The worlds that materialize from the swift pens and swifter minds of the students in the women’s creative writing class reach beyond the walls of Allegheny County Jail. This summer semester, the class’s theme was ‘maps.’ In one exercise, we provided copies of a map of fictional Winesburg, Ohio. We asked students who might live in the town, what they might do there, in which buildings they lived and worked. In the time I took to create a single family on my worksheet, our students had each named every resident, knew how they were related, what their jobs were, what kind of pets they had, and had created conflicts and resolutions for their characters to face.
Also included in the semester was a challenge to map their cells and write about how they are able to make a uniform space their own. These essays will now be submitted to a map-themed literary journal for consideration. But just the fact that they wrote essays isn’t what has blown me away. It’s the caliber of writing, the scope of creativity, and the honesty with which they write that has captured my admiration.
One student played with formatting, breaking her essay into sections based on each cell she resided in. Another took a prompt to discuss what the cell will look like in the future as an opportunity to explore a Pittsburgh in which aliens reside. The essays depict monotony, conversations with inanimate objects, longing, and even links between the cells and the country at large.
No student’s work is the same. Each paper reflects the personality of the student who wrote it, each voice as distinct on the page as in the classroom. A stereotype exists of what people in jail look like, what they act like. In the classroom, our students are able to be just that: students. In some ways, they are indistinguishable from students in any other classroom. Each student has their own strengths, their own interests. I have seen very few weaknesses. Over the course of the short summer semester, I have witnessed growth in curiosity, ability, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence. They should be proud of the work they have created. I know that I am proud of them.
Melanie DeStefano, Words Without Walls Teacher