Voilà la classe française dans la prison!

This past Friday was my second trip to juvie to teach French. My fingerprints cleared the FBI and I have my own security badge. AND the photo is really cute!

After the first class I was talking to K. the coordinator and Rev. Craig. I asked them if I had to leave the badge at the gate house and the answer was a resounding YES. They wondered why I would ask and I said I wanted to scan it to put on my blog so everyone could see my cute picture and that is apparently a big no-no. They both read my blog and made it clear if it shows up here, I’m in big trouble. So you’ll just have  to take my word for it. I just used 100 words to discuss something that I’m guessing no one cares about but me. You’re welcome.

For new readers of my blog, I am volunteering at juvie….read here and here.

The class has nine guys in it. I’m not going to use the word “youth”. It’s awkward. Youth. I’m not uthed to saying youth. There are three white guys and the rest of the class is Hispanic. For the first activity, I had each student introduce themselves in French e.g. “je m’appelle Pierre” but there isn’t really a guy named Pierre in the class.

I don’t have to go through all the details of the class. We have covered vocabulary, question words, birthdays, numbers, days, months.

Two Revelations.

1. I have never been so comfortable with French in my life. I surprised myself with all I remembered. I know this stuff, I just never use it. I’m sure it helps that none of my students know French so they don’t know if I am screwing up or not. (I’m not.) Their lack of knowledge alone freed me to use my French and not be self-conscious. I was teaching! I was writing on the white board and helping with pronunciation and teaching them phrases and words and verbs. At some point during the first hour I was there, that hit me and made me so happy.

2. The young men in this class are INTENT on learning. Who of us hasn’t heard the phrases “thirsty for knowledge”, “soaks up information like a sponge”, etc. I have heard that said many, many times but I have never SEEN it. The students in my little French class range in age from late teens to early 20s. They are not kicked back in their seats smirking at me or the idea of taking French. They are eager and engaged learners.

None of them are too cool to try, even if I wind up correcting them. I see them mouthing the correct answer over and over to themselves. They answer questions before I call on them. I can tell they are having fun but also that they are intent on learning — they want it! There are no grades in my class. No credit toward a high school or college diploma. The nine of them came to that room for that hour with a goal, to learn something that might help them someday.

As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I was taught to learn. Learning to learn is a worthy goal. Simply to know things is a reason to ask questions. My senior year at Colgate, I took a Greek philosophy class. We read Plato’s Five Dialogues. In one of the dialogues, Socrates said, “I know that I do not know.” That stayed with me. I have thought that many times over the past 25 years.  I know that I do not know, which to me means that I am open to learning. The incarcerated youth in my French class know that they do not know and they are working hard to know things. Things that I pray will serve them some day.

I also learn a lot once class is over.

A sizable percentage of the kids at this facility have been homeless all their lives. Oh, okay. I happen to believe that children don’t stand much of a chance if they are homeless from the get go.

One of the guys in the class, M., is 21. He brings all his notes to class, is constantly taking notes, asks questions and volunteers to answer questions. During the last class, he wrote the numbers from one to twenty on the white board. K. pointed out to him that he had written his Ns backwards so we had to change those. I thought it was rather insensitive of her to bring his dyslexia to the class’ attention. As it turns out, M. is not dyslexic. M. was in a gang and their rival gang’s name started with an N so they wrote their N’s backwards to show disrespect for the rival gang. M. wasn’t trying to instigate anything, he is just working on learning to write N correctly.

It never occurred to me that M. or any my students were in gangs. Once again, obviously they have done some pretty bad things to be incarcerated but if you put them in Izods and khaki shorts, you could plop them down anywhere and you wouldn’t know they were gang members. They aren’t covered in ink or beat up looking. R. is an Hispanic guy who wears glasses and the only word I can think of to describe him is “distinguished”. He’s 19 and he is tall and handsome and looks distinguished.

One kid recently graduated with his personal training certificate and also works with Project POOCH. M. is taking screenwriting classes. J. is moving to a different facility soon which will hopefully be a transition out of jail and into a more productive life.

I asked if the Hispanic students were all in the country legally. Three of them are U.S. citizens. What about the other ones? When they get out, they are deported. One can hope that scenario will go well but it’s tough to imagine that it will. I feel bad for them but I can’t see a way through to keeping convicted felon, illegal aliens in this country.

I did some searching on the Oregonian and Willamette Week newspaper websites over the weekend. There are no stories about what goes on at this facility. There are stories about changes in staffing or budget cuts or kids that have been sentenced to time there but no stories about what happens once the kids go there. It is newsworthy. The public should know what taxes fund, what works, what doesn’t. I guess I have some homework of my own to do.

28 thoughts on “Voilà la classe française dans la prison!

  1. Maggie, this is SO wonderful. I wish I could speak or teach French! It sounds as if you are really making a difference in these young men’s lives and they are making a difference in yours too. I so look forward to hearing more about this as you get to know them. Kudos to you — not many people do these kinds of things and I commend you. BTW, I did the French to English translator thingy on Google to translate the title of your post and it said this: Voilà la classe française dans la prison means this: This is the class in the french prison. Is that correct. Merci, Gentille dame. :).

    1. merci Brigitte!

      No, that’s not correct. Translation is tough. I am still not for sure on the prison part of that sentence. I will ask Le Clown. it could be a la prison. I don’t know.

      I’m really enjoying my time there and I’m going to put together a Bastille Day party for them! Sort of fitting hahaha

  2. Anonymous

    It is newsworthy! Thankfully there are good people in this world like you to educate the rest of us and make a difference in theirs.

  3. kmfullerton

    use my name……I could use the publicity…:D
    we can talk about what’s going on here (besides the magic you describe) and how you can bring it to light!
    I would posit that they are ‘former’ gang members and we are doing our damnedest to ensure that. But it will be support when they get out, and jobs, that will make the difference for some.
    thanks for what you’re doing.

  4. Maggie – C’est manifique! How does the runaway, homeless teen problem work with the “system”? Are there a disproportionate number of kids incarcerated in the Portland area? Just curious.

    I love your thoughts on learning and learning to learn. Very much inline with my own. My boyfriend taught me that being curious and teachable are so very important.



    1. Kim, Portland does have a huge runaway, homeless teen population but I don’t know much about how that is dealt with. The kids I am working with are in a facility about 30 minutes south of Portland. And these kids are felons convicted of measure 11 offenses which are violent offenses; murder, rape, armed robbery, kidnapping…which of course stuns me because I can’t see them doing these things but they have. I am going to keep working on increasing knowledge of what is going on down there because it is worth supporting.

      Thanks so much for reading!

      1. Don’t you believe it! They may want to learn but I think your passion and enjoyment reinforces whatever made them want to learn French in the first place. A teacher with passion can teach anything to anyone!

  5. Pingback: Look Me in the Eye « Someone Fat Happened

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