A Prisoner’s Honest Question

prison

In 1996, I found myself teaching honors sections on Plato’s dialogues at  Indiana State University.  After a couple of weeks, I received a call from an administrator asking if I would be willing to teach outreach courses at the State Penitentiary in Carlisle, Indiana. “Why not?” I thought.  “It should be an interesting experience.” Little did I know.

I showed up on the appointed day and made my way through razor wire fences and electronic gates. I was then photographed and fingerprinted, and led by a guard down a long corridor of the Maximum Security Section, where the inmates were serving 20 years to life. We stopped at a door, and he said, “This is your classroom.” “Aren’t you coming in?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “you’re on your own.”  I entered the classroom with shaking knees.

There were 26 very big men in the room, mostly African Americans, and they sent waves of distrust and hostility in my direction. Most sat sideways so they didn’t have to look at me. With great trepidation, my voice 2 octaves higher than usual, I began to talk about Philosophy using the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. After five minutes or so, a hand went up. “Wonderful,” I thought, “class participation so soon!”

“Listen, man,“ the student said catching my eye. “Are you just here to give us some more White Man’s Bullshit?”

He stopped me in my tracks. I had never had a question more relevant, more clear and direct, and more to the point. The elephant in the room was loudly trumpeting. I had only two choices: run and hide in the protective mantle of the Teacher, or do my best to match his authenticity. “OK,” I said, “I guess you noticed that I’m White.” A few chuckles. “And to be honest, I have my share of bullshit, but I don’t want to lay it on you. So if you catch me being insincere or dishonest, I give you absolute permission to call me on it. Will you do that?”  “OK,” he said.  “One more thing,” I said. “If I catch you giving me any Black Man’s Bullshit, I’ll call you on it. Do we have a deal?”

With the ensuing laughter, the ice began to melt, and the atmosphere in that room went from cold to warm to scintillating as these bright and spirited men found room to grow. They actually came to understand that Plato was talking about the idea that we were all “doing time” inside our own heads, and that he, like the Buddha, was suggesting ways to ease our pain. Most of these men were Black Muslims, and it was clear to me that they took their new beliefs seriously.  We therefore read some poems of Rumi and Hafiz, and sections from Al-Kindi’s Treatise “On the Art of Banishing Sorrow.” The book, however, that most impressed them was the Tao Te Ching. Some days when I arrived at the classroom, the entire class was already heatedly involved in a focused discussion of Chinese Philosophy.  One day a guy said, “This Lao Tzu is one cold blooded dude!” I think the Chinese Sage would have smiled.

It is ironic, I think, that the most honest question I was ever asked as a teacher came to me in a maximum security prison. That one adamantine question broke the prejudicial chains that imprisoned us in separate worlds, and transformed us into a group of men simply trying to help each other figure things out.  It seemed to me that the man who asked the original question was exhibiting tremendous respect for himself, for me, and for the process of learning. He shone a bright light on the darkness in the room, and gave us all a chance to step into that light.

On the final day of the semester, every man stood in a line by the door, many with tears in their eyes, as they waited for a hug before returning to their cells.  That marvelous question broke all of our hearts–and broke them open.

8 thoughts on “A Prisoner’s Honest Question

  1. Paul Kelley

    Especially enjoyed reading about your experience teaching in the Indiana prison. Hope that you will continue on inspiring us by sharing with us your messages of wisdom.

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  2. John Dougill

    Inspiriing story, thanks… I often think of Dead Poets Society before classes to motivate myself, but now I’ll think of your prison story instead!

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  3. davemacquarrie

    Having taught workshops on anger management for 20 years, I echo the need for the “teacher” to be impeccably honest and authentic. Thanks, John, for a delightful story.

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      I look forward to watching this film, Hariod. As of now, I am editing a few of my early posts, refining the words, and cutting the length. I find it interesting that my writing is becoming more economical as time goes by. Have you experienced this?

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      1. Hariod Brawn

        If you find the time, then the documentary is really quite moving John – not in a cloying way, though I would guess you too would be touched, as I was, by the responses of the retreatants at the prison, and also by the extraordinary vision of the formidable lady who instigated the challenging meditation program there. [ Kiran Bedi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiran_Bedi ]

        As to writing blog posts, then it’s funny you should mention this. I started out writing articles of 1,200-1,500 words in length, as I felt I needed that space to do even the slightest justice to whatever topic I was covering. Soon though, I realised that pretty much everyone is over-subscribed to blogs and that just like myself, feel rather overwhelmed having email notifications of 15 or 20 new posts every morning! Whilst I have been greatly encouraged by the warm reception my blog has received since I began 6 months ago, I have nonetheless shortened my posts to around 750 words now. I feel that whilst I necessarily say less, I at least am a little more assured that whatever ‘likes’ I receive are quite possibly genuine. I seem to have amassed around 250 ‘followers’ in the 6 months since I began, though have a core readership of far less I am sure. This suits me well, as I would rather have a sincere engagement with a few dozen readers than play the Facebook/Twitter game of amassing views/friends which in truth mean nothing and serve no purpose. In shortening the posts, I am also being a little bit more anecdotal than I previously was, which I think lightens the tone a little. For myself, the whole blogging thing is very much a learning process, and so doubtless there will be further changes in style as I progress.

        My best regards to you and your wife John.

        Hariod.

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  4. jhanagan2014 Post author

    Dear Hariod, Carolyn and I have just finished watching Doing Time Doing Vipassana. As the film ended, we both had tears streaming down our faces. It was a magnificent testimony to the power of Vipassana, and even more to the relisient beauty of the human spirit. We bow in gassho.

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