Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Once Upon A Time

What stories lie behind the walls?
Dear Blog,

It's been 12 days since my last post...

Here are my excuses:

  1. My brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew, cousin, New Haven neighbor, neighbor's son and neighbor's son's friend all came to visit.  Forget Ft. Lauderdale!  Spring Break '12 = Santiago! There were no string bikinis or beer bongs involved, but we did have fun - for the juicy details, check out my sister-in-law's blog:  www.tipsybaker.com
  2. The Google Blogger site has been completely renovated.  So now it's the same as before only I don't know how to see/do/find anything.  Nice.
  3. I watched 2 seasons of the NBC series, Parenthood.  Wonderful and well worth my time.
  4. Last Tuesday, 4/17, I began a two-week substitution stint at the kids' school. Fifth and sixth grade English teacher, Ms. Amy.  Nothing like full-time work to mess up the blog schedule.
So let's talk about the teaching gig, an adventure that I am only half way through and already I am dreaming about the kids at night and exhausted.  I think everyone should have to be a substitute teacher in middle school for two weeks - it's a great way to get to know the school, the teachers, the children, and the challenge which is the education of our young ones.

As luck would have it, it turns out that the 6th graders are in the middle of a segment on storytelling. Imagine that. One thing leads to another and there I am, standing in front of 15 middle school students in Santiago de Compostela talking about how to write a story.  I told them that back in the US of A, I am a storyteller.  Social Science Researcher seemed a bit overdone.  I gather, create and share stories about prisoners, drug users and people living with HIV.  Suddenly, no one had to go to the bathroom or fill their water bottle.  They were listening.  "Prisoners?" they asked, wide-eyed.  "Tell us a story!  Tell us a story!"

Honestly, I had not expected that response and didn't know how to react.  I already felt naughty writing the words "prisoners" and "drug users" on the board.  Their worksheet asked them to tell a story about a girl, a boat and a bear and instructed them to begin with the phrase, "Once upon a time..."  What would the parents and administration think if we wrote about marginalized, incarcerated communities instead? I quickly retreated and pointed the discussion in a new direction.

After the bell rang, a small, slight boy with long hair came up to me and asked, "Have you ever been to a prison, Miss Amy?"  "Yes," I told him, "I have visited a prison, but not lived there."  He smiled.  "Tell us a story on Monday, Miss Amy, tell us a story about the prison." What an invitation...

I actually looked through my dissertation data today to try to find a story that would be appropriate for this audience.  No luck.  The stories are complicated and laced with resentment, violence and wisps of hope that are not always visible to the naked eye.  I am unable to think of a way to tell these stories to a class of Spanish children without overstepping my bounds.  I am a substitute.  I have the worksheets that they need to complete. I am not the one who will tell them about the dark stories that float at the edge.

So I am reluctantly part of the social magical act that hides certain truths and makes some people invisible. I am not proud of that, but recognize that a two-week middle school English teaching post is probably not the most appropriate forum for these stories.  Still, if nothing else,I hope I have planted a tiny seed.  Prisoners do have stories to tell, and now that he knows about this, maybe that little long haired boy will look for them when he grows up.