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Otterbein Towers Magazine: Students learn lessons in kindness from inmates

Otterbein Towers Magazine: Students learn lessons in kindness from inmates

Editor’s Note: This story can be found in the latest edition of Otterbein Towers Magazine. Read more stories from Towers online.


By Shannon Lakanen, associate professor of English

The first time we made it past both security checkpoints, past the visiting rooms, and into the main hall of Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) to meet with the men enrolled in Piper Kerman’s and Christopher Greathouse’s True Story Writing class, I was keenly aware that the most powerful interactions are the ones we never anticipate.

The hall was lined with men in prison uniforms leaning against doorways to socialize, and as Christopher and I brought up the back of the line of eleven undergraduate students, I remember feeling that had I been blindfolded, I would still feel their gazes on us as we passed. When we got to the conference room, we found a few men scattered around the circle of chairs. They immediately greeted us with individual fist bumps and handshakes, asked how the drive was, told us how glad they were that we came, and invited us to sit down.

Gwendolyn DeRosa, a part-time ESL instructor enrolled in my course, describes the significance of her first impression: “Walking into the classroom in the men’s prison was a surreal experience. The physical environment was cold and barren. I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to expect. But from the moment we walked in, I was so grateful for the guys’ welcoming attitude.” Their unexpected tenderness with us in these moments was the first of many kindnesses they offered.

Three years ago, Piper Kerman, author of the memoir, Orange is the New Black, began building memoir-writing programs in central Ohio prisons. Two years ago, her students at Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) and MCI started earning credit at Otterbein for their work in her courses. Every other week this semester, I’ve traveled with my students to participate in Piper and Chris’s classes.

My class roster includes students at every stage of their academic careers: a third-year equine business major rides shotgun in the Ottervan on the drive to Marion, while a first-semester psychology student discusses the week’s reading with a senior creative writer.

“For a few hours every couple of weeks, our labels are stripped from us,” explains psychology major Alex Bowman ’18. “We are just people interacting with people through nothing but respect and kindness.”

In our class meetings, we discuss the same books and bring responses to the same autobiographical writing prompts as the students at ORW and MCI. We have in-depth discussions of the formal characteristics of memoir writing and the writerly moves that authors make. But what we’re finding most valuable is the lesson in human kindness inherently embedded in this set-up: what we discover when we open ourselves to exploring our connections with each other.

And the connections are easier to discover than one might expect: after creative writing major Alex Futo ’19 read a memoir about her parents’ divorce, one of the most seasoned MCI students responded.

“Now I’ve never been a 13-year-old girl, but your story brought me right back to ’64 when my mom and dad split up, so I thank you for sharing it.”

These relationships teach us again and again that no matter our differences, when we are sincere in our efforts to understand the most significant stories of each other’s lives, we illuminate our similarities.

Read more stories about kindness in the latest edition of Otterbein Towers Magazine, available online now.