Allow to me to apologize in advance for any offense taken by the following essay. My intent is not to insult or mock but to elucidate an ongoing problem we have the power to change. It is my hope that upon hearing what I have to say you will spread the word to those whom it applies and together we can make some productive changes.
Tomorrow is here but we are missing progress in the most basic of areas: social etiquette. We’ve been afforded an opportunity unlike any other death row in America – the ability to congregate in the Multi-purpose room to learn. There is only one reason to be in this room and that is to learn. Whether it’s about religion, writing, yoga, debate or drama our continued education as a group is essential to mentally thriving on death row. If we do not seize this final opportunity and utilize what can be gleaned from these classes we all suffer, and will die as individuals who could have done better but chose not to.
I was recently asked why more people don’t sign up for the mental health classes offered by Dr. Kuhns and why attendance is down. There are roughly 150 people in Unit III but only 60 or so sign up. Of that number there is an average of ten absences every week, though it should be pointed out there are never absences when pizza is given away at the end of a six month semester.
My response was that while some people aren’t interested in the topics, group activities or the idea of a classroom, there are other who would like to sign up but are dissuaded by an environment where just about anything goes. If they wanted to hear the same tired attitudes and comments from the same tired people, I was told, they could remain on the block to achieve that effect.
I don’t disagree with the sentiment. As someone who has pursued an education beyond the classroom I can recognize the value and necessity of quiet order. It’s not enough to have a schedule and desire to learn – there must be an environment conducive to productivity. While it’s understood this is prison, our classroom should be able to transcend that stereotypical excuse. My only refuge to learn should not be locked in a cell with music blaring to drown out the bullshit in the dayroom.
In a relatively unstructured setting where basic social etiquette is ignored and communication limited, it’s difficult to retain information accurately or effectively. A recent example is the confusion that arose in the speech and debate class because nobody really knew which position we were to argue. This was caused by a lack of attention, simultaneous conversations, and no real agreement on the topic. Similar problems have occurred in every class over the last six months.
Freedom requires responsibility and discipline. Dr. Kuhns and the volunteer instructors are not here to enforce rules, they’re trying to help us learn. It’s our duty as adults to take the flexibility we’ve been granted and respond with maturity and intelligence.
There are some simple rules that govern most classroom situations and should be easy to follow, but over time they’ve been replaced with complacency, disorder and disrespect. Some common attitudes are:
- Why should I bother to complete an assignment when there are no grades, tests or consequences for failure? It’s not like we get credit for this stuff.
- We are in prison – who cares what you say or think?
- My opinion is the greatest and damn what anyone else believes!
As we all know by this time everyone in the room has stopped listening because it’s hard to respect a person who only hers what’s coming out of his own mouth.
At the start of the Writing from Captivity class we came up with a list of simple guidelines to follow while in the classroom:
- Be respectful and silent while someone else is talking. Refrain from private conversations with your buddy or horseplay when you’re bored.
- Raise your hand to speak. If you’re passed over more than once it probably means no more feedback is needed or you’ve already said enough.
- Pass the mic after you’ve made a brief point or asked a question. You are not there for story time, diatribes or dissertations. Everybody has an opinion, but not every opinion needs to be shared. Also, avoid commenting on every subject – you’re not slick – pass the mic.
- Fulfill your obligations as a student by trying hard to complete every assignment and show up at class.
- Be aware your behavior is yours to control and not the fault of any other person in the room. Be conscious your actions have an impact on the group and make positive, progressive contributions rather than oppressive ones.
Our purpose in this room is to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to evolve as individuals. How can we achieve that goal if our time together is squandered on irrelevant arguments? What good is an opinion if it runs roughshod over others or is whispered where none can hear it? The revolution must begin somewhere and what better place to move forward than with our own thinking.
Viva la revolution!
The above essay was an assignment in our writing class: write about a revolution. In an attempt to keep things fresh and address a recurring problem in one fell swoop, I felt the need to address our class directly. Dr. Kuhns and the volunteers and those prisoners who try hard every time they attend class loved this reiteration of social etiquette. It is something we all need to be reminded of now and then, myself included. So as long as we remain conscious that in a room full of people there are conversational “rules of the road”, it should be easy enough to avoid stagnant traffic jams and fender benders.