April 2007

The department of corrections

By David Feela

I put my uniform on, attach the ring
of keys to my belt, then slip my photo
ID lanyard over my head. I don’t wear
a gun, and truthfully I wouldn’t want
one, even if I was authorized to carry
a weapon. Apparently – at least based
on the reactions I get while making my
rounds – I can do as much damage
with a red pen.

You see, I am a high-school English
teacher and I’ve worked in the department
of corrections for the past 25
years. When I pass compositions back
to my students, they sigh like inmates,
cover their faces, and weep for the
crimes they’ve committed. Sadly, only
a few of them change their ways, and
so the same errors are repeated, over
and over, generation after generation.

I don’t know why the details – commas,
spelling, subject/verb agreement,
passive voice, and the use of apostrophes
– are so difficult to manage.
You’d think with all the published
books surrounding us, suitable role
models would lead to a healthier, less
grammar-challenged society.

But in my State of the Union speech
concerning our struggle to teach
English in the public school classroom,
I’d have to report the war is not going
as well as planned. We may even be
losing the battle, partly due to the
insurgents who believe text-messaging
represents a higher moral ground. To
me it’s an efficiency that reduces communication
into a series of technological
evolutionary grunts.

And yes, I’m aware I sound too
much like my parents when they were
complaining that
Rock & Roll
music was just
garbage coming
out of the radio. I
really do understand
that language
has always
changed and will
always change. If
the word
Sparrow fart
amounted to a
Middle English
way to say
“Lovely dawn”
then what’s the
chance Hey will go down in history as
an expression of tenderness? I mean,
duh, like, when did anything ever
remain the same?

Still, like my parents who never
owned a cell phone, I too am an
anachronism in an age when most
people in my cell block own one.
You’d think they’d been sentenced to
serving adolescence in solitary confinement,
compensating for their perceived
loneliness by talking almost to themselves,
and constantly, sometimes even
conversing with a friend further down
the hallway – a friend they’ll probably
be sitting beside in five minutes when
the next class begins. If the urge to
communicate is so intense, you’d think
it would be impossible to stop young
people from writing letters or personal
opinion essays. Yeah, right: LOL.

Sitting in lockup with an official like
me staring you down, trying to convince
you that learning to write correctly
is important, must be like visiting
the zoo and ending up with the gorilla
feeding you bananas. It’s not appealing,
because most of the inmates I
work with can’t get past the notion that
the bananas are supposed to be for the

To express a thought in its simplest
form is beautiful, but to dwell in the
thought, to develop entire paragraphs
exploring it, well, that’s another sentence
altogether. I mean, CU L8R – I
G2G is not exactly what Shakespeare’s
Polonius meant when he said, “brevity
is the soul of wit.”

As a correctional monitor, I’m supposed
to teach the sentence, not
administer it. With an adequate budget
for teaching materials, I could supply
every student in my classroom with a
personal cell phone. Their rehabilitation
would begin by requiring they
write vanity license plates, thousands
of them, just like prisoners used to produce
in the service of the society into
which they’d eventually be released.
They’ll be restricted, of course, to
using only six letters. Soon that will get

Then I’ll move to bumper stickers,
fully formed witticisms running no
more than the length of a 12-inch
ruler. From bumper stickers I’ll move
to obituaries, and from obits to billboards.
For the entire writing curriculum
my charges will furiously push
their buttons, or I’ll be pushing theirs.
No photographs or sound bytes. No
paper, pens and pencils, or flat-panel
computer screens. Just words, plain
old English language, fully formed
and edited on a cell phone’s display,
all perfectly thought out before anyone
ever presses the send button – to

By the time I get to fully loaded
paragraphs, it’s likely the cell phone
will be seen as a tedious instructional
device. If nothing else, they’ll understand
how their freedom will be expedited
by creating a string of beautiful
sentences and not just serving them.
And if that doesn’t work, at least they’ll
be sick to death of text-messaging on a
cell phone by the time they’re released
for good behavior.

David Feela is a teacher at
Montezuma-Cortez High School.