7.3: “Literacy Story” -- Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick
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Consider this simple question: Who possesses more power, teachers or students? Note your initial thoughts below.
While the answers to this question will likely vary, it is no surprise that teachers are often perceived as having a great deal of power in the classroom. In many cases, they are the only individuals standing at the front of the class, facing all of the students. In online classes, they are typically expected to initiate the first
communication and they often regulate the nature and pace of dialogue among students. Indisputably, teachers possess a high level of both power and authority by virtue of their institutional position, subject-area expertise, and relationships with students. However, despite the degree and nature of power that is often ascribed to teachers, author Peter Elbow reinscribes this typical power dynamic by proposing a “teacherless class.” Through this concept, Elbow aims to “deny something–something that is often assumed: the necessary connection between learning and teaching” (p. vii). As he goes on to explain, “The teacherless writing class is a place where there is learning but no teaching. It is possible to learn something and not be taught. It is possible to be a student and not have a teacher. If the student’s function is to learn and the teacher’s to teach, then the student can function without a teacher, but the teacher cannot function without a student” (p. vii). Not only does Elbow offer a radical alternative to typical classrooms, but he metacognitively points out the power dynamics and assumed relationship that he is intentionally trying to disrupt. Elbow’s concept illuminates the ways in which students wield power–through incidental learning, varied sources of knowledge (personal experience, self-directed study, etc.), and the independence that these conditions grant them. As he says, learning can occur without a teacher, but teaching or educating, which involves guiding, imparting, and leading out, requires a student/audience.
In this next first-person essay, author Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick illustrates the type of denial that Elbow describes. Through his transformation in prison, Smith-Pennick turns his preoccupation with the streets into a thirst for knowledge and learning. This shift did not depend upon a teacher’s formal instruction; rather, Smith-Pennick learned from engaging in dialogue with and listening to several knowledgeable, incarcerated men. In essence, Smith-Pennick participated in a type of “teacherless class.” What makes this even more of an unexpected rewriting of power dynamics is that incarcerated men assumed the position of knowledge and insight–a departure from traditional roles.
As you read, take note of the following:
1.What kind of questions did Smith-Pennick begin to raise? What prompted those questions?
2. What does Smith-Pennick say about light and darkness?
3. How did Smith-Pennick reclaim power from within prison?
It was October 27, 2017; the day was cold, gloomy and damp. Ironically, the weather seemed to fit just right, considering the fact that this was the day of sentencing - my day of sentencing. Inside of the holding tank there were about five of us waiting to be cuffed, shackled, and hauled off to the prison van, awaiting transportation to the courthouse.
Between the five of us, the ages ranged from 15 to 25. I was 21. The other two adults were 18 and 25. Amongst us was two juveniles (15 and 17) being tried as adults. After about an hour of small talk, I concluded that there were four commonalities in which we shared: all of us were young, black, from the inner city, and facing murder charges.
In all honesty, I found some solace in the fact that we were all to be crucified. Was I wrong for feeling this way? Although not verbalized, it was apparent that those feelings were mutual - a sense of comfort is how I'd best describe it. Some of us went to war with each other's blocks on the streets. We were enemies. We absolutely hated each other for one reason or another . . . but in that moment - no matter how brief - we had each other. We were enemies of the state.
As time went on, my anxiety began to ascend. The cold, steel bench was uncomfortable and I began to shift from side to side. My thoughts came and went at the speed of light. “How much time would I get? Will the judge agree to the twenty year plea bargain? Is he willing to consolidate my seven year sentence with the twenty years? What about good time? How many days can I earn? Five days a month times 12 equals 60 days a year” I thought maybe if I file for a sentence modification I can be out before I turn 50. Or what about . . . “Smith!” My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the CO's voice. “Smith, inmate number 00710200” the CO yelled. This time with a hint of irritability in his raspy voice. “Yo” I replied. “Let's go boy, we haven't got all day,” he replied.
When I stepped out of the holding tank, I was escorted to a vacant room. The walls were pearly white and smelled of fresh paint. As I made a quick observation of my surroundings, I was instructed to strip. And even though this wasn't my first time being instructed to do so, it was just as humiliating and dehumanizing as the first time.
