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RCF Final Reflection: Reading, Writing and Becoming

HSBurke's picture

Dear Anne and Jody,

Almost a year and a half ago now, I wrote another reflection letter to the both of you. The first paragraph of that paper ended with this sentence: “Everything has changed now and I can't wait to see what's next.” I didn’t have to wait very long. This year has truly been that “what’s next” for me.

The entire act of returning to the group this semester was one of stepping far beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone. Last semester, I used to look on enviously at the relationships that Sasha and Sara were able to build with the women in our group. I didn’t have that same ease of breaking into conversations or telling personal stories that I felt people could relate to. The desire to reach that point though, because I knew it was possible, was what encouraged me to sign myself on for another semester. I most definitely saw it as a personal failure that I couldn’t be comfortable in that classroom. The discomfort was a frustrating one, and family, friends, and strangers alike were quick to define my discomfort for me: “Isn’t is scary?!” “What are they in for?” “How nice to see how the other side lives!” All that these people wanted to see was difference. And of course that difference must be why I tore my cuticles to bits every other Friday. But I knew that wasn’t it. I found myself firing back stories that the women had shared about their own lives: stories of love, loss, family, intense struggle. These stories were weapons that I used against those people who were intent on distilling these women down to their criminal conviction or socioeconomic status. I saw and continue to see these women as so much more. While I did have to grow into the ability to look beyond the surface, it certainly wasn’t difference that made me uncomfortable. But I still didn’t know what it could be. Whatever it was, though, I knew I could overcome it. I seem to start out slow in my classes (notably ESem and the 360), hesitant to assert myself at the beginning. With this in mind, I crossed my fingers and signed on for another semester at RCF, timid but hopeful that things would change.

I was able to attend every Monday planning session this semester, and at each one, I was always reminded of how much energy and brain power it took to develop a single lesson plan. Though it wouldn’t have been nearly as easy without six other heads working together on the same problem, it was a welcome challenge for me to think through what kinds of activities and questions would engage the women while aligning with our goals of teaching analytical reading and writing.  Though it has only been since coming to college that I’ve developed this skill, I think I shine at looking beyond myself to imagine how others may interpret and react to situations – in this case, an assignment or text.  This process of developing lesson plans has helped stretch my creative thinking this semester – using the skills and tools I’ve learned in my education courses and altering them to best fit the needs of the environment we’re in. While there were definitely instances where I felt low-energy, or like I could have contributed more, I really embraced the opportunity to be a different kind of analytical in these sessions, and was always impressed with my peers’ thoughtfulness and innovation in doing the same.

Despite my excitement for the plans we’d made for that week, there were times, typically towards the end of a novel/play, where I would not have finished the reading before Friday. When this happened, I used the drive time strategically to catch up. We also often discussed the work as a group during the car ride on the way to RCF. Doing this with the others helped me sort out my thoughts before entering the classroom, and also introduced new perspectives and interpretations that would supplement my previous analysis. During class, one of the ways I liked to stay engaged was by taking notes, writing down compelling ideas or specific quotes that people brought into our discussion that really stuck with me. When I got home, I transferred these quips onto sticky notes and arranged them around my desk. I do this so that I can keep the women at the forefront of my thoughts every week. Being in this group, I feel like I have a true commitment not only to the women’s learning every Friday but just to the women themselves. I keep the voices of Judy, Sherri, Amanda, Dovetta, Alicia, Noelle, and Jessica with me every day so I don’t forget this commitment I’ve made.

Admittedly, I didn’t do as much writing as I would have liked this semester, but I did make a few posts on Serendip. Like usual, I used it as a sort of journal to collect my semi-formed thoughts. After typing up some of the women’s poetry, I even had the urge to write a poem of my own and post it. I’ve always been fairly uncomfortable with poetry (the kind that doesn’t involve newspaper and Sharpie) so this was a significant leap for me. Looking back, I only just now came to the realization that this was the poem Sara had us recite in the beginning of her film, and I’m glad that something I wrote was seen to aptly sum up the complicated emotions that accompany this year’s work.

It seems glutton for punishment of me to recommend extra ‘homework’ for the group, but remembering back to our 360, the required weekly Serendip postings were really helpful for me to engage in reflection and analysis throughout the year, not just at the end. I am often tempted to write posts after we return from RCF every Friday because I’m so filled with thoughts, but I can’t seem to gather the mental energy to do it, or to find a string of words that accurately describes what I’m feeling.  Having a required Sunday posting would make me feel much more productive, and not like I’m losing all of these meaningful contemplations that I just don’t have the energy to write down.

Some of my more logistical contributions this semester include: designing the poster for the Praxis III presentation, Xeroxing materials, picking up the boxes of books from English house, typing up stories each week, helping find and choose books, copy-editing Amanda’s book and picking the final certificates. I also made a conscious effort to respond to our email correspondences quickly and thoroughly, and be proactive about reaching out if I had any questions or need for clarification.

