marzo 23, 2017 by Debra Gittler


Yesterday, my high school English teacher came with me to Cook County Jail.

“No one else can write what you do, if the story comes filtered through your soul,”

–Darlene McCampbell… but she said it better.

The Chicago environments we work in are laden with undertones—undertones of race, gender, class, engagement with the legal system…

I’m sure it’s not more complicated or charged than El Salvador; I’m simply more attuned to the cultural distinctions around me in my native country, my native language. There, it’s harder to notice. Here, I swim in it.

And let’s create some context: in every space we are working, I am the only white person in the room, the only woman, the only one not “at-risk of” or accused of violent acts. The only one who has never been afraid of getting shot. And the only one to have attended elite schools. Some have graduated high school, maybe attended some college. But my privilege is palpable.

So, yesterday, having my University of Chicago Laboratory High Schools English Teacher sit beside me in a Cook County Jail classroom was a thrill. In her classes, literature became my lens: to explore the death of my sister, the dynamics of family, the subtleties amongst friends, the nuances of groups. Writing about literature allowed me delve deeper into my assumptions, search for universal truths, feel connected to something bigger. Her teaching made me think like a Writer. Her guidance made me feel like a Writer. And her support helped me lead a path to become a teacher to Writers.

The Cook County Authors asked questions and she answered; she asked questions and they answered. And then she read to them.

And the whole time, my smile stretched around wet eyes. She’s the same I remember—excited and careful with words, encouraging and thoughtful, soft-spoken and filled with sighs and exclamations; a tight fist of cheer, a nod of reassurance.

Totally different than me as a teacher. Funny, that a woman who inspired me so much never moved me to emulate her. Because she moved me to be myself. She allowed me to find my own voice—as a Writer. And as a Teacher of Writing.

In the jail—in any jail or prison, I think—there’s always a layer of distance between a visitor and detainees, a wall of protection, a cautious reserve. Officers and Jail-Staff often remind me: don’t forget who these guys are.

But having Ms. McCampbell was a blurring of my worlds. All that privilege of mine, right there with their reality.

Our classroom at County is set up just like Ms. McCampbell’s at the Lab Schools. Students in a square-shaped “circle,” teacher seated amongst them, occassionally walking into the center of that circle to look over shoulders or facilitate dialogue, encourage participation or push back.

She asked them to share what they enjoyed about their own schooling. So many commented about getting candy as a prize. It broke my heart that they weren’t encouraged to love learning, but bribed to get the right answers.

Ms. McCampbell told them that her classes are just like our class. The weight of the silences, the sincerity of the comments, the respect amongst colleagues. She told them that in her writing courses, usually a few brave students share something honest and vulnerable, and that creates the safety for others to open. “That’s what happened here,” one Author said.

I told the Authors that it wasn’t until I went to college that I realized how lucky I was to have had literature classes like Ms. McCampbell’s. And then when I became a public school teacher, I learned how difficult it is to become a teacher like Ms. McCampbell.

How do I explain the meaning of that visit? Of bringing my worlds together? Of seeing where I began to think as a Writer merge with a classroom where I’m the Teacher of Writers?

There was a lot going on in that room… Not just the circle of life, or the honor of sitting beside a mentor; not the thrill of accomplishment or the joy of recognition. But the implications of these two institutions in one room. The school where I started, a place that encourages freedom of thought and expression, imagination, exploration and achievement. Combined with Cook County Jail. Where each detainee is a number in a brown jump suit, stripped of aspiration or hope.

n that classroom in Cook County Jail yesterday, where Lab School’s greatest teacher met 13 guys awaiting trial, there were a lot of undertones: What could’ve been different if…? What might be different when…? How can powerful classrooms create change? What happens when we bring privilege and restriction together?

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