The Most Important Teacher In My Life

I remember not starting to read The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home until the night before the day it was due. Around nine p.m. I made a pot of coffee and sat down with my coursepack-printed version of this out-of-print book. Staying up until three in the morning was standard for me, and I looked forward to the quiet of our living room on Lawrence Street. As I read, I became more and more agitated and more and more awake. The coffee was nice but not necessary. I devoured the book in one sitting, angry, excited, moved.

I remember the beautiful blonde wood and the echo-y, old feel of the Perry Building (I am almost certain that is what it was called) where English 319 met. I always loved having the chunk of time set aside at the beginning of class to discuss with a partner whatever we’d read, in part because I loved being able to go off exploring the building. LaShaun and I partnered up for that day’s discussion, and we sat on a sunny window ledge and talked. I remember the discussion was friendly, engaged, but I wasn’t yet starting to feel riled up.

It wasn’t until we all reconvened to discuss, that my hackles started to raise. I described the book in my journal as an “absolutely inspiring and totally frustrating” read. I wrote that it was “making me re-examine myself and my life” and “really shaking me up.” So then, here I was feeling so emotionally engaged with this book, especially because I had just decided to become a teacher, and I felt that we were “having this really…safe discussion of it. And I became so frustrated, and I raised my hand and voiced this in this totally inarticulate and frustrated and near-tears-voice-quavering way because it was this totally safe discussion about a book about revolution: we were sitting in our class in an expensive university, politely discussing revolution.” I wanted to “be all frustrated with everyone else, but I didn’t feel like I could. And I felt so safe, and talking about middle-class high school experiences—no matter how oppressive—was still really, really dancing around everything, and why weren’t we jumping into the the class issues and why weren’t we talking about being hypocrites sitting in a classroom politely discussing this book which, in not so few words, calls for revolution?”

Buzz’s response in my journal in part said, “Anywhere you are, there is work to be done, ways to deepen your commitments, connections to be made, anywhere…It’s important to be unsafe and to be secure in being unsafe…”

At the time, I felt grateful for these words, but I didn’t know how much they would continue to be relevant in my life and my work.

I became a teacher, and for years I struggled with not feeling very good at my work. I student taught in Detroit under a terribly racist master teacher, and I cried nearly every day because I knew that the little bit I was giving these poor Black kids wouldn’t ever be enough to undo years of miseducation and poverty. I taught in East Palo Alto, where I was fired at the end of my first year of teaching because I had given the kids too much freedom in publishing zines. I nearly gave up on education at that point, but so much of what I cared about felt connected to being in the classroom. So I found a good fit: a large, comprehensive high school in San Francisco where I am supported by my administration and inspired by my colleagues. It took me years to feel like I knew what I was doing, and even now I still feel like “there is work to be done.” I finally feel secure in all the ways I struggle as a teacher: I don’t feel like that struggle is indicative of failure but rather of engaging with all the big questions about what being an educator in this country truly means: How do I inspire true freedom in my students while holding them to authentically high expectations? How do I create a sense of righteousness within a discipline framework without becoming an authoritarian so that kids feel safe? And how do I help students feel secure in being unsafe in all the important ways?

I became a teacher very much because of Buzz, his courses, and Jonathan Kozol. Years later, I had a chance to meet Kozol at the Teachers For Social Justice conference that happens every year in San Francisco. I had him sign my book, my coursepack copy of The Night is Dark…, and when I told him it had been required reading for the most important teacher in my life, he knew right away who the teacher was who’d assigned it.


Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black came to my attention because of the Netflix show of the same name. I devoured the show’s first season and, anxious for more, decided to read Kerman’s memoir.

The show is not without its critics, which are justified in their complaints about the show: It can play into racist tropes; it puts at its heart and encourages us to root for a protagonist who is supremely privileged compared to her poorer, darker peers; it creates outrageous situations that seem implausible. All this is true, and yet, I love the show because of the ways it does humanize women in prison and sheds light on the bizarre, often immoral power dynamics between guards and inmates.

I spent years volunteering in prisons, co-facilitating theatre workshops and advocating formreform to the prison industrial complex that exists in America, so I’m drawn to prisoners’ stories, especially those that fall outside the standard Oz mentality of what prison is like.

And Orange is the New Black, the memoir, is highly fulfilling in this regard. Detractors of the show should read Kerman’s book: It is much more humanizing, big-hearted, and moving than the series, and it is a book that truly makes the readers stop and question what we as a nation are doing incarcerating so many Americans for non-violent, drug-related offenses, disproportionately parceled out to poor people of color.

Further, Piper Kerman is a far more interesting protagonist than Piper Kernan of the show. She is stoic, sharp, and compassionate, much more aware than the deer-in-headlights, privileged Kernan presented by Netflix.

The biggest difference between the show and the memoir is that the memoir presents the community of women at the federal institution at Danbury as much tighter-knit and much more important to Kerman’s sanity in getting through her sentence. (In the show, the relationships are often either hostile and violent or overtly sexual.) The descriptions of the relationships between the women, who range from young college-educated folks like Kerman to older women doing more serious time to women of all ages caught up in cycles of poverty and the drug trade, are quite moving. Kerman describes, for instance, the day her bunkie, Miss Natalie, a dignified older woman of Jamaican descent, finally gets her GED, and it brought me to tears. She also shares with us the celebrations for inmates’ birthdays, which include ingeniously crafted prison food and handmade gifts, or the celebrations around women getting out, and it’s clear that this community of women, many of whom society has deemed worthless, is a type of family that helps all the inmates get through their sentences.

These connections also help Kerman understand what she, as a drug mule, contributed to the suffering of others: addicts whose habits she indirectly helped sustain or the role that drug dealers play in further destroying communities that have been torn apart by drugs. She writes, “The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others…If there was one thing that I had learned in the Camp, it was that I was in fact good…I was more than capable of helping other people. I was eager to offer what I had, which was more than I had realized…Best of all, I had found other women here in prison who could teach me how to be better.”

Kerman also has support of her family and friends on the outside, something she is quick to point out is, sadly, not the case for many of the women doing time with her. Her outside community provides her unwavering support, providing her with books, magazine subscriptions, money, and more.

Ultimately, Orange is the New Black is intended as much as a call to action against such laws as mandatory minimums and the whole mentality of warehousing prisoners as it is a personal account of one woman’s time in prison. In the reader’s guide to the paperback edition, Kerman is blunt in saying, “The popular image of prison, Oz and Cops, is very narrow—and intended to justify the strengths of the prison system and its out-of-control growth. If everyone in prison is an uncontrollable and irredeemably violent person, then it’s totally justified to have a massive and massively expensive prison system because, you know, public safety at any cost. But if in fact everyone in prison is not irredeemably violent, if their lives have meaning and value, then suddenly you really call into question whether our government is doing the right thing.”

This memoir very much forces readers to ask this question. I appreciate this intention, and it makes for a powerful read: we get to, for a short while, share a life we would never hope to have, and we come away edified and better for it.