After taking off all of my prison issued attire piece by piece, I stood completely naked. Next, I was told to lift my arms and then my scrotum. The CO then instructed me to open my mouth and lift my tongue. Lastly, I was ordered to turn around, lift the bottoms of my feet; then bend over, spread my cheeks, squat, and cough. Now that this horrifying process was over, I could be cuffed, shackled, and placed on the prison van.
The next few hours would be daunting. Not only was I uncomfortable due to the shackles that were virtually cutting off my circulation, but I was trying to come to terms with the fact that this would be the last time that I saw the outside world for a long time, unless I was being transferred to another prison.
After about the first 15 minutes of the ride, conversations ceased. My seat was all the way in the back, closest to the window. I looked at the Halloween decorations on the houses we passed. I observed people out in the real world focusing on the mundane things in life. The windows of the van were tinted. I could see them but they couldn't see me . . . I didn't exist.
By the time we merged with the highway traffic, the weather began to take a turn for the worst. It was raining aggressively. Large raindrops crashed into the window, obstructing my view. I started drifting off into a deep slumber as the country music blared through the speakers. “What Hurts the Most” by Rascal Flatts was playing. I uttered the words to myself, nodding in and out - “I can take the rain on the roof of this empty house, that don't bother me,” and I was out like a light.
Suddenly, I was awakened by the van coming to an abrupt halt, causing my head to jerk just a little. Finally, we arrived at the courthouse. The rather large CO exited the vehicle and made his way around to the sliding door and opened it. “Out, everybody let's go,” he said. Once inside, we were instructed to walk down a hallway, which seemed to take forever given the fact that we could only take baby steps due to the shackles around our ankles. At the end of the hallway, there were several cells. The two juveniles were placed in separate cells, per DOC policy juveniles and adults were to be isolated.
The remaining three of us were placed in a holding tank with two steel benches, one toilet, a sink, and a mirror. It smelled like hot urine and misery. Hope was non-existent here. After the CO secured the door, we were ordered to step forward. One by one, we placed our hands in the slot on the door, so that the cuffs could be removed. The shackles remained on, but at least the blood in my hands could begin circulating again.
As I massaged my wrist, I allowed my eyes to scan the walls. They were covered with graffiti. Usually individuals would sign their names along with the "hood” they claim. Others would write RIP on the wall to salute their fallen soldiers who had been gunned down in one of the many domestic warzones in this country, where poverty is concentrated and violence is amplified. I recognized many of these names - some were my friends.
The hours passed by and not a word was spoken amongst the three of us. One guy was rapping to himself. The other guy was pacing the floor, back and forth, obviously nervous. Meanwhile I sat on the steel bench trying to mentally prepare myself for what was to come.
I could hear the CO's keys shaking off in the distance as he walked. Gradually the sound got louder, he was coming! My palms began to sweat; my heart beat accelerated. Who would be first? The answer to my question came sooner than anticipated. Within a matter of seconds, the CO was at the door. “Smitty, you're up” said the CO. I stood up and walked to the door, placing my hands in the slot for the cuffs to be placed back on me once again. Luckily, they weren't unbearably tight this time.
The CO ordered me to step out, and then he slammed the door shut, shaking the handle for reassurance. We made our way down the long dreary corridor. As it came to an end, I was told to turn right. which would place me directly in front of the elevator. The doors opened and I immediately noticed a cage in the back of the elevator. I was placed inside the cage while the officer stayed on the other side. This was it - my crucifixion was about to take place.
When the doors opened the CO unlocked the cage. After exiting the elevator, I was placed in a side room. My stomach began to churn, and my entire body started shaking uncontrollably. Suddenly, I was terrified. Never in my life had I been this afraid. I've stared down the barrel of death before and that feeling didn't come close to this. I took deep breaths to try and regain my composure.
After about ten minutes or so, the CO came to escort me to the entrance of the courtroom. Before he opened the door, I was instructed to lift my hands so that the cuffs could be removed. My hands were shaking uncontrollably, yet again. “Are you alright, man?,” asked the CO with a perplexed look on his face? “Yeah, I'm cool,” I replied. And just like that, I was entering the courtroom.
Upon entry, all I saw was a bunch of white faces looking at me. I scanned the large crowd, searching for my family. I spotted them four rows back from where I was to be seated next to my Public Defender. Walking to my seat seemed to take a decade. I felt like a lion on display at the Philadelphia Zoo. Was I an animal?
