This summer I co-teach the women’s class at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). This is my first term teaching the women. I’m usually with the men on Thursday or Friday. My students have a keen interest in creating fictional worlds. Melanie, my co-teacher, and I gave the students a map of Winesburg, OH, an artist’s rendering of a made-up town from Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle of the same name. We asked the students to tell us what’s happening beyond what they see on the map. Who lives in the houses? Who shops in the hardware stores? The students surpassed the exercise. They made up characters with ear-catching names like Canaan and Lil’ Canaan, connected the characters back stories to create elaborate family trees. Cousin Nina is fighting with Cousin Tina. One student described the physicality of her character: “She has a temper, and she’s 400 lbs.” In short, all of them had the seeds for fascinating short stories, or even novels, based on the characters they created.
Before teaching the women’s class, other teachers had told me that the women were reserved and didn’t want to share much about themselves. And they didn’t want to write about themselves. I disagree. In writing, even when you aren’t overtly confessing or writing explicitly about your own life, who you are always finds its way to the page. For instance, in class, when I complimented a student for her descriptive 400 lb. character, she said, “Oh, that’s my daughter. My daughter is 400 lb., but she can dance and move it with the rest of ‘em.” Another student, Alicia, told me her characters were named after her actual family members. The women are putting themselves into the work. They are pulling from their own lives to create rich scenes and poetic lines. I know that, with me, every one of my poems may not be overt stories from my own life, but when I write about spirituality, it is my experiences and opinions that shape the work. As a person with a conflicted relationship with organized religion, I have a very different take than someone who has fit neatly into the Baptist church for their entire life. I’m looking forward to this week. The homework: draw a map of your cell and write about it. I’m interested to see what the women share, what they tell about the pain, laughs, boredom, and fear they’ve felt in this one small room. I’m excited as well to sit down, shut up, and listen.
--Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher