What I Learned Teaching in Prison

BY Dorothy Kolomeisky
What I Learned Teaching in Prison
Sometimes, Our Students are Our Greatest Teachers...

You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level. — Eckhart Tolle

There’s a caged fan blowing hard behind me, tossing white homework papers around as the students turn them in across the table. Its wind pushes strands of hair into the corner of my mouth. The air conditioner broke and you can’t open up a window to let the breeze through because there aren’t any windows in prison.

It’s Thursday morning, we’re six-weeks into a twelve-week class.

The women have settled into their seats and the chatter tapers off when Kat clears her throat.

“Ms. K,” she says, running her tattooed fingers through her brown crew cut hair, “There’s something I need to read to our class today but I don’t think I can do it,” then she lets out a long exhale like she’s blowing out cigarette smoke.

Twelve of us sit around two long plastic rectangular tables pushed together. Daffodils and tulips I brought in wilt in the center from the Southern Virginia heat. The women don’t seem affected though. Everyone turns their eyes toward Kat, waiting.

She’s a big woman, muscular. She just turned thirty-three last week. Her orange short-sleeved jumpsuit squeezes her biceps as she heaves herself back into her chair.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous the first time she walked into the classroom. She has a booming presence even when silent. The staff warned me, pointed out the location of the panic button more than once, said she’d probably never make it to class as she wouldn’t be able to go that long on ‘Good Behavior.’ Which meant not fighting, and staying out of solitary confinement, amongst other things.

Kat later told me she sometimes likes solitary because she has time to write in her head without distractions, but not for more than three days because after that the walls tend to appear like they’re moving when you know logically they aren’t. And she hates the meds they make her take.

Word is she really wanted to be in my class—a class of spiritual discovery through writing, a discussion that could offer a whole new way of seeing life. Word got out that class was a good place to be and there was an official waitlist now, and an unofficial waitlist the inmates made.

JailKat sometimes liked solitary confinement.

Kat heaved forward, bracing her head in her hands and said it was really hard for her, but she had to try to read.

The other women sat patiently waiting for Kat to speak—not because she was a powerful presence in the larger quad, or had a reputation for violence, not because they were scared of her, but because, I sensed, they understood her.

Kat sucked in her breath and said something like, “Can we play that music-making game first?”

Latisha looked at me for the head nod then started drumming a beat out on the table, across from Kat. Jen joined in, humming a simple melodic loop with her honeysuckle sweet voice. Bridgette added more percussion using the back of her metal chair. We went around the room joining in until each one had woven themselves into the whole. Pretty soon the room had become a rocking sound machine with our spontaneous song.

The guards used to get upset when we got noisy but now they’re used to us, they don’t bother to look anymore.

Kat stands up, shakes her shoulders like a wet dog getting water off, tells us to keep beating, she’s going to read what she’s written. For a minute or two she just stands there, eyes shut, feeling into it, beginning to relax. The song quiets down to a near-whisper.

Kat begins reading.

It’s the first chapter of her memoir, something she’d been working on secretly since class started.

It’s raw. Honest. The words cut into us, and there’s that sensation of someone putting ice down the back of your shirt, the chills and the burning from the cold evaporating on your warm skin.

Her words feel almost unbelievable—you don’t want to accept one person could treat another living thing the way she was treated.

It’s also hopeful. Showing just how strong we humans are, how resilient we are, bobbing back up to the surface again and again and again. You can hear it in her voice, not that overpowering bully, but a deeper voice that says: I can’t be hurt on the deepest level by anything.

She finishes. It’s quiet, just the noise of the fan humming and blowing.

Then there’s a communal sigh, like no one wants to speak as it might reduce the enormity of what’s been shared.

After a minute or two we start shifting in our seats. One of the students says: That was the best thing I’ve ever heard, followed by a lot of, Um, hums.

Kat tells us she always loved to write. When she was a child she’d fill up pages with stories. When she ran out of paper she’d write on gas receipts, the back of old books her mom used to prop up a table, even the wall behind her bed.

