From the author: After five years of teaching inside two all-male State Prisons in Northern Ohio, I know first-hand the power of Shakespeare and poetry. Like other art forms, poetry is universal in its appeal. Shakespeare remains a source of powerful lessons. Sure, I have an expensive doctorate, and if you hold my feet to the fire, I could quote the similarities between Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and hip-hop music. Despite the opinions of the prison hierarchy that “Felons would never embrace and benefit from Shakespeare or poetry.” It wasn’t “a waste of my time and theirs” and they were not “incapable of learning anything of value from Shakespeare.” Read the following true story and judge for yourselves.
“That’s not another poem you’re gonna read to us is it Doctor D.?” asked the blue denim-clad inmate in a strident voice?
“Why yes it certainly is Mr. Jones” I replied calmly as I took the stack of offending photocopies from a plastic see-through container. The same container that I was required to use when carrying any of my teaching materials into Merrytown (name changed) Correctional Institution (MCI), an all-male prison in northern Ohio. “Why Mr. Jones I thought you enjoyed the poetry I bring inside,” I asked with a soft chuckle. “Aren’t you the gentleman who asked me for extra copies of The Rose That Grew in Concrete to share with your bunkies?” I queried with a broad smile.
“Yea, that was me Doctor D., but that was Tupac Shakur, he’s cool.” He paused and looked around the room to ensure his peers and fellow students weren’t paying close attention. “Last time you brought in that Shakespeare dude.” He hesitated then blurted. “He’s been dead for like a thousand years,” he stated with an exasperated sigh. “And the time before that it was Kipling, also dead forever.”
“Alright, Mr. Jones fair enough.” I turned and faced the entire classroom. “Let’s review shall we?” I cleared my throat loudly to get the attention of the entire class and stated in a loud firm voice, “Class, I have another poem with me today that I want to share with the class.” I heard a couple of groans.
Mr. Jones, who secretly liked poetry (but was concerned it might not be perceived as manly to do so), squawked in a shrill voice, “Not again!”
I knew that this objection was for the benefit of his peers, but I felt it was time to call him on it. “Alright class, who can tell me the quote from the character in the Murakami story about books? Anyone?” A burly tattooed inmate who always sat in the front row and took copious notes raised his well-muscled arm. “Yes, Mr. Jackson, what was the quote in question?”
Without any hesitation, Mr. Jackson responded in a deep booming baritone, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading you can only think what everyone else is thinking – Haruki Murakami.”
I nodded with enthusiasm. “Very good. And what does that quote mean to you, Mr. Jackson?”
Again, without slowing his response, “It’s like you are always telling us sir, we are college students now we have to learn critical thinking, challenge everything, question everything. One way to do this is by reading things outside of our comfort zone.” Mr. Jackson smiled at me and his classmates “That is how you probably discovered Tupac, Doctor D. We know you love your poetry.” He finished with his statement with an even broader smile directed at all of us.
From the back of the room Mr. Brown (an informal class leader) spoke out, “Yea, Doctor D. is always bringing in those classic books and all that philosopher stuff cause he wants us to think for ourselves!” He gave me a supportive nod of his head.
“Very good gentlemen.” I returned Mr. Brown’s nod with one of my own. I continued, “Last week I brought in an excerpt from The Merchants of Venice by William Shakespeare.” I shot Mr. Jones a hard stare when I said the word Shakespeare. “Can anyone tell me what they learned from that one?” I saw several hands raised, including Mr. Washington’s who normally was very introverted. I said in a softer voice, “Mr. Washington, your thoughts on this matter?”
He spoke so quietly that everyone strained to hear him. “Well sir, we were talking about bias and prejudice and that excerpt we discussed was about a Jew from like 500 years ago. I really liked that one,” he mumbled. He hesitated for a moment and then in a much louder voice, “I remember these parts best ‘Hath, not a Jew’s eyes?’ ‘Hath not a Jew hands?’ And uh, ‘fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons.’ And oh yea, also my favorite part, ‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?’ ” Now there wasn’t a sound in the room as he finished his impromptu speech. “I believe that you were trying to show us that bias has been around forever sir, that it is a part of human nature and to try to keep it in perspective when you personally experience it. Well anyway,” his voice trailed off. “That’s the message I got.”
Still waters run deep, I thought to myself. These incarcerated students never cease to amaze me. “Very good Mr. Washington, very, very good!”
“And finally gentlemen what about the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling.” As I was speaking I was striding briskly toward where Mr. Jones was seated. I purposely stopped directly in front of his seat and locked my eyes with his. “What about it Mr. Jones, you have heard from your classmates, now it’s your turn. What did you get from the Kipling poem?”
Mr. Jones’s eyes wandered away from my intense stare. He looked around the room and realized that everyone was watching him, waiting for his response. “Well uh, in class we were talking about the characteristics of a good leader and father, and uh what skills we will need to succeed when we get out of this place and back to the real world.” He paused as he formulated his next words. “The Kipling poem spoke about the things we were talking about in class such as (being lied about but don’t deal in lies) that was the characteristic of honesty. And then there was the part about (to serve your turn long after they are gone) well that was integrity.” He paused for another moment and finished his thoughts with, “Uh ok I liked the ending the best” in a voice so soft that everyone was leaning forward in their seats to make out his words. “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And which is more you’ll be a man, my son!” He sighed heavily.
I leaned down to be inches from his face and said to him, “Excellent job Mr. Jones, absolutely excellent.” He smiled at me.
I marched quickly back to my desk, scooped up the stack of 35 photocopies, and placed them squarely in front of Mr. Jones. “Will you be so kind as to distribute this week’s poem for me, Mr. Jones, please?” I asked him as I made my way to the old chalk blackboard that was in the front of my prison classroom.
“Yes sir!” I heard enthusiastically from behind me as I began writing in chalk on the ancient board.
I took a moment and allowed myself a broad smile. Despite all the naysaying from my teaching peers what I thought I knew had been proven true poetry was universal! I continued to talk to my class of incarcerated students gathered behind me. “Today we have an excerpt called All the World’s a Stage from the play As You Like It which is written by Mr. Jones’s favorite author Willy Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde stated ‘All the world is a stage, but the play was badly cast.’ What did he mean by that, I wonder? Remember our discussion about the power of metaphors as a useful leadership tool? Remember our discussion about Lion King and the circle of life?” I paused writing and turned and flashed a sheepish grin. “I remember how the entire class, including me, admitted to really liking that movie! Well, Shakespeare wrote his own version of the circle of life metaphor hundreds of years ago. He called it the Seven Ages of Man. Okay class, let us begin.”
Dr. Davison has been teaching inside two state prisons in Ohio for the past five years. He has been deeply moved by his personal observations and interactions with his incarcerated students. and motivated to create poems, short stories, and essays about their day-to-day lives and experiences. Thomas has recently created a not-for-profit Entrepreneurial Services for Felons (ESF). He has dedicated 100% of his writing profits to provide free one-on-one support services for felons and ex-felons.