Teaching at the Darrington Unit–A Look Back

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I wrote this post on my Facebook page on September 7, 2011, right after concluding my second week of teaching courses in Southwestern Seminary’s Darrington Unit extension. Since the first class is graduating tomorrow, I thought it would fun to have a look back on my first impressions of teaching out there.

These men have worked hard the past four years. Their average grade point average is high, but make no mistake. There are no “prison As” here. Every single man has earned his grade.

I’m very proud of these men, and I know that God will use them in wonderful ways as they minister in other prison units across the state of Texas.

Yesterday, when I was packing up my things and getting ready to depart the Darrington Unit after teaching on Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman republic, a student in my class jokingly said to me, “I bet you never thought you’d be teaching a class full of convicts!” He was smiling broadly as he said this, and laughing. I laughed too, and replied, “To be honest with you, brother, it wasn’t the first thought that occurred to me!”

This exchange pinpoints an unstated reality that has existed in my own mind since I first drove up to the front gate at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas.

There are four checkpoints upon entering my classroom. Security officers check and hold my driver’s license, open and examine the contents of my briefcase, have me empty my pockets and take off my shoes, and physically pat me down, even checking the soles of my shoeless feet every time I enter the premises. All of us on the faculty were briefed on procedures for hostage situations, riot outbreaks, recognizing manipulation, understanding gangs, contraband, and counseling victims of sexual abuse prior to the start of the academic year.

None of this is discussed in The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career.

Still, of the thirty-nine students (the official designation is “offenders”) that are in my class, I can honestly say that every single one of them treats me with a level of respect that I have rarely encountered in twenty years of teaching and pastoral ministry. To describe their attitude about the course as enthusiastic would be slight. This is a group of students who, on the whole, are fully engaged in every aspect of the material. They react to every reading assignment—some positive, some negative—and they articulate their reasons for their reactions. They ask so many questions during the lectures that I am already behind on my course schedule—but I cannot in good conscience curtail this. Their dialogue with me during the lectures is critical to their understanding and beneficial to everyone in the classroom, including myself, in bringing clarity to the material. At the breaks, they file into a queue to ask me questions and make points. At the end of class, I spend at least an hour continuing to dialogue with them on the day’s lectures and discussions. One of my students asked if he could be allowed to write a second eight page critical book review, in addition to the one he is already writing on the Aeneid.

Not only are they in profound earnest about their studies, they are overflowing in their expressions of faith and worship of God. We conclude every prayer with a recitation of Psalm 118.17. They vociferously declare in one voice, “I shall not die, but live!” Yesterday, their voices boomed and echoed throughout the entire educational wing as we sang “My Hope is in the Lord.” What a thrill it is to be in the presence of such men.

I have never encountered an entire group of students like this anywhere I have been a student myself, or anywhere I have taught in my memory.  What a profound honor; what a unique privilege is mine, not only as a teacher, but as a human being in the position to behold God’s hand so clearly at the work of redemption in the lives of persons.

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