© Copyright 2020 by Tom Davison
“That’s not another poem you’re gonna read to us – is it Dr. D” asked the blue denim-clad inmate in a strident voice? Here I am– I thought to myself for the umpteenth time– forging young minds. “Why yes – it certainly is Mr. Jones” I replied calmly - as I took the stack of offending photocopies from a plastic see-through container. The same container that I was required to use when carrying any of my teaching materials into Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) an all-male prison in northern Ohio. “Why Mr. Jones – I thought you enjoyed the poetry I bring in” I asked with a soft chuckle. “Aren’t you the gentleman who asked me for extra copies of The Rose That Grew in Concrete to share with your bunkies?” I queried with a broad smile. “Yea, that was me Dr. D – but that was Tupac Shakur - he’s kewl” He paused and looked around the room to ensure his peers and fellow students – weren’t paying close attention. “Last time you brought in that Shakespeare dude.” He hesitated – then blurted “He’s been dead - for like - a thousand years” he stated with an exasperated sigh. “And the time before that – it was Kipling – also dead forever.”
“Alright Mr. Jones fair enough” I turned and faced the entire classroom “Let’s review – shall we?” I was in full teacher mode now. I cleared my throat loudly to get the attention of the entire class and stated in a loud firm voice “Class I have another poem with me today – that I want to share with the class.” I heard a couple of groans – one or two at the most. Mr. Jones - who secretly liked poetry (but was concerned it might not be perceived as manly to do so) squawked in a shrill voice “Not again!” I knew that this objection was for the benefit of his peers – but I felt it was time to end this farce.
“Alright class – who can tell me the quote from the character in the Murakami story about books – anyone?” A burly tattooed inmate – who always sat in the front row and took copious notes – raised his well-muscled arm. “Yes – Mr. Jackson what was the quote in question?” Without any hesitation Mr. Jackson responded in a deep booming baritone “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading – you can only think what everyone else is thinking – Haruki Murakami.” I nodded with enthusiasm “Very good – and what does that quote mean to you Mr. Jackson?” Again - without slowing his response “It’s like you are always telling us sir – we are college students now – we have to learn critical thinking – challenge everything – question everything – one way to do this – is by reading things outside of our comfort zone.” Mr. Jackson smiled at me and his classmates “That is how you probably discovered Tupac Dr. D – we know you love your poetry.” He finished with his statement with an even broader smile directed at all of us.
From the back of the room Mr. Brown (an informal class leader spoke out) “Yea, Dr. D is always bringing in those classic books - and all that philosopher stuff – cause he wants us to think for ourselves!” he gave me a supportive nod of his head. “Very good gentlemen” I returned Mr. Brown’s nod with one of my own. I continued “Last week I brought in an excerpt from The Merchants of Venice - by William Shakespeare” I shot Mr. Jones a hard stare when I said the word - Shakespeare. “Can anyone tell me what they learned from that one?” I saw several hands raised – including Mr. Washington’s – who normally was very introverted. I said in a softer voice “Mr. Washington – your thoughts on this matter?” he spoke quietly – so everyone strained to hear him “Well sir – we were talking about bias and prejudice – and that excerpt we discussed - was about a Jew - from like – 500 years ago. I really liked that one.” he mumbled. He hesitated for a moment – and then in a much louder voice “I remember these parts best - Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands - and – uh – fed with the same food - hurt with the same weapons – oh yea - and also my favorite part - If you prick us - do we not bleed? If you tickle us - do we not laugh? If you poison us - do we not die?” Now there wasn’t a sound in the room - as he finished his impromptu speech “I believe that you were trying to show us that bias has been around forever – sir - that it is a part of human nature – and to try to keep it in perspective - when you personally experience it - well anyway” his voice trailed off “that’s the message I got.” Still waters run deep – I thought to myself. These incarcerated students never cease to amaze me. “Very good Mr. Washington – very – very good!”
“And - finally gentlemen – what about the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling” as I was speaking - I was striding briskly toward where Mr. Jones was seated. I purposely stopped directly in front of his seat – and locked my eyes with his. “What about it - Mr. Jones – you have heard from your classmates – now it’s your turn – what did you get from the Kipling poem?” Mr. Jones eyes wandered away from my intent stare. He looked around the room and realized that everyone was watching him – waiting for his response. “Well – uh – in class - we were talking about the characteristics of a good leader and father - and – uh – what skills we will need to succeed - when we get out of this place and back to the real world.” He paused as he formulated his next words “The Kipling poem spoke about the things we were talking about in class – such as (being lied about – but don’t deal in lies) that was the characteristic of honesty. And then there was the part about (to serve your turn long after they are gone) well - that was integrity.” He paused for another moment and finished his thoughts with “Uh – ok - I liked the ending the best” in a voice so soft that everyone was leaning forward in their seats to make out his words “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” he sighed heavily. I leaned down to be inches from his face and said to him “Excellent job Mr. Jones – absolutely excellent.” He smiled at me.
I marched quickly back to my desk - scooped up the stack of 35 photocopies and placed them squarely in front of Mr. Jones. “Will you be so kind – as to distribute this week’s poem for me Mr. Jones – please” I asked him - as I made my way to the old chalk blackboard that was in the front of my prison classroom. “Yes sir!” I heard enthusiaticaly from behind me – as I began writing in chalk - on the ancient board. All the while continuing to talk to my class of incarcerated students gathered behind me.
With my back to the incarcerated students- I allowed myself a smile. I guess I am forging young minds after all. At least the poetry was. Despite all the naysaying by my peers- I was right. I wasn’t wasting my time introducing my prison classes to poetry and the classics. Poetry like music and other art forms was universal. “Today we have an excerpt called All the World’s a Stage from the play As You Like It which is written by Mr. Jones favorite author – Willy Shakespeare. Ok class – let us begin.”
Dr. Tom Davison has been teaching entrepreneur focused business coursework as an adjunct instructor for MTC (Marion Technical College). He is currently teaching at two all-male prison facilities in Marion Ohio. Dr. Davison has been deeply moved by his personal observations and interactions with his incarcerated students. While teaching in the Ohio prison system he has been motivated to create poems and short stories about the day-to-day lives and experiences of his felon-students. Thomas has recently created a not-for-profit (NFP) business Entrepreneur Services for Felons (ESF). Thomas has dedicated 100% of his writing profits to this new NFP - which provides free one-on-one support services for felons and ex-felons.