But one of her mom’s boyfriends told her she wasn’t a writer. No matter how hard she tried no one with a brain would want to read her writing. He beat her for writing on the wall.

Kat stands still, smiling.

When she looks up there’s the out-breath, our collective heart starting to beat again.

Then they start clapping for her, then whooping, pounding on the tables, rattling pens on the metal chair frames, asking for more, more, more …

She sits down and reads one more chapter to us.

The Power of Our Thoughts

It looks to me like Kat read her writing to us because she stopped thinking she couldn’t. She read it because she suddenly knew that “you’ll never be a writer” was merely a thought. Not a fact and not even one of her own thoughts.

Jack Pransky in his book, Somebody Should Have Told Us, Simple Truths for Living Well puts it like this:

We are at the mercy of our thinking—until we see and realize how it works to create our experience of life … Thought is the greatest power we have. It is our creative power – the power to create anything with our own thinking … When we truly realize everything we experience, our perceptions, our feelings, our problems, whatever we call “reality”, is really only a product of our own thinking, everything then changes for us. Our experience of life changes. The outside world can never make us feel anything. Only our own thinking can make us feel things.

Kat experienced her true self beyond her thoughts, that she was not the thoughts but rather the timeless being behind the thoughts. That that cannot be hurt or influenced: Her irrepressible, intact spirit.

The fear and the idea that she couldn’t possibly be a good writer or have anything worth sharing, blew out the window of her mind. Just gone, in one micro-mini-second.

She was free in that moment when she clearly saw who she truly is.

LessonsThe women taught me not to be stopped by my own fear. Photo credit: Twitter

Expressing Who We Truly Are

On the last day of class, I always ask the students to write reflections, another student wrote:

I realized that I can be free wherever I am, even in prison.
The only true prison I can be in is inside me.
That’s peace.
That’s my peace.
Always there inside of me just waiting for me to come home.

I don’t know what happened to Kat and the other students after class was over. I’m not allowed to keep in touch or inquire, but somehow, wherever she is, whoever she’s with, whatever she’s doing, I have a feeling that she’s just fine.

Kat and the other women taught me so much, mostly not to be stopped by my own fear. To be brave. To speak up, even when it makes my heart pound. To listen to the small voice within that knows the limitlessness beyond my wildest imagination. Two months after Kat shared her memoir with us I had made eight paintings. Just like that. I’d put down my passion for painting for years. Some call it wisdom. Just one person following their wisdom seems to give permission for others to follow theirs.

I often wonder what the world will look like when each one of us listens to that inner voice and follows our passions, our own knowing, our wisdom. If it’s a smile. A painting. A song. A simple act of kindness. Maybe sitting with a stranger at a café on a sunny day. Building a new school. How large, how small, doesn’t seem to matter, as we come together to express and live fully who we already truly are.

We’d love to hear your stories of that one voice, that one person who gave you permission to be who you truly are. Please share in the comments below. Who knows? Perhaps your sharing might be the very permission that some blossoming being needs to hear right now.

The Freedom Institute, a project of the UPLIFT Foundation, facilitates classes for people across the spectrum: from college and high school students to parents and educators, to people who are incarcerated. While each class has a specific focus, classes universally point participants toward getting in touch with their own highest nature while gaining an understanding of how their experience of life is created.

BY Dorothy Kolomeisky
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3 years ago

A refreshing article that highlights the heart and soul of who we are or who we want to be. So many times society has not offered offenders the power of change and hope. I could feel a very different vibe in this article. Kudos.

About Creativity
3 years ago

Very good start.

3 years ago

Thank You SO much for this article.
Im almost 54 years old, and it Took Me 33 years of my life, untill I realized the following, and Vowed to try to pass it on to as Many people as i could, as early in Their life as i could. It is…
… “Never be Afraid to Fail, or You will Never Succedd.”
I realised the reason i never chose to pursue my passion for drawing, even though it was the Only thing i could see myself doing for a living, was the following thought, …
“WHAT if i Fail, What if im no Good, what will i do then, all ive Ever wanted to do is draw,…if i Fail, whst then???”
…So “Go For Broke!!!!”
…just one 54 year olds opinion.. .

