Hard Lessons: Teaching in San Quentin
My first encounter with a room full of rapists and sociopaths was underwhelming. I expected chaos. As a math professor teaching inmates at San Quentin State Prison, I was hoping to see my high school misbehavior vindicated in a single night. I was a punk in high school- disrespectful, cocky, and boisterous- but I expected the students I was working with that night to make my adolescent rebellion look truly angelic.
For my first night as a teacher in prison, I spent most of my time in the study hall out of the thick yellow glow of the droning sodium lights. I sat in a corner avoiding all interaction with the prison populace. I graded homework and quizzes, allowing the more experienced teachers to establish decorum while I watched and learned. I graded the inmates on addition, subtraction and multiplication. I would have graded them on long division as well except I suddenly realized that I had no recollection of how to do it.
“Engineer - Fail!” I thought to myself, until I lifted my head, looked around, and quickly reassessed my definition of failure.
Glancing around, I examined my class. It was an eclectic group of students, egalitarian almost, like everyone was equally likely to be admitted to prison. There were mean six foot five 300 pound quarterbacks and short paunchy old immigrants. There was the gender questionable and the alpha male, old war vets with battle scars, and young gang members also with battle scars. Though the age, stature and ethnicity of the populace varied wildly, there was one thing that didn’t – the ink. Almost everyone had tattoos; many inmates had little room left for any more body art.
Some of the students sat reading, most were working on their problem sets but a few of them stared blissfully into the darkness. They were just happy to be out of the confines of their immutable surroundings.
“Why ain’t you graded my paper yet?” a young man asked abruptly.
“Because I'm grading this gentleman's,” I said, pointing to the sheet in front of me.
“But he turned it in after me!”
“It was on top of the pile,” I explained.
“That's cuz he turned it in after me!” the man repeated matter of factly.
I stared at him dumbstruck. His logic was flawless. I never imagined the logistics of picking up papers could be so challenging. I apologized, promising to grade his paper immediately. He frowned and walked away.
The night ended soon, free of any acts of egregious misconduct. No one was assaulted and I managed to leave with my dignity mostly still intact. The students were surprisingly diligent and well behaved –not quite what I had expected.
As a young Indian immigrant who had recently graduated from Berkeley Engineering, what was I doing working at one of the most infamous prisons in California? How did I ever get here?
The answer to that question is easy. San Quentin was a means to an end, just another stop on my socio-professional road map.
When I transferred to Cal, I thought my life was made. With a couple of internships and a number of part time jobs, I was graduating with hella work experience and a very prestigious degree. I took it for granted that the job offers would come pouring in. Ah the naïveté! Having graduated right in the thick of the deepest recession since the 1930s, promising job opportunities in the land of the free were few and far between.
Job hunting in 2008 was the most demeaning experience of my life. All preconceived notions that I held of my abilities and achievements evaporated into delusions of grandeur. I begged for jobs and follow up interviews at career fairs like Oliver Twist pleading for another bowl of soup. As an international student my immigration status was entirely contingent on my ability to find a job and hence the urgency of employment bore heavier on me than it did on the average graduate.
Unfortunately, that made me precisely the type of loser that most corporations did not want to hire. I would walk into interviews at Chevron, Siemens, and Seagate, and to my chagrin, I would be asked to leave before I was even allowed to sit down. No visa, no job. No soup for you!
Happy to secure a single job offer after graduation, my immigration status was under control and I was relieved, but it didn’t take long before the ennui of the grind began to set in. Working in engineering product development, as I am, has the potential to be fulfilling. I get to create, to manifest ideas and a vision into a tangible reality, but the process takes years. And in between, it’s slow and dreary – no deadlines, no deliverables, no direction. In college, life had an outline; the required progression is universally known and accepted. You take the required classes while doing your best to excel at papers and exams to ensure you inch, year by year, closer to graduation. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t hand you a life outline. This lack of progression and the monotony of a listless toil began to gnaw on my insides. Life began to feel vapid and meaningless.
Although my professional days couldn’t be like college days, I saw no reason my nights needed to conform to the same norm. At Cal, meeting people was a breeze – parties, tailgates, BBQs and coitus were copious. As a corporate slave at a tiny engineering firm, life wasn't quite as easy. So I assumed perpetually extending my degenerate college lifestyle would provide the comfort I needed from an empty career. Thursday nights to Sunday evenings I must have had bipolar disorder. I transformed from a meticulous, disciplined soft-spoken engineer into a hedonistic monster. Dive bars and breakfast mimosas were baked into my weekend schedule. Bartenders knew my name and I never had to show I.D. Isn't this what we live for? Wasn't this the good life Yezzy told me about?
Alright, so now I was morally bankrupt, as well. I was droning away my days and drinking away my nights. Frustrated and forsaken, one evening I sat down with myself and decided to find some meaning in my life. I decided to join a volunteer organization. Perusing through the list of volunteer programs at Berkeley, I chanced upon the program at San Quentin. “Volunteers & instructors wanted,” it read.
With absolutely no teaching experience, I wasn’t quite sure I could pull off a ‘Professor Mo.’ Then again I figured I graduated from Berkeley Engineering with nothing but straight As in math; I’m sure I knew a thing or two about algebra. Plus I was Indian, that had to count for something right? Math is in our blood. So I figured ‘why not?’ and went ahead and applied.
Besides looking for meaning, I was secretly hoping I would find something else as well – a girl. Two years from college and far from my last girlfriend, I was hoping the organization would be my gateway to a meaningful relationship. I imagined that meeting other volunteers- girls who were genuine and cared about things other than jello shots -could lead to something healthy.
Volunteering at prison was thus a way of expanding my circle, an opportunity to meet volunteers with a passion for a cause, individuals out of the purview of my own civil and professional activities. The decision to get involved was my attempt to make the most of the adversity that accompanied underemployment, to find a soul, as well as a soul mate.
From this vantage point, if the endeavor to help others looks opportunistic and borderline selfish, well, it was. The decision was functional and pragmatic and only remotely altruistic. But this is how all happy endings begin, with dysfunctional misaligned incentives.
Fourteen months into volunteering and my cold, distant, and aloof approach to dealing with my students… remains cold, distant, and aloof- mostly for good reason, though. Boundaries in prison need to be well-defined and, unfortunately, the ephemeral line between familiarity and over familiarity is easy to miss.
Trust me, I would know. I spent 6 years in prison.
Alright fine, it wasn’t a prison, it was a boarding school in south India but the parallels with prison are stark and unmistakable.
For starters, we all had roll numbers, unique identification numbers that were stitched onto all our belongings, from socks to toothpaste (I’m not sure how that second feat was managed.)
“2069!” my dorm warden would yell at 6am.
“Yes, sir!” I would cry, stepping out of the student body, proffering my undivided loathing.
“Mo, why is your sweater on your bed?”
“Uhh… Oops?” I would reason.
“Kneel down and stick out your hand.”
“But sir, I’ll put it away!”
“Not this time, you rascal,” he would exclaim while pulling out a thin bamboo cane from his sleeve.
Seeing this as a befitting opportunity as any, my loving warden would then proceed to whip the living daylights out of my palms, freshening me up for a new day at school.
Though I doubt that corporal punishment for breakfast is common in the California penal system, I believe the loathing towards authority (official or otherwise) and towards the institutionalized ability of certain individuals to exercise random acts of power/vengeance still holds. The culture that consequently develops inside such establishments relies heavily on carrots and sticks and delicate power balances.
Carrots, in economic parlance, are commodities that are rare and valuable, items that become currency for trade or barter which can be used to leverage or incentivize behavior. For instance, in boarding school I hated vegetables (I still do) but come meal time, I was forced to eat whatever godforsaken mutant legume they chose to choke me with. To live to see another day, I had to put my precocious risk analysis hustling skills to work.
Twice a week we would get a chocolate at tea time, a Cadbury godsend that would put a smile on the soulless countenance of children forced to read hours of “Wuthering Heights.” Those chocolate bars were my carrots, my currency. Instead of eating my vegetables every day, I would pay an accomplice in candy to eat my vegetables for me. So when one day an inmate was caught smuggling a notebook down his pants and the other teachers were bewildered by his behavior, I could empathize. If commodities like notebooks are sufficiently rare and can be used as carrots, I could see why a young Asian kid would want to stuff something as innocuous as a blank notebook down his baggy blue denims.
The perspective added by my adolescent experiences helps me empathize with my students but at the same time it helps me sharpen that hazy familiarity/over familiarity line. While I understand the plight of the students, I’m now the dorm warden and my prior experiences in the others’ camp give me valuable insight into their methods.
One of the first things we are taught at prison training was that instructors need to be cautious and vigilant of inmates testing our boundaries. Once again I have an intimate association with the modus operandi being referred to – in this case, smuggling contraband in and out of an institution. Given how strict my high school was, it should come as no surprise that our personal possessions were minimal. All the students’ belongings were frisked upon entry. Possession of drugs, cigarettes or alcohol was grounds for immediate expulsion.
Thus to obtain contraband one needed to establish a contact. For me, this was my basketball coach. I was good at ball and easily got on the drunken bastard’s good side. I kissed ass a little bit, encouraging and instigating his rants against the establishment, agreeing frequently with his rabid bitching against the other teachers. Since he enjoyed the company of my obsequious disposition, he allowed me to stay late after class and shoot around after everyone else had left. Having tested his boundaries and established that the same rules didn’t apply to me, I was only a fake and a jump shot away from paying him to smuggle in bottles of cheap South Indian rum for me, a delectable southern honey moonshine.
None of the inmates have asked me to smuggle in or out anything for them yet but I believe that I have the perspicacity to be vigilant in the development of similar situations.
In high school, I may have mistreated and I may have been mistreated, but I also remember the times I was supported and encouraged. My loathing for the institution notwithstanding, my adolescence was the time when I learnt what sort of qualities, I, as a prisoner looked for and admired in a teacher.
Of course, despite the similarities between my boarding school and the prison system, the obvious fact remains: my students are serving time for past misdeeds while I was receiving an education and preparing for the future.
As the cocky, disruptive class clown that I was in high school, I never realized what my education meant to me. It might sound trite, but my prison teaching experience has taught me how invaluable a good education is and how much more I should have valued mine.
I work with murderers and rapists, well near what those without empathy consider the scum at the bottom of the social cesspool – people who deserve no love and no help. Many aren’t sociopaths. They are locked up because they didn’t have access to the resources that teach you to make the right choices - the timeless advice of supportive friends and family, a healthy environment to mature in, and, most importantly, any valuable form of education.
My students realize how much education matters to them. On the “ins,” it keeps them out of trouble by helping them focus on self improvement, instead of getting involved with gang violence and all the other opportunities for misconduct that arise in the penal system. On the “outs,” it gives them the basic skills needed to obtain gainful employment and avoid becoming just another recidivistic statistic.
Guys walk into class with cold hard stares, glares of anger and mistrust glued to their faces, but when I put my hand on their shoulder and walk them through the quadratic equation, all they care about is making the most of this opportunity that very few prisons in America have. Their indomitable resolve is inspiring. After frequent and demeaning lockdowns, long work days, and random denials of the basic freedom to perform one’s daily ablutions, the students still find time to finish their extra credit, go to study hall, and do what they need to get one step closer towards securing a brighter future.
They value their classes deeply. One evening during my geometry lecture, when I was teaching the students a neat way to calculate Pythagorean triplets, a gentleman named Shakoor, about twice my age, interrupted class. He said, “Mo, I just wanted to let you know, on behalf of the class, we really appreciate what you are doing for us. We’re getting a college degree that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars, for free. None of the other prisons have this sort of us stuff. We know you work fulltime but you still come out to help us and for that we want to say thank you.”
I stood awestruck and humbled.
In that fleeting instant, Shakoor taught me more than I had taught him the entire semester. He helped me feel like I was making a difference and that my small contributions were making the world a better place.
Today, the program that I initially joined for completely selfish reasons has instilled in me new ideals and new mores that are now inextricably intertwined with my own identity. I know that no matter where my professional pursuits will take me, social service will remain an integral part of my life.
I also have a new found appreciation for education, including my own. By being in the shoes of a teacher, I realize now how big the cumulative return on a little emotional investment can be for impressionable students. My love for both science and language are the result of the timely attention from a few special people. So for all my teachers that had faith in me and put up with my bullshit, thank you.
Finding a soul? Check.
But what about my second motive, finding a soul mate?
Well, it sort of bore fruit. I found my fair maiden amongst the other volunteers at prison. She was the first person in my life I intimately cared for – so I took the engineer’s leap of faith and forayed into the unchartered territory of emotion, map-less and compass free. But unfortunately it didn’t end well and I got burned badly!
So it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, but by embracing the adventure in adversity at least I’ve found some direction and now, with this piece, perhaps a voice.