a number of different people about his “PLEASE NO CHEATING!” thing and a lot of people’s initial reaction is: “what’s the big deal?” or “you know you’re not cheating, so just ignore it.” And this is exactly how such harmful and detrimental things (bias, discrimination, negative pre-conditioning) become systematically woven into the status quo. Nobody effectively challenges them. Too many people concede to the minor slights and offenses, which then, over time, grow into solid, immovable forces. What compounded this specific situation, for me, was when I initially presented the issue in a calm, respectful manner, directly to the teacher, her immediate attitude was dismissive. I was ignored as ‘business as usual’. I had no doubt that such a practice of writing, “PLEASE NO CHEATING!” on the top of any college assignment would not be tolerated in the free world. So why was it permissible with prisoners? Because of the great fixed force of indifference that abounds within the walls of these prisons. This is what I have continued to fight against throughout various aspects of my incarceration- systematic disregard and deliberate disregard by staff and administrators. It surprised me to see that it could reach the sacred space of the classroom. This is why situations like this have to be challenged when they are small and barely perceivable—to prevent this indifference from getting out of hand. To not 47 challenge it, to fail to name it for the inhumane beast that it is, we would only be cheating ourselves.
MaureenI couldn’t help thinking that Jevon’s treatment by his college teacher was not an isolated prison story. It made me wonder how many hundreds of “PLEASE NO CHEATING!” slights happened in schools years before these men went to prison. How many of the “it’s not a big deal” or “don’t take it personally” justifications paved a slow, subtle road of low expectation, failure, expulsion, or worse?
I can’t imagine a teacher that would consider it normal or innocent to put such a daunting, negative warning on every assignment given to a student. Unfortunately, I believe this educational form of racial profiling happens regularly and systematically in the same seemingly benign ways as a red Sharpie warning.
Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his book, Between the World and Me, “I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanctions… And I began to see these two arms in relation—those who failed the schools justified their failures in the streets. The society could say, ‘he should have stayed in school.’ and then wash their hands of him.” Both Coates and Jevon’s stories are sirens, spotlights on institutionalized discrimination that hides (and often stands blatantly apparent) in our nation’s schools. As teachers, we must question what is stated or implied in our “just the way we do things.” If knowledge is truly power, if education is truly liberation and even 48 rehabilitation, we have a moral imperative to put our curriculum and our modes of instruction under a microscope to see clearly and through a diverse lens.
WE must slay the beasts of injustice and purge prejudices in our classrooms starting with the language.
*Authors Note: Jevon and I have been corresponding for over 20 years. We met while I was teaching in a juvenile detention center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was 16, before he was ultimately waived into adult court and given a life prison sentence. This piece is a part of a larger work-in-progress that speaks to the power of writing and redemption as well as the social injustices embedded in the American prison and education systems.
This article was inspired by the multitude of professional development trainings that launched my teaching year focusing on topics such as Courageous Conversations, Diversity in the Classroom, Closing the Achievement Gap, and Restorative Justice. The difference between theory and practice was so glaring in Jevon’s experience, whether between prison or school walls, the story seemed worthy of exposure.
There's no way you could be As bad as everyone said.
I thought, they must not know you Like I know you.
But I was mistaken.
I believed it when you said That you care about me When you said that you wouldn't hurt me I thought I'd found a real friend.
But I was mistaken.
I hoped that you saw The kindness, beauty and value in me But I was mistaken.
You saw something That appealed to you In that moment.
But moments pass.
I believed I was done Making stupid choices.
I thought I was done losing, No more lessons to learn.
But I was mistaken.
I thought I was strong, Safely behind my wall.
But I was mistaken.
What I am, is numb, Tired and bone weary.
50 They say that there's No shame in making one.
They say that mistakes Are opportunities to learn. I thought my slowness To trust someone again was A bad thing.
But again, I was mistaken.
Beneath the spoiling earth The vernal harbingering my coming Vitality warmth awakens my core Lobed 4 expansion, my seed intermitting multiple spasms Vibrating my ovaries My stamen point northward contracting Flower shooting the longitudinal ladder 2 ecstasyendosperm My antlers spread outwards acting as antennas Attracting pollen 4 the reproduction phases of this plantation My third eye enhanced by a rainbow collection of colors Yellow, blue, purple, crimson, prevailing who I am Crocus, The Flower Reborn!
Finally, I’ve broken through the soil, nutrient deficiency My stigma projecting, caught by the face of the storm Concrete mixed wit gravel, scarred my foliage section Like the Rose, I secrete blood from my damaged petals Here I stand, in the hell winds of my Botanical Garden Tossed 2 & fro, observing infestation of pesticide, weed and fungus Back I am, Crocus, The Flower Reborn!
Encouraging champion males 2 fight 4 the cause!
Poppy got shot while unarmed!
Daisy got date-raped in a college dorm Sweet pea selling her body dope fiending At the same time attracting sexually transmitted potato disease White Dead Nettle & Black Rose exposed the world 2 race issues All Lotus wants is a bridge between the two 52 Platooning in the streets, peacefully protesting, “We’re all equal!” How is it, we provide oxygen, but these bad crops have taken our right 2 breathe?
Male Sheld Fern, protect our right 2 live!
May the sunshine reveal these ill mentalities Stop the brutalities Whether it be economically or socially We need education 2 succeed Or epidemically our youth will be affected by a disease poverty Constantly warring wit triumph vs. tragedy A war that seems 2 have no ending But I’m back from the beginning in the form of Crocus The Flower, reborn 2 birth enlightenment 2 mental darkness A spokesperson 4 the down-trodden who’s lost and forgotten Battle tested by the elements in this bloom cycle Like yours, my stem is sore, petals bandaged But I refuse 2 fall over from winter’s harshness Never broken! Spring inspired, birth 2 endure reason and purpose And from my resilience, I sprout 2 tell my story Cultivating life from the lifeless Never glorified, but humbled by intelligence Understanding the difference in climates temporal by law Anger brings summer heat, violent brush fires Seeds fall 2 earth surface hurt, cuffed by thorn wires Winter processes be long unjust prison sentences Spring produces, freedom, justice, equality fragrances But we’re still grieving, demanding swift answers 2 why our beautiful bouquet is still being displayed At wakes and funerals!
Crocus The Flower Reborn!
Stirring deep waters I upset the silt Reintroducing dust into the flow of things Best left settled Undisturbed and un-disturbing Instead of floating with potential Of collision Being that best left forgotten If not un-affecting Just by its presence Or the knowledge thereof Singularly lost As we all must be Adrift 54