By David Daniel
At five minutes to ten on a Wednesday morning I am standing in a small storage area at the county house of correction, waiting for my GED students. The 16-by-16 foot space with gray block walls, pipes overhead, and a single window with bars giving a view onto the corridor outside, is set up as a makeshift classroom. There are a handful of well-worn tablet desks. Taking up most of one wall is a dry erase board, its once-white surface dulled to pewter gray. I have my own marker in my shirt pocket, all I am allowed to bring in. My lesson plan is in my head. On one of the desks, someone has penned with a Sharpie: “scool sucks.”
I’ve lived long enough to have seen the changes from black boards to green boards to white boards to smart boards, though it seems my learning has been in inverse relation to the motion of educational technology. Nowadays the street outside is the board: the sky, the trees, the city, the road leading to this medium security facility for juvenile offenders. My students are in for drug busts, burglary, auto theft, and in one case home invasion.
Classes for youthful inmates are an afterthought. There are no yellow “School Zone” signs out there. Who designs those signs, anyway? Silhouette figures skipping to school: a boy in knickers, his book bag flying; a girl with a flared skirt and pigtails; frisky Fido at their heels. What school are they going to? In here the desks look as if the wood would be salty with tears.
Without fail, the clank of a lock makes me jump. I look up as the door opens and four young men file in escorted by a corrections officer. Last week there were three students, the time before that six. The four take seats. The CO glances at me, a look not baleful and stony, more glassy and bored. All yours, his eyes say. He locks the door behind him. In the enclosed space the air takes on a tang of sweat.
Carlos, Antwone, Hollis, and Brian. Brian is brand new. Only Carlos has been with me all four times. I think of the School Zone sign and the children on it. In their silhouette world there’s an apple on the teacher’s desk (and probably a thumbtack on her chair), and in the corner, on a high stool and wearing a tall pointed hat, sits a kid paying for making arm-pit farts in class, or for carving with a pen knife “scool stinks” into a wooden desktop.
I get started with some simple review from last time. Carlos and Hollis offer responses. Antwone sneezes, his reaction to the lingering dust of old cardboard in the room, then he too volunteers. The new guy, Brian, has his eyes closed. Against the vertically sliced light through the barred window the four are dim shapes. I’m looking for the beauty in the room. The world. The lesson slogs on but has soon lost direction.
Leaving my lesson plan where it is inside my head—it’ll keep—I’m thinking of something to make our time feel a little . . . freer. Less gray. A compare and contrast assignment . . . things in that other place and in this place, drawing from each what might prove useful when they get back there. A survival kit, I say. What will you need? Carlos has some thoughts. I hand him the dry erase marker and he writes his ideas on the board. As do Hollis and Antwone. The new guy, Brian, eventually offers something. Unpacking the lesson plan as it forms, we think of some other items, too. It’s a good list. With the class period almost over, I draw a big circle around what we’ve got. Then, above it in block letters, I start to write.
Carlos, his hair in woven rows, is watching with alert eyes, and as I step away from the board he gives a secret smile of acknowledgement.
What I’ve written is ESCAPE PLAN.
David Daniel, a frequent contributor to this site, is a prolific novelist and writer, and a former high school teacher.
10 Responses to Lesson Plan
The master of the unexpected coming out of what only makes sense. Clearly makes sense.
Nice read, so far . . . . What’s next.
To someone teaching, my 50th year & still at it, Daniel’s wonderfully evoked Lesson Plan deeply resonates. A poignantly perfect and deceptively simple synecdoche standing for the whole of it.
David captures it the hope, the sadness, the imagery of memory, the feeling of redemption and rescue and of course humor.
What this story manages to do in such a small space is amazing. It makes me think of what as a child we used to call take-apart dolls. Here the story gives an image of the smallest and innermost, the tears–they would be inside the young inmates inside the 16 x 16 gray storage space inside the world showing through the window bars, and in the writing and spirit of this story, the circle the teacher draws on the board for the young men, which might be called hope, disrupts the structure of confinement and is bigger than everything.
I love this story. For reasons too complicated to explain, I wish I had read it a few minutes before. That said, this is one that has the stamp of authenticity.
This particular line brought tears to my eyes because we realize that students’ daily circumstances, in most cases, are beyond their control.
“In here the desks look as if the wood would be salty with tears.”
As teachers, we have witnessed their tears and often we are not able to discover the why. One of our conscious choices is to attempt to improve their day in some way….bring a smile to their faces through our lessons, by saying a kind word, shooting a quick smile in their direction. In this case, it’s your decision to adapt a lesson plan and provide your final thoughts by changing the title of the completed assignment.
Escape Plan. We can all relate on some level, yes?
The ending was awesome. It brought a big smile to Carlos’ face. He’s like, “Yeah, man. Good one.” He realizes that when he needs to escape the tough world in which he lives, he will also require many tools for survival. He gets that you titled the work as Escape Plan. It brings a smile to his face; perhaps he becomes enlightened that day in more ways than one.
What resonates here is that when we think in terms of escaping is often our way of surviving.
As a teacher beginning my 20th year at a large high school (and one who also taught GED at a JCF—shout-out to Ham Bandit!), I feel the ease-tension that thrums beneath the lines of this story.
As usual, Dave Daniel sets an elaborate meal, and just as you are getting comfortable, *snap*, pulls the tablecloth off without disturbing a thing.
Another feat of literary derring-do from the master.
This is lovely, like all your writing. (Norman Rockwell of words) Can I use it in my class?
Dave’s at it again: mastering a flashable slice-of-life fiction that’s over almost before it can get in to high gear. So, nominate this piece for an “O. Henry” — I say. This is pure unadulterated William Sydney Porter: it has the set-up, the start-up, the giddy-up, and like a pull-up jump shot it has the sweet swish of basket made. Gotta love the Finish: it’s over before the reader knows it’s coming to an end. How so? Easy. As Horace would opine: “the art is to hide the art.” Yes, Dave does it again.