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Prison English, Part 3: In the classroom

Inside Orleans Parish Prison—one of the worst jails in the country—an English class takes place, not to help inmates fulfill GED requirements, but simply to facilitate their study of literature and books. In this three-part series, Room 220‘s Ari Braverman explores the parts of the program that make it work—and make it worthwhile—from the founder of the program, Nik De Dominic, to the many local writers who teach in it, to the inmates who take part in it. The program is currently an all-volunteer effort, though it is looking for funding.

Read OPP English “Part I: The Instigator” and “Part II: When I left, my mind was buzzing.

opp3By Ari Braverman

“All right! Who’s feeling read-y?”

This is how Nik De Dominic asks for volunteers.

A voice issues from the middle of three students seated in a conference-style arrangement of tables in a windowless classroom inside Orleans Parish Prison: “Me.”

The man clears his throat before reading the first line of Matthias Svalina’s “Creation Myth”: In the beginning, everyone wanted to fight to the death.

We’re all silent as he continues, poring over a handout, including Anne McKinley, grants supervisor at OPP and the prison-side coordinator of De Dominic’s program. The poem ends and De Dominic indulges the room’s resonant silence. All three students are still staring at the poem when he asks them to unpack the text.

“Genesis,” says one student, who will only give his name as D.

Behind D and the other two students, the room is full of bookshelves that are mostly empty. De Dominic’s personal donations fill two rows, and behind where I sit there are a number of volumes for the prison’s high school reading program, but that’s it. Someone has placed a new globe near the door.  Three plastic cabinets dominate the room’s rear wall, each secured with a padlock. It’s unclear whether or not they, too, are empty.

Apart from these and the guard seated in front of them, the white and orange sweat suits, plastic sandals, and shackles, it’s tempting to forget this isn’t a standard poetry class. The students arrive on time, 3 p.m. every Thursday, and stay engaged for the whole two-hour period. Each man has the same easy bearing in this space, the confidence that comes from aptitude and experience. They’ve all been in the class since the beginning of the semester in September, and everyone says he’s learned something.

D says he never watches the clock in the hope that class time is running down—a departure from his experience as an undergraduate. On the contrary, he says he hopes for an extra twenty minutes every week: “I don’t know if it’s the jail environment, the way it offsets class—you have to take that into consideration,” he says, “but I just get caught up. You’re learning something, doing something constructive, positive. You’re learning something about yourself maybe, expressing yourself through writing, and you want to keep going.”

De Dominic guides us through the packet without interruption. There’s none of the side conversation or daydreaming that happens in most classrooms. Everyone at the table takes a turn reading a poem out loud. Each begins with the phrase “In the beginning.”

Jason Romero volunteers to read a piece about a woman who tapes, glues, and paperclips complementary objects together—tears to faces, smiles to happy people, leaves to trees—but isn’t happy with the outcome.

“That woman’s confused, man,” he says after finishing. His classmates and teacher murmur in agreement. Black block letters on his sweatshirt spell out “OPP,” another reminder we’re not at Xavier, Loyola, Tulane, UNO, Dillard, or Delgado. He says the paperclip poem reminds him of the world.

D reads a poem in which the world begins with an old man telling stories to mimeograph machines he thinks are children, and the packet concludes with “Destruction Myth,” the last piece in the eponymous collection. De Dominic prefaces it by asking the students why Svalina might have chosen the name he did, given there’s only one “Destruction Myth” and the rest of the book’s 44 poems are all called “Creation Myth.”

Different timbres fill the classroom as the students read from the final piece round-robin. The language is choppy and spare, the images visceral and concrete, yet mysterious. When it’s finished, De Dominic appeals to his students as writers, not just readers, and asks them about how the thing works, what it’s doing and why, and what language they’d love to borrow. It’s easy to see why these men feel so comfortable with De Dominic—he comes to them as a teacher, but never crosses the line between instruction and condescension. He’s encouraging but never saccharine, friendly but not too familiar.

“He’s saying that, in the end, one thing that’s normally with another thing would be without it, which makes you realize what they would be [alone]. What would the salt be without the sea?” Romero muses.

Then De Dominic says it’s time to wax philosophical. “Is creation possible without destroying?” he asks.

D counters the question with one of his own: “The intention is to show us that there’s violence in birth and life?”

“Maybe.”

Unphased by the oblique reply, D continues:“[I’m thinking of] the different ways things are created—anything from an omelet to birth to the mountains. At some point in the process there’s some kind of destruction or violence. I guess you could call [creation] a violent act.”

Romero riffs off this comment and suggests: “I guess we have to break one thing down to make another thing. Like an omelet. If you want use onions, you have to break them down a little bit to make the whole omelet.” This begins a discussion of the necessity of pain when it comes to mastering tricks on a skateboard.