Carol McNabb
3 years ago

In my life, I have seen a similar freedom of peace, love and wisdom arrive to people who face death from disease. At the beginning of their illness, loss of hair or strength or bodily abilities are large. It’s a grieving for what was. But as the realization dawns that disease can remove anything but their spirit, it shines forth in love and peace and wisdom. Pain can blur and distract and disturb that journey of inner spirit, but never destroy it. The last breath is a launching pad of triumph, a graduation.

Stuart Newberry
3 years ago

I love the creativity of the writer in this article. I felt as though I was present as Kat told her story. When we see who we truly are – and not the identity we’ve created (innocently) then we are naturally at peace. Another Jack Pransky quote is, ‘ All we are is peace, love and wisdom, and the power to create the illusion that we’re not’

Isn’t it powerful to know that we ARE peace, love and wisdom? That’s our default. And the stories, the beliefs, the thoughts – all in pursuit of the separate self that doesn’t exist except in our mind, take us away from our true self, the unbreakable core of resilience, that has always served us and will always be there gently guiding us until our final breath (and beyond).
Thanks D for a wonderful article x

3 years ago

Dear friends!

Yes, I’ve read this article about the ladies in prison and the teaching they shared. I was very touched. Indeed I’ve published a book called “Creative Book of English Tenses”, because I teach English in Germany (in private groups) and have come to the conclusion that we need to feel the language to understand what’s going on. So while reading the article I had the idea to offer teaching in the youth prison nearby, as this would be a good thing for the youth to reflect on what they love in life, what they used to love when they were younger and what they really want to do with their future.

The proverb of my book is:

The past has passed, it’s over – Memory
The future is a dream to come – Phantasy
The present is a Present
that’s why we call it so…

Let’s enjoy it!!!

I’m very much looking forward to all the people reflecting on what they used to love when they were children, realizing what they really love now (and what they should do more often!!!) and what makes them so happy that they want to plan their future accordingly!!

The courses with which I started, were great!!

Lots of Love,

Claudia Stewart
3 years ago

That is a great article. I have had several mentors who were outstanding in their advice. An English teacher who encouraged me to write fiction when I was in high school. Two art professors in university. The one encouraged me in my explorations in the Fine arts library, and the other by a pithy analysis of making art.

Indu Luthra
3 years ago

Wonderful article Thanks for sharing I learnt a lot

3 years ago

Such an inspiring story. I wish Kat and all those others who participated in the writing class, and those who will participate in the future, an opportunity to blossom into their whole selves wherever they are and feel loved and free.

Lynn Hendley
3 years ago

So encouraging and inspiring. True life lessons and wisdom. As a life coach very helpful for my clients.

David Hopkins
3 years ago

So inspiring. Brought me to tears. I love “The only true prison I can be in is inside me!” What a privilege it must be to change lives in this way. Namaste xx

3 years ago

This is absolutely the most moving thing I’ve read in a long time. So much of what I read about spiritual journeys and consciousness etc is very self focused, individualistic, or, how can I say, all about me the seeker being in a different dimension etc Nd letting go of what no longer serves etc etc. But this article has reopened my instinctual knowledge that dualism begins with judgement, blame. Criticism and separation from the other. All who harm have been harmed. I’d love to live in a world of no prison. I’d rely love all beings to be healed, to know love, peace, unconditional understanding and happiness. Yes, I know it’s an inside job. This article is incredibly inspirational to a) write it out like Kat. To own and face and heal from your story rather than spiritually bypass it. And b) to do what I love. And c) the tenderness, woundedness of anyone who harms and their deep need for love. Thank you

Gib Pellet
3 years ago

Sweet. I do prison outreach. I’ve learned more from my guys in prison about what really matters than most of the folks our “here” who are “free”.

Joanne Schmidt
3 years ago

What a beautiful story!

Diane See
3 years ago

I’ve done a lot of prison visiting and I really appreciate this story. If the general society could hear and understand the stories behind these inmates, female and male, we would have a different world! Compassion would lead to real Justice. I especially like the back view photo of the women.

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