Stories from a Prison Classroom

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11:30 am in Sanctuary

Judy Wenzel grew up and raised a family in northern Michigan. She did not expect to spend 25 years in a prison – as a high school teacher. Over those years, the prison population grew to 2.4 million people, many of them were impoverished, people of color and convicted for non-violent drug offenses and given very long sentences. Judy is in the process of finishing a book entitled “Light From The Cage: 25 years In A Prison Classroom”, and she is eager to dispel some of the prejudice that prisons create. Her students’ backgrounds and gratitude for being able to finish high school create stories that are compelling, often funny and poignant.

Judy’s website:

Excerpt from “Stories from a Prison Classroom”

Unlearning Long Divisions

Though our American diversity and its attendant challenges have always created conflicts and divisions since the days when we first became a country, the current chasms between us seem to be growing wider and deeper. We focus on the dysfunction of Congress, but the people we elect to represent us also reflect who we are, and we have as much responsibility in solving the problems as they do. I think about how we can build bridges between us—right in our own back yards, within our families, in our neighborhoods and in our communities. Every act of courage, of kindness and of friendliness is not small, but adds to the larger picture of creating a more cooperative and compassionate world. The following thoughts are my attempts at figuring out we might be able to understand and repair some of these divisions. Much of this was informed by my inmate students.

Shipping Crates

I can sure take in and believe the narratives about painful current events, especially when they line up with my politics and what I care most about. It seems like a common human tendency to form opinions without very much information when we’re bombarded with media images, squeezed by time and churned up with anger over things that hurt our hearts. Some people and groups end up in my head like they’re in shipping crates, nailed shut so that no light can get in and with labels stamped firmly on the outside.

The students in my prison classroom constantly upended my crates, pried them open and erased the labels. Sometimes they dazzled me with the light in their boxes that forced me to see people and difficult situations in a whole new way.

Mr. Dunn was my student in several classes, and I rarely saw even a hint of a smile on his middle-aged, frowning face. He wasn’t a very confident student, but he did do all of his work. What really bothered me was that I had no relationship with him, no eye contact and no conversations about anything. I had him in a box with labels that said grumpy, unfriendly and most important doesn’t like me. I kept trying to talk to him, but got no further than a few humphs. He didn’t seem to brighten up anything or anybody, and I didn’t think he was adding a darn thing to the group.

One day gay issues came up and an argument followed, heating up as it went along. I tried to stay out of such conflicts, wanting them to learn to solve them by themselves. All of a sudden, Mr. Dunn’s deep voice rang out as he looked around from his customary seat in the middle of the room, “I can’t believe my ears! What in the world is the difference between how you’re talking and the prejudice we feel as black people? Gay people are no different than any of us, and I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” You could have heard a pin drop—and the subject was dropped too. I was as surprised as everyone else, and told him as he was leaving that I was grateful he had spoken up. I got a usual monosyllabic humph. Several months later, he was getting ready to go home and appeared at my classroom door. Many of them came to say good-bye, but I was very surprised to see this student standing there.

“Come out here Mrs. Wenzel,” he said, gesturing with his hand and moving me into a corner in the hall. “I have something to give you. I know I can’t give you a present, so this can be part of the program. I know how much you love poetry and I know you don’t have it, because I’ve been looking through all the poetry books in the room for a while now. I just know you’ll like it.” He pulled Nikki Giovanni’s Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea out of his blue net bag and put it in my hands. A huge smile spread across his face.

I wonder, do we ever get anyone’s whole story, really know who other people are? It’s so much easier to stay on the surface of things, keep our first impressions and maintain a distance. The prison fence keeps us on the surface–and at a distance. It is a powerful label on the shipping crate of the prison itself. The fence tells us that the people inside are so dangerous that we can’t see them or get to know them. Distance creates stereotypes of people all the time.

It’s easier for me to stay at a safe distance from people who struggle so much more than I do than it is to get closer to them and try to understand the box they are in. The men I met in prison over 25 years gave me a “privilege of proximity” and allowed me to get closer and hear their stories, so unlike my own, often making me uncomfortable as I began to understand the opportunity gap that existed between us. They taught me to investigate my notions about people and situations I know nothing about. I need to do that more often. I need to at least admit I don’t have all the information, that it’s nailed into the crate, and I don’t see any light—about human beings who might be as scared and uninformed as I am. I need to recognize the danger of distance and that I rarely experience things first hand. I need to remember what it feels like to have a black-eyed pea in my hand.