Night school

By Ken Mitchell

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the Sun:

Seeking after that sweet golden clime

Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,

And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:

Arise from their graves and aspire,

Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

—William Blake, “Ah! Sun-flower”

I spent the fall semester as a writing tutor at a women’s correctional facility in Westchester County, working with students enrolled in college level courses. I expected I would be spending considerable time helping students with the mechanics of their writing. But instead of fundamentals, we often discussed concerns of a higher order: how to develop and clarify their ideas, and how to formulate and strengthen their arguments. I seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time with students taking a gender studies class who were struggling to write a feminist interpretation of a series of eighteenth-century engravings depicting human skeletons. That was fine with me. Such conversations were more interesting than discussions about subordinate clauses and noun strings.

Willie Sutton, the infamous American bank robber said, “There’s a saying in prison: ‘Don’t serve time, make time serve you.’ Everybody says it, and hardly anybody does it.” These words echoed in the classroom. Taking college courses is optional, and not everyone who applies to the program is accepted. The women came to class after a full day of programmed activities (regular jobs, counseling, substance abuse treatment, vocational training). They may have been tired, but they were attentive and motivated.

One evening I met with five women who had been assigned to write a comparative essay on William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower” and Allen Ginsburg’s “Sunflower Sutra.” We spent over an hour discussing the poems and the ideas and emotions expressed in each through imagery, symbols and tone. We talked about innocence and desire, purity and decay, weariness and death, paradise and wastelands, fulfillment and denial. And yearning. There’s just no getting around yearning, no matter which side of the razor wire you live on.

An inmate once gave me some idea of the toll of that yearning when she revealed to me a startling paradox of prison life: contrary to expectation, but not against reason, time passes quickly behind bars. When I heard this, I was struck with an acute sadness and I wondered: How to name the thirst of one who, in her prime years, is locked away while life and everyone in it whom she loves drift by with the ebb.

Taconic Correctional Facility first opened in 1901 as the New York Reformatory for Women. In a small graveyard near the entrance to the compound are buried the unclaimed remains of women who died while in custody, the infant children of prisoners, as well as some men who died at nearby prisons. I would drive past the headstones and think of a passage from another poem by Blake: “…Cast! Cast her into the Potter’s field. | Her little-ones, She must slay upon our Altars…”

When I reflect on my prison experiences, I sometimes find myself in a one-man tug-of-war, wondering if the effort was worth my time and gas money. I had to deal with frustrations – no-shows, disorganization, gate-clearance hassles, delayed escorts, and last-minute cancellations due to lockdown. Some evenings were a muddle, with both student and tutor struggling with the work and feeling uninspired. I have my doubts about the universal benefits of studying literature. But for someone getting ready to re-enter society, the ability to write is an indispensable skill.

Can I improve an isolated person’s life by spending an hour with her discussing verse and prose, quatrains and couplets, motifs and imagery, and the essential elements of a strong five-paragraph essay? Possibly—not probably.

Do citizens and taxpayers have a moral obligation to subsidize and support efforts to educate people who have committed grave offenses against persons and property? Should we expect a convicted felon – someone, perhaps, with weak skills and limited opportunities for learning – to spontaneously engage and thrive, to become law-abiding, productive and self-reliant when she returns to the community? You tell me.