My first day as a teaching assistant for an Inside-Out class was the first day I walked inside a prison. I had no idea what to expect and did not know what questions to ask. When we arrived at the prison in Pennsylvania and headed toward the classroom, I avoided eye contact with every person we walked past. I was unsure of what was normal or customary behavior for a visitor inside a prison. I pulled at my sleeves, buttoned my shirt to the highest possible button, and compulsively checked my empty pocket for my phone, which was not there.
Before entering the classroom, I worried the inside students would be restrained or separated from us in some way. I worried about what to say and whether to avoid asking “how are you?” when greeting inside students. I worried that I would not be a sufficient mentor for the outside students, since this was all new to me as well. I worried that my inadequacies or privilege would inhibit me from assisting the class to its full potential.
But when we walked inside the classroom and the inside students flooded us with applause and warm handshakes, I felt immediately at ease. They created a safe and welcoming environment for us to learn from one another and raised the level of intellectual and creative discourse, inspiring us all to do our best work. Although I still worried about saying the wrong thing or being insufficient or letting my privilege blind me, I felt more comfortable navigating these insecurities each time I entered the classroom with them. The class taught me that I will not be perfect, but I can listen and contribute with an open heart.
There were many extraordinary moments in that class, but looking back, I think my favorite times were the casual conversation and interactions. It’s a reminder that we’re all just humans trying to be better. I finally decided to let go of my fear about asking “how are you” to inside students. One day, when I asked a student named Jon “how are you,” he smiled and said, “I am. But that’s good enough for me.”
By Ellen Skirvin