Once I made it to my seat, the process began. The judge entered the courtroom and we were all instructed to rise, and then be seated. The judge was a black male in his late 50's. He was tall and slim, with salt and peppered hair. He began rummaging through some paperwork in front of him and then looked up at me, “You have a pretty lengthy record for a young man, Mr. Smith, a repeat offender.” I said nothing. After the prosecutor scolded me a bit, my Public Defender said a few words on my behalf. Next, the judge asked, “Do you have any last words before sentencing?” I stood up and began to speak . . .
“Your Honor, first I would like to say thank you for allowing me to address the court. Secondly, I want to thank my family for their unwavering support in the face of so much adversity. And most importantly,” I turned to face my victim’s family. “I apologize… I apologize for all of the pain you feel as a result of my actions. I will never understand what it feels like for a mother to lose her only child. What I can do is promise you that I will spend the rest of my life trying to atone for my actions. I hope that one day you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
The judge and I went over the plea, which he ultimately accepted. He sentenced me to 20 years, but refused to consolidate my sentences. The sound of the gavel slamming solidified my fate - 27 years!
The ride back was a somber one. Not only was I mentally exhausted, I was numb. One guy had been pepper sprayed and beaten pretty badly because he punched his lawyer in the face when the judge withdrew his 15 year plea and sentenced him to 39 years. Every so often, he would ask me, “Are we almost there, yet?” He couldn't see as a result of the spray in his face, I was empathetic towards him. The third guy was sentenced to 15 years. And the two juveniles got finished early so they rode back on a separate van.
All I could think about was the time I had wasted running the streets. What did I have to show for it? Not a damn thing! I didn't even have a high school diploma or a GED. I was a complete failure.
When I finally got back to the prison, I was stripped and then placed in a close observation cell, waiting to undergo a psych evaluation. This was standard protocol. After a prisoner is sentenced to 20 years or more, the DOC is required to place you on suicide watch for at least 24 hours. For the remainder of that night, I tossed and turned. How was I going to do all of this time? Am I going to die in prison? Nah, I can't die in here? I thought to myself. It was at that moment, I knew that I had to change.
After the classification process was over, I was transferred to SCI-Chester. I didn't know anybody. This was my fresh start. This new place had so many programs. I signed up for all of them. My favorite was the college Inside-Out courses. In those courses, I met some very intelligent young men. They looked like me, but they spoke with such confidence and eloquence. I had never been exposed to anything like that before . . . incarcerated men - black men - so brilliant. It was extremely impressive and it inspired me to want to learn more.
When the semester came to a close, they kept tabs on me. In the yard we'd discuss black history. I learned that African history and black history are two different subjects. I was given books on grammar and encouraged to write. I was told that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Eventually I was introduced to some elders in the prison who were extremely wise. When they spoke I just listened and asked questions. “What is capitalism?” I said. “Who is Karl Marx?” What does socioeconomic mean?” This was all new to me, and my mind was in a frenzy!
They told me about white supremacy and how it operates in our day to day lives. This led me to further examine the system as a whole. I no longer had an allure for the streets. I was thirsty for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
Had it not been for those individuals, I would have still been on a crash-course. Those guys saved my life and for that I am grateful. I now have a sense of purpose. The blindfold had been removed; I could see. It's funny how you tend to find light in the darkest of places.
After reading Smith-Pennick’s essay, take some time to reflect on the questions and quotes below. We also encourage you to discuss your thoughts with classmates or others.
1. What kinds of questions does Smith-Pennick raise and what observations do these questions help draw attention to? Note some specific examples.
2. At the end of Smith-Pennick’s essay, he says that “It's funny how you tend to find light in the darkest of places.” Does his perspective reinforce or challenge dominant perspectives on light and darkness, as described in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s analysis of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Praising Dark Places”?
3. What inspired Smith-Pennick’s decision to transform himself in prison?
4. Towards the end of his essay, how does Smith-Pennick describe the other incarcerated men? How does this depiction challenge dominant stereotypes?
5. Through Smith-Pennick’s transformation, how does he rewrite his position within traditional power dynamics, especially as they apply to those who are incarcerated?