When I found my teaching spark: From criminal court to university classroom

Today’s writing prompt from Blogher’s December’s NaBloPoMo is: Do you enjoy teaching others? Talk about a time you taught someone how to do something.

Well, as soon as I read that, Hacivad Bey appeared on my shoulder, ready for a chat.  He is, as you may recall, the learned Sufi elder within the Karagöz puppet troupe that inhabits my head as I navigate my life in and around my sometimes-confusing Turkish-American marriage.

Eyeing me quizzically from atop my left shoulder, Hacivad Bey cleared his throat before speaking. “So, m’lady, today, you are addressing the question of ‘whether you enjoy teaching others – and a time you taught someone something’ – that should be easy as your work is teaching,” he said, the obvious paradox hanging in the mist of his slow, deliberate voice.

Before I could blurt out the instance I usually call upon to answer questions about how I knew I was able to be a teacher, namely the night I explained the mechanics of how statistical confidence intervals for means work to my friend John, who told me “wow, you are a natural-born teacher,” I paused, caught in a time warp. I didn’t even have time to remember the warm flush of joy that pulsed through my body as I realized that for one of the first times in my life, I felt truly confident and competent when it came to explaining this difficult concept to another doctoral student colleague – even before he paid me that compliment.

“Forget means, medians and modes, m’lady, forget confidence intervals that are mathematical and visual, and just start to tell me the story,” Hacivad Bey whispered, “not of what you are good at teaching, but rather of how you came to be a teacher.  This will help you in your new leaf journey.  It is, after all, in the telling and re-telling of stories, that Sufis find hidden gems – look at all of the wisdom that emerged from the talking friendship between Shams and the Mevlana Rumi himself.” Winking, Hacivad Bey said “Perhaps you should convert, m’lady?”

Ignoring his unusual effort at proselytizing, I just began to narrate – as if caught in a peach-colored isolation chamber in which my voice could and would not turn off…

“I never imagined, in a million star-scapes of light years, that I would end up *speaking* in front of a classroom full of people who were watching me, and waiting for me to get something going for all of them in the form of a lecture-discussion.  

It is Zenne, the nervous Nellie like a bowl of jelly puppet, who reminds me that I used to sit slunk down in my wooden desk by the emergency exit, face covered to nose with my stretched-out elastic turtleneck, living in horror at the thought of being called on in class.  Even today, eight years into teaching, it is that young lady I have to assuage on what still feels to her like the death march to my classroom. “It’s ok, sweetheart,” I tell her, “I know how to do this now, even if I am a bit anxious.”  Zenne usually steps in to hug that little girl whose legs quiver in fear in these moments, as she is equally nervous.  You see, the only books on Zenne’s bookshelf have titles such as Travel to the most dangerous places on Earth (so she can avoid them), How to get out of a locked car that has plunged into a river and Ms. Manner’s Proper Guide to Etiquette in Every Worst Case Scenario, among scads of others.

And as I began to embrace Hacivad Bey’s challenge, nobody was more shocked than Zenne and my little girl self at the tale I began to tell.  I began to reflect back on the specific night in my adult life when I realized I was good at explaining – and teaching.  And that teaching can wield a great power when it comes to human connections and the promise of something positive, however small.  Let me tell you a bit more.

It is 3 a.m., and I am sitting in the courthouse in the South Bronx, near Yankee stadium – but the game was long finished.  The air is stale, the atmosphere is grey even though the smoking is out in the hallway.  Family, friends and gang posses alternately sleep and posture as they wait for their loved one to have their arraignment hearing.  Working the graveyard shift in arraignments court, where all new case originate in “the system,” I spent my “on call” night sitting and watching the circus-like goings on, just taking it all in.

Once in a while, one of the attorneys on my team (all public defenders), would call me back to the arraignments cell, covered in the vomit of people in withdrawal from this or that addiction, in order to assist in interviewing the next person up for their first appearance before the judge.  They usually only called me in when it was a “tough cookie,” as the most seasoned among the attorneys called them – she was an Italian-American lady with nerves of steel and humor to beat the band.  Her name was Amy, and she pranced about in her Christian Louboutin high heels and charmed the wits out of everyone – judges, prosecutors, criminal defendants, court guards – me – everyone.  I loved working with her, and I especially loved watching her build relationships with her clients, the people that were about to be charged with criminal offenses. She was magical in her work.

