Teach Like a Snake . . . and a Dove

I hadn’t planned to teach at a prison, but I’m glad I did—and early in my career. At the prison I learned to teach by paradox—to mingle the shrewdness of a snake with the gentleness of a dove. At the start, orientation scared me into shrewdness. Story after story showed me what could happen if I couldn’t detect and avoid danger.

“Let me tell you about an officer who took the job to help inmates,” the instructor said.

And he looked my way.

Then he told about how an inmate came to this officer and begged food for his family.

“Just one time,” the inmate said. “Drop some food on the porch so my kids can eat—tide them over ‘til food stamps come.”

So the officer did, twice, because the first time he saw the kids through the window, kids like his own.

The inmate was grateful, and nothing bad happened. Then a few days before Christmas, the inmate asked another favor.

“Just something special for Christmas, maybe a ham,” he said.

When the officer stepped onto the porch with a ham for the kids, the inmate’s wife opened the door and fainted into the officer’s arms. The officer carried her to a sofa and called a neighbor to help.

Five days later, the inmate asked the officer to bring drugs to the prison. The officer refused, and the inmate pulled a photo from his pocket—the officer holding the inmate’s wife.

“Bring the drugs, and I won’t report you,” said the inmate.

And so, to keep his own kids in food, the officer smuggled drugs. He ended up as an inmate, himself.

“That’s what happens,” said the instructor, looking my way again, “when you’re too nice.”

So I followed prison protocol. I concealed personal information, kept to the middle of hallways and away from overhangs, reported suspicious behavior, and checked my pocket for keys a thousand times a day.

But my heart also broke, especially when I taught human development. In one class we talked about Erickson’s stages of development, how babies need to learn to trust instead of fear and how the task of toddlers is to learn to be independent, not to feel shame.

Inmate Clark sat in the front row, not seeming to care about his tears. He clenched his fists.

“Why didn’t nobody tell me this stuff?” he asked. “I messed up my kids. I’ve got to get out of here and do them right. What do they need when they’re ten and twelve?”

With a soul like this in my class, I couldn’t let shrewdness turn hard. I had to keep in mind that my students had raped and murdered and thieved and beat their wives. But, though I was shrewd as a snake, I also tried to be gentle as a dove, to refuse to injure my students with cynicism, to offer hope instead of harm, to remember that some of my students were probably innocent, and to treat all of them, guilty and innocent, with dignity.

This “shrewd as a snake, gentle as a dove” technique I learned in prison set in me a pattern I tried to follow during my decades of teaching—to watch for bad and to give good—both of these at the same time, to all students, all the time.

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