Apr 18, 2011

Six Months Jail Over for SpeakYourMind author

Six months’ prison over for SpeakYourMind author. Getting out was always easier than getting in. That’s one big difference between volunteer visitors and the inmates. Tomorrow I’ll be going in through the check-points and all the steel gates, down the long corridors and past the cages to my ‘classroom’ for the last time this ‘term’. It was an idea that had been burying away into my mind for a while and it was this time last year when I made the first approach to Verona Sociale – a voluntary organisation that also covers Progetto Carcere an organisation that oversees a range of activities inside Verona’s prison at Montorio. Things take time where officialdom is concerned but by the end of October the papers and authorisations were all in place. I was going to teach a group of inmates English. The wonderful thing is that it worked. I’ve been asked by the organisers to stop for ‘administrative’ reasons but I can honestly say that all of us are very sorry that this has reached its end. The group of participants – all male – have been great to teach: they’ve taken things seriously from the start and have always been courteous, positive, and good-humoured – far more than could be reasonably expected given the circumstances. Whether they enrolled on the course simply to break the monotony – inmates spend twenty-two hours a day in their cells – or to take the opportunity to learn a new skill soon became irrelevant: no-one turned up just to pass the time of day and the rewards I got as a teacher have been huge. As in any teaching situation, your first job is to establish a sense of ‘group’ and of a shared objective – everyone is on the same side working towards a common aim. This could have been much harder to achieve than actually turned out – this wasn’t a group of friends or colleagues and what they all had in common was not a consequence of choice. Most were beginners – three or four zero-beginners and another five or six who had a smattering of English. Two had a bit more English behind them – one a Libyan with a brother in the US, and another Italian in his late thirties. Later in the course a young Pole joined – he has a girlfriend in the States and his English is pretty fluent. In just under forty lessons (two one-hour lessons a week) we have managed to complete the first course-book; something that classes in far more favourable conditions don’t always manage. We have quite an interesting nationality mix – apart from the Libyan and the Pole, there were two young men from Morocco (one of whom dropped out over Christmas – one of three ‘desertions’ during the course, including one who was released) - and a young German who spoke no Italian and was seriously disorientated but who was taken under everyone’s wing (including many of the guards) in an admirable and moving way. The young Moroccan in particular has been a brilliant student and he is rightly pleased with himself. He’s told me that now he can add some English to his French and Italian he plans to get a job in tourism when he returns to the outside world. I suppose everyone who does any kind of voluntary work hopes that this kind of result can happen – the chance to make a single real difference to someone’s life. Two others told me last lesson that they are hoping to be released soon and asked if they could carry on at our school later – it would be a shame to get so far and then have to stop. Of course – students need a certain type of resilience and humour – more than is normally called for in English classrooms. “What time do you get up / have breakfast etc?” inspire no curiosity (the fact they eat rice five times a week for lunch doesn’t make questions about meals and food all that interesting either.) “Where do you go after lessons?” “What do you do in the evenings / weekends?” – all the standard kinds of elementary questions are sadly pointless, as are most questions related to their jobs or even homes (some have had theirs confiscated by Court). Despite all this - and the fact that we are in a classroom with no pictures or the things you’d normally have (and with windows ten feet up the walls) the classroom dynamics are just the same as they could be in any classroom anywhere. “Marco” is Marco and “Ali” is Ali – but from outside all these people are, to too many of us, often just “Prisoners”.

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