I taught a class this Spring focused on the art of the personal essay called “Writing Our Lives.” All the self-evident challenges and obstacles to teaching and learning in prison—the difficulty of negotiating the clotted bureaucracy with balance and humor, the struggle to overcome institutional norms that value passivity and obedience, the strain of working under the harsh light of pervasive surveillance—were intensified during this pandemic term. The students and I agreed early on to call on the better angels of ourselves, to summon the humane values of generosity and  forgiveness, and to work on our own agendas toward our own goals as best we could within whatever barriers were put in our way—and the barriers could never be adequately anticipated or accounted for; they simply floated along on a culture that was one part mindless authority and one part arbitrary rules. That we succeeded and prevailed in large and small ways is a testament to the determination and courage of these students.

Authentic learning, of course, requires free thought—curiosity, inquiry, problem-posing, question-asking—and assumes that students need no one’s permission to interrogate the world. Learning is undermined when students are inspected, spied upon, regulated, appraised, censured, measured, registered, counted, admonished, checked off, prevented, and sermonized—or, again, when they are read-off by their statistical profiles. These are the normal conventions behind bars, and so we had to work hard to create our own norms, and our own small spaces where we could exercise our natural agency and acknowledge our true histories and our deepest values—and where we could catch a glimpse of freedom.

A substantive goal for seminar had been that each student would produce two pieces of original writing, a Statement on Prior Learning and a Statement on Education for a Public Audience. Those assignments provided the back-beat that carried forward week by week, and the steady work resulted in some fine final products for some—and for others improving works-in-progress. Every packet exchange included a low-stakes writing exercise—a writing prompt from me, and a writing response from students. I called these exercises our writing calisthenics, and I argued that like any other exercise or calisthenics routine someone might engage—running, push-ups, or weight lifting—these were for the sole purpose of building up and toning our writerly muscles. The exercises were modest and simple, meant to be done quickly and spontaneously, and therefore, expected to be unfinished and fragmentary, but, simultaneously, stimulating latent memories, jogging consciousness, or inspiring new awarenesses.

Here are a few of the prompts:

~~What is your mother’s mother’s name, and where is she from? What is your mother’s name, and where is she from? What’s your name, and how did you get here?

~~How is the world treating you? How are you treating the world?

~~What are you known for? And what do you want to be known for?

~~Who are your people? Who do you claim as your own, and who claims you?

~~What is the history you stand on? What is the future you stand for?

~~Make a list of the 5 most important people in your life, and note why they are important to you; then make a list of 5 most important things you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years, and explain why.

~~If you suddenly found that you had the magic power to bestow three qualities (not physical attributes, and not religious affiliations) on every human being on earth, what 3 qualities would you grant? Why those particular qualities? Do you embody those qualities in your own life? How?

~~Are you a good person? What’s the evidence?

~~In your moral universe—that is, the basic sense of moral order or ethical behavior you were raised in (or have been constructing for yourself)—what responsibility do you have for a proximate stranger in distress?

~~Agree or disagree: Everyone deserves everything they need to live a healthy and dignified life. Explain.

~~Who saved you? Who saved the one who saved you?

~~ Make a list of 5 things you could do this week—arm-in-arm with a few others—to make this place just a bit more beautiful.

And here’s a tiny sampling of student responses:

“I stand on the history of every battle, every struggle and every suffering experienced by every black soul that existed before me. I stand on the history of those who fought and died for a better future for generations of my people that they would never live to meet.”

“My mother, my grandmother, my brother, my niece, and my partner and right arm, AD, are without a doubt my support system. They are my collective. They are the sentries who form the protective, encouraging, accountable fortress around me. They have my back as I move forward, and they remind me that regression is a dereliction of my duties.”

“Depending on who you ask I am known for my intelligence, my love of ‘Howze Muzak’ and my integrity.”

“I am never bored whether I’m doing something or not. My mind is always at work and that brings me joy and happiness.”

Our writing calisthenics got better and better, provoking a flood of dazzling responses, some of which worked their twisty ways into the required Statements. The packet exchanges also included encouragement to read widely, and to read with a defined purpose—for us, working to improve our writing in order to “write our lives,” the explicit intention was to “read like a writer.” As we explored and critiqued a range of personal essays and memoirs—Jesmyn Ward, Elizabeth Alexander, Claudia Rankine, and more—we reflected on and worked toward reading, not as consumers, but as peers and associates, fellow writers and colleagues. We nourished an eye toward asking writerly questions of our comrade-authors: How did she create a credible character? How did he deploy dialogue to illuminate a scene? What technique did they use to speed up the action? How can I do that? What parts of the text were vivid and luminous, and how did the writer achieve that? 

In response to Alexander’s The Light of the World, for example, one student found the descriptions of her husband completely believable, and felt that he’d gotten to know him personally, gaining significant insights into their love for one another. How did she achieve that believability? By piling up the small particulars, one after another after another until he became a three-dimensional creature, much like ourselves. Details can create intimacy: that was reading like a writer. 

Another noted that her husband’s African cooking and even his recipes made this student’s mouth water, and that brought the husband’s spirit to life. Using all five senses—touch, sight, sound, smell, taste—as you paint a scene can bring the reader closer to the living action: that was also reading like a writer. 

And one student initially found the text alienating: “What’s your point? He died, he’s gone. Move on.” He revisited the text at the urging of a family member, and with a fresh perspective and a second look connected her work with losses of his own loved ones, some of whom he wanted to write about. “You should understand,” he wrote to me. “I’ve been in here close to thirty years, and we don’t allow the highs to get too high, or the lows to dominate us.” He was reconsidering his own memoir in this light: that too was reading like a writer.

My students at Stateville Prison inspired me every day: their commitment to education as a pathway to changing one’s life awed me; their insights and interventions reminded me to accept as valid the lived experiences of others; and their struggles to remain all the way human inside a system built on dehumanization excited me and motivated me to try to be a smarter and more engaged teacher. One student said: “I’m not just learning in order to hang a degree on the wall or stuff it in the box. I’m learning to be able to march back into my community and change lives: to make changes from the bottom up.” No one was going through the motions. Another student wrote, “I want to use my life and experiences to support, develop, and educate young people. I want to be a living example of what love, support, perseverance, resiliency, education and opportunity can do for a kid society deemed  worthless. Why? This is part of the debt I owe to the family I disgraced, the community I terrorized, and those I victimized. I fully understand repayment is impossible because I cannot reform what lives are taken, but I can at least try to pay it down.”

That speaks for the class: dynamic, alive, trembling, and real.

Bill Ayers is an activist and educator. In 1969 he cofounded the Weather Underground and taught for many years in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Chicago. He has authored numerous books, including To Teach: The Journey of Teacher (Teachers College Press, 1993), Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2001), and Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto (Haymarket, 2016).