Our book group has become more than just a project for me: I truly believe that this work has launched me into what I will do for the rest of my life. I wish I could properly convey why it is I feel this way, but I struggled to do it on the poster and I struggle to do it here. To see how issues inherent within the system trickle down to affect individual people angers, but also motivates, me to do anything I can do to serve this roomful of women and others like them so ready, but unable, to speak out. There is no population I can think of that deserves my passion and energy more. I have made the decision to stare straight into the eyes of the chronically overlooked, and that’s something I can’t go back on now.

And the research I’ve done for other classes shows me truly how much there is left to do. The unique struggles faced by the incarcerated population have seeped elsewhere into my academic work this semester. For my Writing Taste class, I wrote a final paper examining food as a site of power contestation in penal institutions. This came after my preoccupation with RCF’s monotonous menu and Noelle’s proclamation that “We eat fish on Friday, every Friday.”  Admittedly, my topic felt out of place amongst other students’ analysis of menus, food trends and the like, but it feels necessary that, to do my job correctly, I bring to light the struggles of our country’s incarcerated population in any arena I can. I also tackled the topic of aging in prison in a final paper for my Adult Development and Aging course. Because so many of the women we see are younger, it was interesting for me to learn about the unique struggles of the older population who must contend with their bodies and minds failing them within an institution that will not shift to fit their needs. If this is a group that I will continue working with into the future, I find it useful to begin learning about them from many different perspectives – being able to start this process while still in college will only better prepare me for a future of advocating for and empowering this underserved population.

I was really impressed this semester with how our group interacted with drama. I hadn’t had high hopes – plays didn’t go over well with my peers in high school – but seeing how much they enjoyed reading, acting and writing their own works of drama, I’d really like to do more of that next semester. Some plays I’ve thought we might introduce include “Angels in America”, “Wit” and “Doubt”. Additionally, in our second to last class we conducted a silent board activity about women and Islam and the resulting conversation was incredibly deep. In this setting (like in class!), a silent activity necessitated that everyone “listen” and respond, rather than preemptively forming a comment while the other person was talking. It was a helpful medium through which to visually see that more people agreed with each other than may be expressed in a typical conversation. It also requires everyone to participate, including us facilitators. Sometimes I think I silenced my own opinion in class because it meant more to me that the women could work through and share their thoughts. After all, I get to do that every day, but they only have once a week. And while I still believe this, having my words sit on paper next to King’s with arrows pointing in agreement helped bridged the gap resulting from difference in life experience that I can sometimes feel. I’d like to do more silent activities or read-and-respond activities next semester, to help us all listen and learn a little better.

Thinking towards the sustainability of the program, I might recommend that we look for an underclassman to bring on board. As hard as it was at first for me, Sara and Sasha to be okay with other people joining the group, I actually really enjoyed watching Carmen and Silvi grow into their roles, and the new voices they added to the conversation were incredibly valuable. I’m especially thinking about Carmen’s desire to bring a historical perspective to our discussion around “Detroit 67” and 1000 Splendid Suns, and Silvi’s knowledge that sparked our absorbing discussion of pansexuality. And personally, I don’t think I quite knew how much experience I had gained and internalized until we were guiding Silvi and Carmen through the landscape. This is the kind of teaching role that I envision I’d like to grow into as we bring new members into the program, both to boost their confidence, and mine, in the classroom.

I cannot pinpoint exactly when, or where, or how, but this semester I suddenly stopped feeling uncomfortable. I used to sit in the circle and look down, hoping that someone wouldn’t sit next to me so I wouldn’t have to strike up an awkward conversation. That feeling doesn’t weigh on me anymore. I find myself questioning Jessica about her latest medical saga or pestering King about turning in her work more often. The choice of where to sit is no longer a hard or calculating one. I am proud of the fact that my anxiety no longer betrays my true desire to be an engaged member of the group. I am also proud that this shift is not just visible to me. Sherri probably didn’t realize what it meant to me when she said, “You’ve really grown into your voice.”  This very issue has been a struggle for me from the beginning, and I see it as a true sign of growth that I’ve been able to speak up, making a space for myself and others in one of the most unfamiliar environments possible. I was constantly disappointed in myself for not being able to display openly how much being together with the RCF women really meant to me. But I think I’ve reached that point now.

The only thing I can attribute to this change is that I just needed time: time to open up and let other people in and my self-doubts out. My weekly trips to RCF don’t reflect a linear improvement. Honestly, I’d be shocked if they did. However, what they do reflect is less caution and hesitation; more confidence in my role and a familiarity the classroom, a familiarity that still fails to permeate many of my classes back at Bryn Mawr. I am now waiting impatiently for us to start up again in the fall. I want to go deeper and ask hard questions. I want more women who may be hesitant or unsure to join us. I want to continue to find myself and my voice and my future in that whitewashed classroom, and that is a very different place from where I was at the end of last semester.

                                                            Thank you again, for everything,