Locked Up: Another Short Trip

Our social media editor takes an opportunity to reflect on a recent experience he had teaching Greek in prison.

My guess is that—inveterate choosers that we are—we are forever leaning one way or another. Choosing to lean into the Holy Presence is to taste, here and now, of the kingdom of God; choosing to lean away is to taste, here and now, hell. Scott Cairns

Over the last nine months, I have been teaching a Biblical Greek workshop at RMSI. It started out strong: six inside guys, one outside guy, and me. You can picture it—eight people in a small, cinder block room laughing, learning, helping one another. It was an extension of our Saturday night community, with a few new faces.

The idyllic scene quickly began to muddy when, after several weeks of instruction, one of my friends from Saturday night quit the class. "I can barely keep up with English grammar," he said. "Greek's just too much." Being a complete newbie to the teaching game, I let him walk. The whole course of the class might have been different if I'd made more of an effort to keep him there, because, as folks who've learned a foreign language know, learning another language helps you understand English all the better. Alas. It's far to late to think about such things know.

And then there were seven: five inside guys, one outside guy, and me.

The next loss was my friend from the outside, the person who made me feel at least a little comfortable in this role, the person who had my back in that classroom. All of a sudden, I was alone going into Riverbend. Alone passing through checkpoint. Alone waiting in the cage. Alone walking through the yard. Alone. Alone with a monumental task of teaching Greek to people who didn't really put in daily effort—therefore it was always an uphill battle.

More losses came. One person slowly stopped coming until he was gone without even a goodbye. Another "didn't have time" to keep up with his assignments. He told me he was going to call it quits.

So it went. The class moved from our small classroom to an even smaller classroom. The three remaining students and I would sit around a 4'x6' table, taking turns reading through homework, the Greek New Testament, and new lessons.

At this point, everyone was losing interest; even I was losing interest. But occasionally one of the guys would say, "Don't think we don't appreciate you, man," and our spirits would be buoyed. As we continued getting near the end, we were going to tackle the final two chapters in our textbook in one night.

However, on this last night, I learned that I had lost another student.

But this one was different. It hurt. It really hurt. I lost this student not because he decided he couldn't "keep up," or because he "didn't have time." I lost this student because he got himself locked up (i.e., sent to the maximum security side of the prison and solitary confinement) and has since been sent to another prison.

I couldn't help but take this personally. I felt like I'd been double-crossed. Which is horribly selfish, I now realize. But that's how I felt. Allegedly, this student had been involved with contraband in the prison, and when another prisoner, from fear of self-preservation, reported the contraband to the guards, my now former student jumped the guy, allegedly beating him, and I quote the person telling me this, "shitless." Apparently, he beat a fellow prisoner shitless. And he got himself locked up. And he got himself moved out of RMSI—one of the nicer places to be incarcerated in the state of Tennessee. And he got one of my friends from Saturday night (also one of my Greek students) fired from his job inside the prison (which is an altogether longer story). So now this friend won't be able to finish a big project he's been working on—a faith journal from voices inside and outside the prison and from across a wide spectrum of faiths.

I feel rather foolish, in all honesty, having taken this personally. It affected me only slightly. It continues to affect my former student and those near him much more. My friend who lost his job should take it personally. I should be with those who hurt. Clearly, I have a long way to go.

I, therefore, must thank a friend that reminded me of my duty to be with the prisoners. I had bought my three remaining Greek students—these three who stuck it out—a copy of Scott Cairns very, very fine memoir, Short Trip to the Edge. It's an account of Cairns' trip to Mt. Athos in Greece (see the connection?), seeking help in prayer. I figured it'd be a great read for three guys who care about their faith and who have been studying Greek for three quarters of a year.

To my great shame, when I heard about my student getting locked up, my first thought was, "Well, I wonder who I can give the extra copy of Short Trip to." To put it directly, I gave up on him.

When I told this story to my friend, she said, "He still needs the book."

Ouch.

She's right, you know? He does still need the book, and may God forgive me for thinking he was beyond deserving the book. I've been working on various Will Campbell projects for years now, but it took this pointed statement for me to get it. We've been reconciled, all of us; all that's left for us to do is live that reality.

So the next week, I took the book to the chaplains office, and she is trying to get it to my former student. Hopefully this small gesture will let him  know that I haven't given up on him, that the same warm greeting I gave to him the first night I met him is still the greeting that he'd get if I could see him now.

It's been said that teaching is about planting seeds. Seeds take time to grow. Granted, I don't know if a Greek class can bear any fruit other than the Greek language, but my hope is that my presence and the presence of his classmates may create more meaningful fruit for my now locked up student someday. I hope that the nine months spent with the class might bring him a new sense of purpose in life. May he bear the fruit of renewed life. A life in which the first impulse isn't to beat someone shitless. A life in which participation in moving contraband isn't an option. A life that lives Romans 12—a life that lives peaceably with everyone.

-Craig D. Katzenmiller Social Media Editor, TOKENS

* Epigraph from, Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 90.