When I do my work at the jail, I always try to strike a helpful balance between recognizing on the one hand that life is hard, especially when systems work against us, and on the other that we often have more power than we realize to choose how we move through this life.
A week ago, I meet with a woman who is getting released from jail the next day. She is divorcing her husband, who is also in jail, and has recently revoked her rights to be her son's mother. She's scared, but hopeful. "All my life," she says, "I have been totally dependent on my parents or my husband. I want to prove to myself that I can be independent. I want to be an independent woman." I share with her something I read recently that I've been chewing on: The moment you lose everything is the moment you can create anything. I'm not sure I buy into the "anything" part, but I do buy into the idea of someone who has lost so much emerging from the ashes with new strength, an independent woman.
The next day, I'm teaching my class, and something an inmate says reminds me of the conversation I had with this woman. I share the story. One student enthusiastically asks me to repeat the idea I'd read somewhere so he can write it down. Another shakes his head and openly scoffs at the idea. In fact, he openly scoffs at several things we discuss that day.
When it happens, I realize that I've long thought my students might see me as naive about their experiences, which I am, and therefore overly optimistic about their futures, but it does not quite prepare me for the open scoffing.
As I reflect on it after class ends, I am glad for the reality check. I revisit the balance I work hard to strike. I will continue to openly acknowledge the many uphill struggles my students face. No sugar coating from me. But I will not give up my optimistic ways. They are the point of why I'm there.
A few days later, I attend a department training meeting. Serendipitously, the guest speaker talks about being positive. He says that while things are what they are, we use our imagination to evaluate whether they could be better or worse (both are always true, by the way). Then we imagine whether things will get better or worse from there. Our response springs from that imagination. Key to creating positive action (as opposed to curling up and pulling the blanket over our head or worse) is being more aware of how we evaluate what is and how we imagine what can be. If we are aware of our thinking, we can shape it, and that, in turn, can shape what we do.
I figure out how to incorporate some of the ideas from the training meeting into my class to help shore up the balance I work so hard to strike.