Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I was never a good student. Even though I loved reading and was a quick study, no one ever took the time to encourage me. My teachers at school treated me with indifference, like I didn’t exist. I was the invisible kid in the back of the room, until I started to get in trouble. After quitting high school at 16 and getting my GED, my relationship to education was always adversarial — an unseen foe, a burden.
When I entered the Florida Department of Corrections in 2014 — I am serving eight years for theft I committed to support my pain pill addiction — I took a mandatory placement at intake and scored high.
“I’m making you an inmate teaching assistant,” my classification officer told me.
I didn’t want to talk to the other prisoners, let alone teach them, but I showed up to my job assignment the next morning, planning an obstinate silent protest and vowing not to try.
When I walked inside the noisy education building, the civilian supervisor pointed me to a small desk in the back corner of the stiflingly hot room. It smelled like cigarettes and body odor. I looked around at the 30-odd students: Among them were a group of Latin Kings with face tattoos huddled around a computer looking at gambling tickets, two rappers freestyling while they pounded a beat on a broken desk; and a guy sleeping under a table and using a book for a pillow.
I sat down at my desk and within minutes, I heard the telltale sounds of a fight happening in the bathroom nearby; sneakers squeaked on the tile floor mixed with primal grunts and thumping. Moments later, a young man emerged with a bloody nose.
I hadn’t cared about education before coming into prison, but there I was, faking it till I made it as a teacher.
In Florida, prison education buildings are a haven for trouble. Many of the students are young men under 24, who are required by the state to take GED classes, and then there are old convicts who go there to see friends from other cell blocks or, sometimes, to hustle drugs. At first, I saw everyone through the eyes of cynic. They were drug dealers and gangbangers, I told myself. They were career criminals who fought over sports and women, who told war stories, and who weren’t serious about learning.
But in time, a small group of regulars started to stop by my desk while I sat quietly reading.
“What does radius mean? That shit always confuses me.”
“Listen, I don’t want, like, assignments, but can you help me learn how to write letters to my girl?”
“I failed my GED, but I really want to pass it next time.”
I would grab a calculator and show Leroy how to do a problem or walk Red over to the reference shelf and choose a vocabulary workbook. I started to take a little time each day to study with a few of the more serious guys, or skim through legal paperwork with a defendant because while many of the students tested at a seventh grade level, others had never learned to read.
As more students showed interest in learning, I started to take my job very seriously. I arranged GED prep books and math worksheets neatly on my desk, next to a cup with sharpened pencils. A put a pile of scrap paper out and a dictionary. I assigned a word of the day for them to look up. I words like “bon vivant” and “nonplussed.”
As my class started to grow, I asked permission to organize a work area with three long tables. The supervisor started to assign me all of the new GED students, and I worked one-on-one with the men. We did weekly group lessons on the blackboard: Monday was English; Tuesday was geometry; Thursday was roundtable trivia. I gave out homework and held my guys accountable when they didn’t complete it.
“I forgot man. … Give me a break, alright?”
Juan was one of my most respectful pupils. A skinny thirtysomething with a nasty scar across his cheek, he had grown up in Jacksonville with eight brothers and sisters. One day he caught me by the water fountain with pride in his voice.
“I told moms I got an A on my math pre-test. … She was crying on the phone and told me to thank my teacher for helping me.”
I hadn’t cared about education in any way before coming into prison, but there I was, faking it till I made it as a teacher. By the end of the year, I had helped a dozen students pass their GED, and I felt a vicarious victory with each one.
But learning and teaching are not easy inside. We were away from family, isolated from society, and living with the ever-present specter of violence. And behind bars, when someone with nothing to lose sees someone trying to succeed, it can spark envy or rage. Some students got picked on for studying; as an aide, I had to stand my ground just for being a teacher. I was targeted by guys who thought I was “soft” for caring.
I learned all about the limits of a prison education, as I battled other incarcerated residents, the administration, prison bureaucracy, and years of systematic neglect.
I’m no longer a teacher’s aide, but I have spent my entire sentence as a facilitator in some capacity, an unlikely vocation considering how I hated school. But I learned to put others before myself and to try to help them. In the process, I changed. I evolved into a well-meaning mentor who cared about the guys I worked with and taught.
This essay was published with the assistance of Empowerment Avenue, which helps amplify the voices of artists and writers who are incarcerated.
Ryan M. Moser is a recovering addict and Philadelphia native serving eight years for property crimes. An award-winning writer who’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2020, Moser has been published in dozens of literary journals and on many news sites. He’s a proud father who loves yoga, chess, and playing music.