James Tackach is a professor of English at Roger Williams University. He taught at the Rhode Island Adult Correctinal Institution from 1979 through 1981 in a program offered by Rhode Island College.
Teaching prison inmates, which I did for a couple of years three decades ago, was serious business. But whenever anyone asks me about the time I spent teaching in the maximum security unit of the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), through a federal program housed at Rhode Island College, I generally recall the lighter, less serious moments.
The forbidding maximum security unit of the Rhode Island ACI does not appear to be fertile ground for humor. The main building is a big, gray, ugly stone structure that might suggest a mid-19th-century factory at best and a medieval dungeon at worst. To get to the section of the unit that held a couple of seedy classrooms, I had to pass through a metal detector and two sets of barred doors, then walk past the rows of confining cells that housed the inmates. It was a very serious place.
Yet some of the funniest moments of my teaching career occurred in this humorless place. One comes vividly back to my mind every time I have to hunt for a piece of chalk in a classroom.
The classrooms at the ACI were minimally equipped: student desks, a desk in front of the room on which I could sit during class, a paint-stained blackboard on the front wall. Sometimes there was chalk in the blackboard chalk tray; often there wasn’t. I like to write terms, draw pictures, and do all sorts of scribbling on the blackboard during a class session, and the lack of chalk was a serious impediment to my teaching style. And try to find a piece of chalk in a maximum security prison—finding a snow shovel in a Florida garage might be easier.
A few weeks into one semester at the ACI, having had to teach two or three chalk-less class sessions, I decided to solve my problem for the remainder of the semester. At that time in my life, I was without a full-time teaching position, so I strung together two or three adjunct gigs to earn a salary that paid my bills. The course at the ACI was one source of income. I also taught a couple of courses at Roger Williams College (RWC), now Roger Williams University, and I did some freelance technical writing as well.
At RWC, a private college in Bristol, Rhode Island, chalk was plentiful. Each of the classrooms in which I taught had dozens of pieces of chalk lying on the blackboard chalk trays. One day, knowing that I would be teaching at the ACI that evening, I grabbed a handful of chalk from the RWC classroom in which I was teaching and threw the pieces into my briefcase for use later at the ACI.
That evening at the ACI, I was trying to lead my student inmates through a discussion of a short story that I’ve now forgotten in an Introduction to Fiction course. I needed to write a term on the blackboard, but, as usual, there was not a piece of chalk to be found. No problem. I opened my briefcase and grabbed the handful of chalk that I had stored there earlier in the day and put the chalk on the blackboard tray.
“Now I’ll have enough chalk for the rest of the semester,” I told my student inmates. “And do you guys know where that chalk came from?” I asked. No one offered a response. “I stole the chalk from Roger Williams College!” I proudly announced.
Immediately a roar of approval came from my students. “He stole the damn chalk!” one student shouted. “He stole the chalk!” The students started excitedly high-fiving one another. Several broke out in applause.
Yes, I, too, was a criminal in my students’ eyes—a thief to be exact. For a moment, the teacher, a young man who had toed a very straight line through life—high school, college, graduate school, never breaking anything more than the speed limit law—and the inmates, some of whom had done dreadful things, had something in common. Moreover, I had broken the law—stolen something—and, apparently, had gotten away with it. That earned my students’ admiration. I could have purchased a box of chalk cheaply enough at a stationery store, but it seemed so much more satisfying, and appropriate, to steal the chalk and smuggle it into the ACI.
From that moment on, I had a certain street credibility in that ACI classroom. Did I change any lives by leading the student inmates through riveting discussions of short stories and novels? I cannot say for certain that I did. But at least I had those students’ attention for the remainder of the semester—and plenty of chalk for every classroom session.