A decade ago I participated in a prisoner support conference my daughter helped organize at Binghamton College. The weekend consisted of a range of self-help workshops focusing on how families could support themselves and their incarcerated family members. There were speakers analyzing the penal system. One speaker was Piri Thomas, poet and author of Down These Mean Streets.
Piri spoke glowingly of his mother and all that she taught him. Piri’s mom died when he was 17 and he shared that she always referred to him as “Mi Negrito”; speaking of the positive effect that had on his self esteem. He told of a later period in his life when he dealt heroin in East Harlem of being wounded in a shoot-out he had with police and his ending up in prison for two ten-year concurrent sentences.
Piri told of entering prison illiterate, of teaching himself to read and write while incarcerated. It was during this period that he wrote Down These Mean Streets by hand, in pen, using several composition notebooks. He shared that a flood in his cellblock destroyed the original version and so this seminal novel of growing up in El Barrio was in reality a replacement copy, again hand written but stored up high.
During the Q&A I referred to his descriptions of his loving relationship with his mother and all she’d taught him. It was after her bolstering his self-esteem, after her death that Piri became a drug dealer involved in shoot-outs with the police. I asked Piri what he was doing all the while she was teaching?
He skirted my question; he never responded to it. Perhaps he took me to be a wise guy. I don’t know. I do know that I believed Piri’s story that his mom did teach him many wonderful things. My question was when did he learn them? What’s the disconnect here? What are the implications for teachers when the students we teach aren’t ready to learn? What happens when our students aren’t on the same schedule schools arrange? What if they’re not ready for our lesson plans?
In “I Shot The Sheriff”, Bob Marley sings of Sheriff John Brown:
“Every time I plant a seed,
He said to kill it before it grow -
He said to kill them before they grow.
It seems paramount that schools develop a variety of ways to support youngsters, become flexible in our approach to time. In that way the seeds we plant with them won’t be stamped out but watered and fed and nurtured so, like Piri Thomas, they can grow.