Saturday, December 08, 2007

Fifteen minutes

Last evening as my class at the penitentiary was drawing near the end of the period, we were discussing Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The bell sounded signaling the beginning of the final fifteen minutes before inmates would have to assemble outside and leave the educational facility. Reflexively I checked my watch and then soon afterwards began saying things like, "If you don't have anymore questions or comments...". One of my students in the far corner raised his hand.
"Yes?" I said.
The man said, "We still have ten minutes..." he paused and added, "I'm in no hurry to return to my cell. Let's talk about Plato some more."
I felt abashed, and immediately I embraced his suggestion and I tried to explain how in my other life the sound of a bell often precipitates a sudden and mass exodus from my classroom. For me, it was a wake up call, that bell. A reminder that time is precious, never more so when you're doing hard time.
"Ok," I said, "What do you want to talk about?"
There was a short pause and then the same man raised his hand again.
"How do you get better at this?" he said.
"At what, at reading things like this?" I said indicating the text of Plato's Republic.
"No," he said. "Better at finding that middle ground, better at finding the good, happiness, all that."
He wasn't really asking me, fortunately. He seemed to be more thinking out loud in front of us.From his desk in the back corner of the room he sat slightly turned into the aisle running alongside his desk row. With a forearm leaning on one knee he seemed to contemplate the closed book in his hand. When he looked up, it was just as often to look at and address his fellow inmates as it was to look at me. He had all of us in view from his corner spot in the room. The rest of them, by contrast, had to swivel their heads if they wanted to see him. A few guys along the opposite wall and corner kept him in view. Invisible lines of sympathy or allegiance crisscrossed the room, to find them you just had to connect the heads that moved however subtly toward one another. They were the ones nodding or smiling slyly as if to say, "Damn!". Others sat facing straight ahead, unprotected by a wall, surrounded by space and other inmates, locked in a pose not unlike the cave dwellers in Plato's cave. From my vantage point, I could see their faces sometimes impassive, sometimes faintly pained or bemused but always constrained, reserved, not consenting to turn and face the speaker.
"Good question," I said, "I won't pretend to answer it. On the other hand it seems like you've identified the project that all of us in here seem to have signed up for. It's our homework, so to speak, our life work. Whatever the path is, I tend to think that this project has both individual and social dimensions. Which might sound obvious except that it reminds us of a couple of traps to avoid. First, we are, each of us responsible for the integrity of our personal choices, the so-called man-in-the-mirror test; but we must also not retreat into isolation in our quest for the good since our it is only in the context of our relations with others that the good becomes manifest. A man who will not submit his private investigations to the rigours of social discourse risks living in an echo chamber. A course like this one is designed in large part to furnish you with both the inspiration and the resources and to pursue this project on both fronts, the personal and the communal."
Outside the classroom in the hallway, we could see other inmates filing past. It was time. Everybody knew it and got up. A couple of the men wished me a good trip home, a couple of others said see ya later. The class philosopher, looked at me and smiled good-naturedly and then followed the others. Quietly and unhurriedly they vacated the room and disappeared into the corridor, human beings being put back into the closet like toys or tools. Their silent disappearance left me to wonder at the reality of anything that had transpired in the last ninety minutes.
Aristotle's notions about friendship seemed very poignant to me at that moment. We cannot do it alone, yet there is no one else who can do it for us. We need, we long, to discover our very best selves, but we can only do that by keeping faith with true friends, that is to say those people who reflect our best selves back to us and thus nourish us with the pleasure of being good...yet we tend to form friendships with those who most reinforce our current conception of ourselves and so we are reminded daily of our shortcomings, and so we yearn hungrily, guided only by shadowy intuitions of something better.
Seen in this light, the call to friendship is perhaps the highest calling imaginable.
It's time for me to leave as well. I'm supposed to make sure that I don't leave anything in the room, anything that might be swiped and turned into some form of contra ban. These duties serve to chase off my earlier thoughts. I'm about to leave the room when I remember one more thing - my portable radio walkie-talkie unit on my desk. I lift the unit and look at the red emergency button. I've been informed that pushing the button will bring help if ever I should need assistance. Needing that button would be a bad thing indeed; having it is a good thing though, I suppose.


Blogger Erin said...

What an incredible experience this is for you- and for the students. I suppose there is a difference in perspectives between used to be incarcerated and incarcerated right now. It sounds like you're all benefitting from these classes. And I love what you said about friendship being the highest calling. I should read Plato.

8:11 AM  

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