Later, Romero tells me he didn’t participate much in the beginning of the semester: “When I first got to class, I was really shy and nervous. I don’t think I’m dumb or anything, but everyone was so smart!” He laughs. “I was just quiet, just listening. Now I’m doing it all.” He wears a black beanie and has a plastic rosary around his neck, and looks very young. He and D are from the same tier in OPP. I ask if they hang out when they’re not in class and they both laugh.

“We don’t like each other,” D says, pointing at Romero across the table. “We try to kill each other.” He pantomimes a snarl.

Romero grins: “I can’t stand him.”

It turns out that, at least on that particular tier, these students are some of the program’s best ambassadors. Romero shares what he’s learned with a younger friend, who in turn has contacted McKinley, the OPP coordinator, about joining the class next semester.

“We’ve been advertising,” D tells her, and she thanks him with a mix of sweetness and sarcasm and feigned exasperation. She seems more a housemother than authority figure.

Bryan Baker, the third student, spends his time on a different tier. Except for his initial participation and reading out loud when it’s his turn, he remains quiet in spite of his palpable engagement with the text. He appears older than D and Romero and has a powerful build that amplifies his taciturn presence. But his sternness belies a romantic heart. When asked why he signed up for the class, he answers: “I wanted to write poetry. I wanted to write to females.” He pauses. “I’m just being honest.”

Everyone at the table—teacher and student alike—concludes his reason is completely valid.

“That’s why I started writing poetry,” De Dominic offers.

However, as class ends, Baker also describes how important it felt to participate in something like this. He says wanted to do something that would elevate him. “I look forward to coming here every Thursday to get an experience to bring back [to the tier]. We’re around a lot of negative shit all day, so it’s good to get out the door for a little while and learn something. [This class] really works for me.”

Romero echoes the sentiment: “I feel like I’m bettering myself by coming to this class, sitting here, paying attention, working on my writing. Writing and literature is something you can use throughout your whole life, not just in one certain career.” He illustrates his point with a discussion of injury. What happens if someone who’s been taught a physical trade loses a hand or a leg, or becomes paralyzed? “The trade is now useless,” he says, “but if you are strong intellectually, it’s something you always have with you.”

“A class like this,” D says, “can help you communicate between cultures, ages, races, sexes, to better understand where people are coming from and to better express yourself to a broad range of people. There’s a wider range, a bigger net. You can modify [what you’ve learned] to fit certain career requirements.”

To steer the focus back towards Svalina’s poetry, De Dominic gives the class five minutes to make their own creation or destruction myths. He reminds everyone about the brevity of Svalina’s phrasing, as well as the poet’s pop culture references that ground the writing and create a sense of familiarity for his readers. Everybody, including De Dominic, gets right to work, and the room is silent. The guard at the back of the room peruses the screen of her smart phone. D squints at his paper for a long time, tapping his pen against his bottom lip. The five minutes become seven, then ten. Baker and Romero write quickly, and the latter is still editing his work after De Dominic calls time.

“Where do we begin? I want to hear these.” De Dominic leans back in his plastic chair, laces his fingers behind his head.

D’s effort has rendered something short and opaque but full of possibility: “In the beginning there was time. / Just waiting for it all to start. / Again, in the beginning time was waiting / and it waited till the very end.”

Baker has come up with some of the most resonant lines of the day, including “The sun will come up but never go down / … / Fires will last forever.” He retreats into silence as soon as he finishes reading.

Romero’s piece is the longest of the three. He describes childhood totems: a tricycle and nightlights, coloring books and tantrums. He regards the page with a gentle expression as De Dominic compliments the work.

Then, keeping with seminar format, De Dominic reads his own, a piece about New Orleans that begins with Justin Bieber and Madonna and ends with the collapse of social media.

“That’s got legs, that’s got legs, and that’s got legs, too,” De Dominic says, pointing at D and Baker and Romero in succession. “Go back to them and write them out. What you’re doing now is pretty.”

On that note, class ends. De Dominic has to be across town by 5 p.m. to teach at Delgado’s campus on the West Bank, and the three inmates are due their allotted daily “outside time.” De Dominic says an easy goodbye and disappears through the door. The students line up. The cuffs on their ankles, cumbersome plastic flip-flops, and thick white socks keep their strides very short. The guard opens the door and ushers them through it. I’m next, and McKinley brings up the rear.

We exit into a dark concrete cellblock and take the stairs very slowly until we reach a landing. Instead of a window or guardrail, an iron grate separates us from a three-story fall onto Tulane Avenue, and the air from the outside world presses on our faces.

McKinley looks at her watch. “Starting now,” she says. “Three minutes.” Everyone takes a position looking out. “We used to do it for five,” she tells me, “but some people just couldn’t help hollering at some people.”

Romero laces his fingers into the metal latticework, sets his forehead in the space between his hands. D and Baker just look. The traffic sounds very far away. Tulane Tower rises in a plank of sunlight across the street.

“All right, guys,” McKinley says. “Time to go.”

This interview by Ari Braverman is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie.