James Penha

James Penha

The first few times I heard the steel gate of the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island close behind me, I shook with terror. I realized with every clang that, even though I entered the pen voluntarily each week to teach inmates a university literature course, I was myself imprisoned.

A teacher always experiences a certain level of anxiety, stage fright, on first days at school, but a new teacher in a correctional facility wonders not just who the class clown or the dunce might be, but who is the pusher, the mugger, the rapist, the murderer. Not that it was something I ever asked—or, for that matter, ever really wanted to know.

After a time, as opening-day jitters gave way to discussions of literature (avoiding “The Ballad of Sam McGee” or “In Cold Blood”), the felons became, as the members of any class eventually do, simply students, albeit ones uniformly dressed in drab penitentiary green.

As one of my colleagues smartly remarked, “I feel safer here than on our campus. Out there, who knows what those students in our classrooms might be planning? At least, in the prison, all the guilty ones have been caught!”

Since each weekly lesson lasted three hours, I allowed the class to take a short break after ninety minutes for a drink or a smoke or an informal chat round the stairwell of the lobby of the prison’s “school” complex. I recall my star pupil Trevor telling me, during one such lull, how his academic success would, he hoped, enhance his chances for an early parole. He dreamed of, and our university had agreed to allow, maintaining his matriculation on campus if he were released to the streets. Our conversation was interrupted by a huge crash, like the collapse of a pile of dishes, flowing like a torrent from down the stairway.

“What was that?” I said, turning from Trevor and up toward the commotion.

I heard Trevor, behind me, reply, “A riot.” I felt a hand on my shoulder. “And we’re taking hostages.”

My feet swelled with every liter of my blood.

I turned round to Trevor. He smiled. Trevor was a huge man, tall and broad, and the smile matched his size: his lips stretched wide and bared a perfect set of gleaming white teeth. Foolish and gullible as a red riding hood, was I about to be devoured by this grinning vulpine monster? I dared to look Trevor in the eyes. They were not wide with voracity and hate: they squinted; they wrinkled; they twinkled. The mouth of a smile may have an ambiguity about it, but the eyes of a smile cannot lie. “Joke?” I asked.

“Joke!” he said. “I think one of the kitchen guys must have dropped a stack of dishes.”

“Yeah, I thought so,” I said and sweated out a laugh as Trevor smiled our way back to the classroom.