In one of my recent blog posts from our “Letters from John” series, my husband, who is incarcerated, mentioned that he recognizes more and more that inmates have an increased need to be heard. It’s like they are fighting against the invisibility of self that is taking place between them and their community. Many require counseling and therapy, though not nearly enough receive these services. This got me thinking about my students. There is no doubt that guidance counselors and other support staff are a vital part of their educational experience.
As a matter of fact, according to an article at “Students At The Center Hub,”
Students and teachers can rely on these staff to bridge social/emotional strategies with academic learning. Emotions, research shows, direct students’ learning processes, and students are more likely to thrive academically when educators nurture staff-student relationships, teach emotional regulation strategies, and provide shelter from toxic stress.
Yet, even with that said, support services are often cut or devastatingly limited in our New York City schools. This makes absolutely no sense. Kids who come from high-needs circumstances attend schools in high-needs neighborhoods where post-traumatic stress (PTS) is the norm, not the exception. Single-parent homes, illegal drug infestation, gun violence, heightened gang presence, and the trickle-down effect of mass incarceration are all real-life stresses that students deal with on a daily basis. Their PTS is usually under or misdiagnosed and directly contributes to the behavioral patterns consistent with school-to-prison-pipeline disciplinary actions. If they do end up in prison, chances are they still will not receive the mental health services they require there either, especially without a previous diagnoses or documented history of working with support staff.
In an effort to address the need for support that he has consistently seen all around him throughout the course of his bid, John created and runs a book club named “Shooting the Breeze” (the inmates named it themselves) twice a week with men who came into the prison already receiving mental health counseling. The main impetus for establishing this book club, according to John, was to “through literature, not only enhance their reading comprehension and vocabulary skills, but to more so highlight others who have encountered struggles in life like fatherlessness, addiction, molestation, etc., and successfully overcome them.”
In this way, a safe forum is established for the men to dialogue about their own experiences which have directly or indirectly contributed to their incarcerated state. Just as it is for our students and for us, it is extremely important for those incarcerated to be able to talk about their feelings in a safe, structured environment because it unlocks whatever they had locked-up, emotionally speaking, which caused them to be locked-up physically. This level of structured support gives the inmates a new set of tools with which to assess and navigate life. The right book holds the key to these locks.
Some of the books that John and his “Shooting the Breeze” book club have read and discussed are The Pact, The Bond, The Kite Runner, Life is Not an Accident, and The Other Wes Moore, just to name a few. Currently, the guys are reading journalist Elizabeth Vargas’ memoir Between Breaths where she courageously opens up about her battle with alcoholism. This is an addiction with which many inmates struggle. To see that they have something in common with a world-renowned journalist as well as to see it from the perspective of a woman is, according to my husband, “very powerful.”
A lot of what is happening in his book club goes on in classrooms across New York City: Schools, filled with students with a plethora of mental health needs but not enough support staff to address those needs, filter into classrooms with teachers who, though untrained as counselors, use text to help our students not just academically, but emotionally.