When I told my friends and family that I was teaching literature in a jail, their reactions were largely predictable. My mother was worried at first and posed a lot of questions about security because I was a 27-year-old woman teaching a class in a men’s max unit. My father was intrigued. As a literary geek and former teacher himself, he wanted to know what I’d be teaching. I had selected a difficult book by French author George Perec, titled W or the Memory of Childhood. I explained to him that it was an autobiography, but that it featured an allegorical narrative about the Holocaust. That led to a lot more questions. Why did I choose this text? What did I want students to take away from it? How would I handle its depiction of rape, racism, and genocide?
To be honest, I didn’t have many concrete answers for these questions before my class began. I chose W or the Memory of Childhood because it confronts the themes of identity, memory, and loss, all of which are fundamentally human experiences. Its unique narrative structure (half autobiography, half fictional story) raises important questions about our expectations of stories and their relationship to memory and identity, both individual and cultural. I was unsure what my students would take away from it, nor even if they would stick with it. To read Perec’s long reflections, complete with excruciating and seemingly superfluous details, is a test of both will and patience. Further, I didn’t know how I would discuss some of the book’s disturbing content, but I knew the discussion was important. Luckily, volunteers for the Inside Literature program helped me formulate an approach and the pedagogical model (co-teaching) meant I always had a peer instructor to step in and provide guidance if needed.
If my parents’ concerns were predictable however, my experience in the classroom was not. I rarely stuck to my meticulous lesson plans because my students raised insightful questions that led to unexpected and rich discussions. Our conversations addressed such topics as: the possibility of justice and redemption; the structure of the human mind and how we encode memory; how trauma affects our ability to recall and retell events; whether writing helps us communicate the unspeakable, as well as why we write and for whom. Given the nature of the book, reading forced us all to confront our identities, our memories, our losses. Everyone in the classroom came to the book with different life experiences, yet in this odd, exhausting, strange, compelling book (or as one student called it, “this trippy-ass book”), we found a place to connect. To my surprise, more than half of my class completed the course (an unusual statistic for pre-trial facilities). Many of them enjoyed the book enough to read ahead.
Working in literary studies in the university system, it’s easy to focus on the minutiae. Lesson plans are important. Students are expected to fulfill the homework. The classroom is above all a work space. Teaching literature in a jail is in many ways the opposite. There are no grades, the homework is optional, and some days you may only have a handful of students. Nevertheless the students are curious, dedicated, and gracious. Everyone practices awareness and respect. Most importantly, we take the time to explore our perception of the world by engaging literary works that offer different points of view. Through this practice, we grow.