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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

Teaching on the Inside…

by Dominique T. Chlup
I ran my hand across the pile of clothes laid out on the bed. This was not the ordinary search for the perfect outfit. I needed a pair of pants that did not require a belt, had pockets that could be turned inside out for inspection, and had no elastic in the waistband. The shirt needed to be tucked in, have sleeves, and preferably not have buttons. Denim material of any kind was forbidden. Socks had to be worn with shoes that contained no metal, so sneakers were out of the question as the eyelets were metal, and the shoes needed to be able to slip off and on easily. The bra was the biggest obstacle. I could not wear an underwire bra, but it was absolutely mandated that I wear a bra. At first I had thought my only option would be to wear a sports bra, but when I asked the Educational Director about that as a possibility I was told that that would count as a second shirt — and that was strictly forbidden.

My question to her, “Do they even make non-underwire bras?” was met with a shrug and a quick response, “You’ll just set off the metal detector and that’s a guaranteed search with the handheld wand. Anything metal will set those things off including a gum wrapper. Hey, but you know you can’t have anything in your pockets, not even tissues? You know that, right?”

Luckily, I did and luckier still I was able to find a bra without underwire in the juniors section of my local department store. Unlike other important first days in my life, I would not bother to find the perfect jewelry or accessories to go with this outfit. No watches, no scarves, bobby pins, or pony tail holders could be worn. A traditional wedding band and medical alert bracelet were the only types of accessories allowed. This posed a problem: my grandmother’s ring had adorned my right hand for years. She had worn it in lieu of a wedding band after her divorce nearly 50 years earlier. As a sign of affection I’d worn it every day since it had been passed on to me. I slipped it from my right hand over to my left and figured no one would even notice the little white lie.

Unlike other classrooms I had taught in, to this one I was not taking a briefcase stuffed with paper, books, and pens. Instead, I was only taking what I could carry in my hands and exactly what I had already told my employers I would have: 12 copies of Jamaica Kincaid’s poem “Girl,” (unstapled and not paper-clipped), 12 pens that met all of the safety regulations (they could not be taken apart, have springs or clear plastic barrels showing the ink, and all had to be ball points), and one pad of paper from which I was to distribute individual sheets of paper to my 12 women learners as needed.

I reviewed the Visitor’s Guidelines one last time, placed my driver’s license in my pocket, and prepared myself for the possibility that by the end of the night I might have the inside of my mouth swabbed and a stranger’s hands padding down the length of my inseam. Or worse yet, some tiny glitch or infraction could deny me admittance. I was trying desperately to get inside a place that most of us strive to stay out of. But I had a job to do. I had my very first teaching job.

My first job in adult education was at Valhalla’s Women’s Jail in New York state. I did not have experience as an adult educator on the outside to compare this against until I later taught courses in more “traditional” adult education settings. And while the similarities are great, the differences are indeed striking. My inmate learners were not allowed to know my last name or any other personal information about me. I had to monitor the amount of paper that I distributed. (Students are permitted only a certain area of square footage in their cells to be occupied by paper. When they exceed this amount, they must either mail the excess to an individual on the outside for safekeeping or risk having it destroyed should it be found during an unannounced inspection.) I was never allowed to leave pens with my students, making it nearly impossible to assign written homework. All of the supplies I brought into the jail had to be accounted for before I left. The corrections officers once kept my students an extra 20 minutes as the class searched for a missing pen. It had simply rolled away from the table at which we had been working and another student inmate had picked it up, thinking it belonged to her group.

I held class alongside five other teachers in the jail’s gymnasium.

A less than ideal working space: a chair was always being scraped across the floor, and when one group was writing it seemed as if another was always reading aloud. It was never quiet, but it was also never dull. Spanish and English flew through the air from woman to woman and the energy was something palpable. That first job was the one that called me into teaching. It is the continual thrill, joy, and reward of working with inmates that helps keep me there.

About the Author
Dominique T. Chlup is an Assistant Professor of Adult Education at Texas A&M University with a dual appointment as Center Director of the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning (TCALL). She taught in New York and Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, where her dissertation work focused on the history of women’s and girls’ corrections education at the Framingham Reformatory.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL