Once upon a time in Paragraph City the jails became crowded and the courts sought a way to release the mostly nonviolent prisoners.

Shortly thereafter I was beginning another semester in a basic writing class. At the time I was trying an icebreaker that I found floating at a conference: let’s go around the room and give us your name and one thing you would like to get out of this course. I realized I would get a crowd of “I did bad on the placement test and they told me I had to take this class so I just want to get out” and that was one of the things I wanted the class to talk about. I didn’t expect that after a few of these I would get,

“The judge told me I had to be here.”

“The judge?” For the briefest moment I was peeved that the Counseling Center should adopt a new name without telling anyone.

“Yeah. He said I could do six months in the jail or do a semester at JCC.” He was 19 or 20, jeans, tall, baseball cap, and a look on his face that suggested he wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision.  So I welcomed him to his incarceration and moved on to the next student, who said,

“Same judge.”

Do I need to say we were talking to the back row at this point? After the next guy said, “Me too” and the rest of the class was giving them curious looks, I asked for a show of hands — something I would never have done if I’d thought for two seconds about their privacy — and found six gentlemen in our county jail outreach program. I later found out they were all up for three to six month sentences for drunk driving or disorderly conduct.

It was a strange dynamic, at least in my head, for a while, but the rest of the class took it all as if this was part of college and the young gentlemen actually blended in pretty well. And that’s my point here.

They didn’t do much of the reading, they always showed up on Fridays, which was when I had to sign their attendance slips, and they wrote only the in-class papers. One or two got into a couple of the class discussions; once or twice one of them slept through a class. They each were perfectly capable of passing the class with some work, but their heads and their lives weren’t in the game. School arrived several notches behind working on a car, or drinking hard and driving fast, or fighting with a girlfriend, or getting high, or patching up a brother’s house. That judge could mandate a physical presence in my class, but couldn’t knock one brick out of the walls of attitude and destiny the young gentlemen had carefully constructed around their minds.

All this is to say, my paroled students were right on the mark for a good portion of my basic writing class, because most of them saw themselves as prisoners, putting in time until the point when the semester would end and they would be released. College, like high school, like all school, was a place you survived, a place where you endured, a place where success was simply being still standing when the end came, like some academic demolition derby. It was not a place where you changed.

This way of not-seeing, these blinders, ensure failure, and I wonder how much of the failure of anyone’s life must be the result of simply not seeing things for what they could be. Like most of the other prisoners in the class, they drifted off and by the last month of the semester were gone. Ironic how the ones who are sure that success is simply enduring to the end disappear before we ever near the end.

And I wonder about one other thing: how many who faced that judge in Paragraph City’s county courthouse and were offered six months in jail or a semester in my classroom, chose jail, happily.


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