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Friday, February 24, 2017


For a brief time in my late twenties I worked as a high school teacher. Well, more as a supervisor of high school-aged kids. 

The program was called AEWC for Alternative Education and Work Center and it catered to students who for one reason or another (work, pregnancy, poor grades, trouble with the law) were not suited for the traditional attendance-based classes offered by the standard curriculum. AEWC evolved as an independent study program "to provide high school dropouts with an alternative way to earn a high school diploma."

These "at-risk youths" would come to my classroom and check out their work for the week, around twenty assignments usually culled from two subjects, which they then could complete in class or take home and turn in by the week's end. 

I once remarked to a colleague that such a program, performance-driven rather than attendance-based, was an excellent idea and I wished I had had the opportunity to be my student when I was a teen. Especially during the second half of my senior year, when the novelty of being a senior had faded and senioritis set in, school having become by my birthday in February a sort of glorified babysitting which left me itching to graduate but forced to go to class or fail. 

But most of the at-risk youths under my supervision were really the least qualified of all students to make advantageous use of independent study. They were the very ones, with learning disabilities, short attention spans and general disgruntled waywardness typical of teenagers but more pronounced in certain populations, who required more supervision, not less, more structure rather than the free-form approach. Indeed many even needed the one-on-one care that you only receive with a tutor. 

Instead they got me and my coworker Gerry. The two of us had a total of fifty or more students in class in a given week, and many more were enrolled who didn't regularly show up. We sent these kids off with their assignments and come Friday we each had a tall pile of papers we were supposed to grade. Without enough time to give each assignment the attention it deserved, we had little choice but to give credit for incomplete or flat-out incorrect assignments. Funding for the program was by enrollment, and keeping these kids enrolled meant making sure they completed their work on time. And I don't think a teacher should ever have home work. 

The message we were sending these kids was that all that is required of life is that you show up. Which may be of value in this world, because it is true most of the time. No less than the great thinker and comedian Woody Allen is purported to have said that eighty percent of success lies in simply showing up. Or in this case turning in shoddy work. What the program really needed were students with initiative, self-starters. Gifted kids, not slackers, hoodlums, and pot-heads (and there were many of these; they'd come back after eating lunch at the corner Jack in the Box smelling to high heaven of reefer). But the students most equipped to benefit from a course of self-study generally remain in high school where they enroll in honors and AP courses, with or without skipping a grade or two. There's also home school, I guess.

I was thinking of these kids, of programs with good intentions that target those least equipped to benefit when I read an article on solitary confinement in this month's GQ Magazine. These solitary brothers (I'm not sexist, but 99 percent of those in solitary are male) spend 22 to 24 hours a day alone. Either in Supermax, a "high-tech dungeon specifically designed to warehouse men in isolation," or in seg, an isolation cell in a max-security prison. 

Solitary cuts off the individual from society, indeed from virtually all other human beings other than the guards, who can be cruel. Solitary deposits one in a cell smaller than a parking place without a window and with only the drone of the fluorescent light overhead, which never goes out. And perhaps with a rodent or two in search of crumbs. Inmates are given barely enough food to keep them alive and subjected to the abuses of guards and rants and wailings of the inmates in adjacent cells. 

The program is designed to provide prisoners with alone time to reflect on their misdeeds - which range from heinous crimes to mere insubordination - in the hope that guilt or remorse will help them see the error of their ways and that they'll return to the prison population and later to the general population reformed and rehabilitated. But what too often results is the opposite. Many men go crazy, if they don't start out that way. Some smear themselves with feces, a few bang their head against toilets or even hang themselves. Those who do survive their stint of enforced solitude, which for some can last several decades, often re-enter society maladjusted and with PTSD. 

And then I think of some of the sages who have voluntarily entered the forest or a cave to "meditate on the Self." Ramana Maharshi left home in his early teens, journeyed to the foot of a sacred mountain where he found a temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, and cloistered himself in a remote part of the temple where he sat cross-legged like a stone for not hours or days but entire freakin' years. In this time vermin feasted on his flesh, he developed pressure sores from sitting on the cold concrete, local children would tease him and toss things at him. He neglected his body to such a degree that the temple caretakers eventually had to stuff food in his mouth to keep his body alive. All the while he was "immersed in the bliss of the divine." And he emerged a holy personage. 

In a perfect world this is how the solitary inmate would fare. Instead they leave confinement more of a danger to themselves and others than they were when they entered. I suppose the difference lies in choice. 

I spend most of my hours alone. Some weeks six out of seven days do not involve any interaction with others. And on the seventh day, usually Sunday, a short visit to the market and a few pleasantries exchanged with the cashier comprise my week's worth of social intercourse. And I relish my time alone. Sure I could fill my days with engagements and pursuits, clutter the airwaves with gossip and idle chatter, but instead I commune with myself. Sometimes I talk to myself, other times I write or read. There is exercising and gardening to be done, and caring for my dog. The hours get occupied, and still there is much time for meditation and reflection. This is all worthwhile, partly because it is by choice, and partly because my house is larger than a prison cell, and I don't have nasty fellow inmates and nastier guards with whom to contend. But mostly because I choose time alone. Like a Taoist recluse. Like our Maharshi.

Maharshi elected to experience seclusion. What he could not tolerate was the life of a student, made to do lessons he found to be drudgery, interacting with peers he could not relate to. And so he imposed a solitary confinement of his own. While the wrongdoer is compelled to go it alone, without a guide, as a form of punishment, and consequently feels cut-off.

Now if the inmate were given regular counselling while in solitary, analogous to the one-on-one tutoring that my at-risk kids needed but never got, maybe he'd emerge from his time alone a sage rather than an entrenched sinner. In a perfect world, perhaps. This is me still holding out for utopia.

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