By Cathy Adams
I am trying to think of some capital letter, big concept thing that I believe, but my thoughts always come back to the lower case and the practical, the ideas and things that capture my attention daily and remind me that I am no doctor saving lives or a marine biologist preserving the ecosystem of some coastal island off the Nova Scotian border. Then, I realize to my great embarrassment that I don’t even know if there are islands off the coast of Nova Scotia.
I suppose this circle of contemplation ultimately leads me to seeing the point that I am not one of those exciting or important people, and I believe (here we go) that my anonymity, my very ordinariness, all those parts of me that I rejected when I was younger and dreamt of being a rock-star and a ballerina surgeon are what make up the most significant parts of the human character. For most of us, this is it: the getting up, showering, brushing teeth, feeding the cat, going to work, reading to our children, planting day lilies, washing the car, cooking stir fry, watching fireflies from the back porch, and lying down in bed at night knowing that we will probably do most all the same things again tomorrow, if we are very lucky. When I was younger with those rock-star, ballerina surgeon dreams, this life would not have been enough. But it’s what most of us end up with, and when we stop mourning the loss of what we know deep inside would have probably never happened anyway, that we start seeing how good life really is. Then something new happens, something cool. We find that it is never too late to discover the greatness in ourselves that we can do.
I learned this the summer I taught a Humanities class in a prison with men who’d committed crimes that I’d rather not think about. I taught a class in ancient world philosophy and religion, or rather, I should say, I learned with them about philosophy and religion. As an adjunct college instructor sitting smack on age forty, I’d grown past the notion that I would ever change anyone’s life by introducing him or her to Socrates or Musonius Rufus. But there we were, trying to make sense of Aristotle and then bringing the warriors of The Iliad to life in a place where looking at the wrong inmate directly in the eye could endanger one’s life. Considering that the heart of The Iliad is place in an age of a warrior code of fighting men who lived by the sword as they killed and died for sport and sometimes honor, it made sense that these men, some killers themselves, would have simply shrugged their shoulders at the slaughter that went on chapter after chapter.
Sometimes I went home wondering if anything I’d said in class that night made sense. Still, they humored me by laughing at my dull jokes, they took notes, they completed their assignments without too much grumbling, and they even performed a short play they had written about Greek philosophy.
When the class was nearly at an end, my students asked me something I’d never heard in my most fantastical dreams from my on-campus students. Would I get more books for them about history and literature so they could read after I’d gone? It was like asking me if I would be willing to save the lives of endangered baby seals, or feed milk to starving children. Students so hungry to learn they begged for extra books, and not just any books but classic literature, the very books we teachers dream students would read. They had made a class list, and it read like a Great Books series.
After sharing the list with my colleagues and asking for donations, I collected three boxes full of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and other books that I delivered the last week of class to the prison library. Except my own former students, I’m sure most of the general population never picked up any of these books, but a few might have. And it is for those people that my efforts matter. I don’t delude myself into thinking that either my class or my book collection was greatness in comparison to a surgeon sewing on the severed limb of a child (even if that surgeon is a great ballerina), or saving the Nova Scotian border island ecosystem. I’m not even sure that what I did approached goodness. But for a summer it was how I spent my life in the best way I knew how as a teacher, and that was, for one brief time, enough.
I believe we should never pass up an opportunity to do what is good and right for another. It is in those small things, like giving a prisoner a book, that we find our best selves. I believe that what we do is how we see the world, and improving that vision is an incredible gift not only to ourselves, but the people we encounter along the way. All the things I did that summer in prison have likely changed me much more than they did my students. I am more than I was before I walked into prison, and I hope that, perhaps, some of them are as well.