Usually, Amy did her own work – but I was called in by other more “green” lawyers to deal with people that were either too “dope sick” to talk much, too mentally ill to get much of what the attorneys were saying in legalese or too confused and sad and embarrassed to look eye to eye with a sharp-looking attorney in a flashy suit.  I worked with some majorly dandy dressers – male and female – and I often felt this helped the battle of winning over the judges and prosecutors – but lost the war of engaging our clients.  But that is another story for another time.

The young woman I had in front of me that night, no more than 16 years old, and being charged as an adult, had a great keloid-scarred welt along her cheek.  It did not surprise me to learn that “Jasmine” (as I will call her) was “in” for cutting another girl – the girl – she told me with no remorse – who had cut her own face.

“Girls,” my partner attorney whispered in sotto voce, as if that would help with engaging our client, “are the worst clients ever. Jasmine, let me tell you again – I get that you are proud that you got justice for yourself by cutting this girl back – but in this arraignments matter, you need to plead not guilty – you will do yourself a disservice if you admit your guilt – especially with pride.”

Of course, I understood that the exhausted and vastly inexperienced attorney was nonetheless guiding her the right way, to set up her criminal case in the best way possible-but between his legalese (which I have translated here into English) and his disaffected and burned out manner, it wasn’t working a whit. He had no idea how to get her to play ball.

Juiced up on fear and hours sitting in the stink of the human pen that is the arraignments holding cell (50 people in about a 10 by 20 room with one open toilet, Jasmine let rip a string of curse words not even the most hardened criminal could muster under duress – this was one angry – and hurt lady.  I kicked the lawyer out of the room and decided to level with her.  “Look,” I said, “I’m a White girl from the suburbs, I can’t relate to you at all with what you are going through from my own experience – but I can tell you this, I can tell you how this system works.  And you have some choices to make today that can impact tomorrow.  You can hate that dandy lawyer all you like – and you can hate me all you like as well – but please just let me explain to you how the process works here.  If you listen to me, and show me to the best of your ability that you understand, I will respect whichever decision you would like to make, no problem. And besides that, it’s my job, ok?”

Despite her side-eyed sneer over folded arms with sharp elbows ready to fight her way out of the room with me, she sat and listened as I walked through the process of arraignment – and beyond.  And a good thing started happening, she started asking clarification questions (although she spat out words like bullets, with hate and pain).  I learned that if you can ignore those bullets, that hate and that pain, and you can just get through by “starting where the client is” as so many social workers like to say, you can get somewhere.

And before long, she stood up, and asked me to stand with her up in the courtroom.  “I ain’t standin’ next to no stoopit attorney for my not-guilty plea,” she said, “but I be standing next to you, I get you. You gonna explain that to my family? They out there, I think.”  Of course, I just said, “sure, ok, let’s roll – and be sure to let me know who your family is, so I can talk to them after you have your appearance, ok?”

And that was all the thanks I needed.  She had “gotten it.”  And it was also the moment I realized that I had taught someone something – how the system works and doesn’t work, where you have some choice, and where you don’t.  What can help you, and what can hurt you.  After the hearing, and after sitting with her family, explaining it all again, I watched the dawn come up through the tiny windows at the top of the room’s tall walls, and I realized “I have the capacity to teach. It’s probably the most important thing I can do in this work.”  And that, Hacivad Bey, that is how I learned that I could teach – by teaching someone  that someone vastly different than herself could stay present, listen and do her best to explain what was next on the path, and that it could work if I listened, and if I used the right words.

And I have never forgotten Jasmine, and it is Jasmine that I call upon whenever I work with a really upset, challenged or challenging student in a policy analysis or research methods course.  And it works every time.  And I love it, I love teaching.

Zenne, the nervous Nellie puppet who shakes at nothing much at all as if she were a glass of jelly, well, she’s just in shock, suspended in time at this story. It’s too much for her.  Her loss.

Liz Cameron www.slowly-by-slowly.com

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