“You taught at the prison? What was it like?” people often ask when the subject of my past employment comes up. Apparently, I don’t resemble a hard-bitten prison matron. In fact, when I started the job, the inmate clerk in my office identified me as a Mormon Republican.
And I was—albeit not a successful one. By the time I was in my 40s, I realized my goal of being the Julie Beck-type model Mormon woman would forever elude me. My children, the stick by which Mormon women are measured, had morphed from Primary cherubs into independent-thinking teens. Ward members informed me of my deficient parenting skills with helpful comments: “Wort’s not going on a mission? Make him.” “Lolly’s skipping early morning seminary? Make her drop a class and enroll in regular seminary.” Not only was I an inadequate mother, I was lousy at decorating for ward dinners and parties. And I really hated callings to teach “Heavenly Father’s precious children” who would rather be chasing each other around the parking lot—or making out inside a parked car, depending on the age.
To further diminish my status as a Mormon woman, I took a full time job outside my home—real heresy back in the day. The state pen was a world away from my Sandy, Utah neighborhood. Nobody at the prison worried about Satan’s influence and the evils of the last days. We were surrounded by the effects of evil and dealt with them as constructively as possible.
I didn’t have to put on a phony front at the prison. If “damn” came from my lips when I barked my shin on a file cabinet drawer, nobody thought less of me. I didn’t have to pretend to love my students. Nobody expected me to even like them—but I did.
I worked with men whom family, schools, and social institutions had failed. I taught them they weren’t dumb and helped them succeed for the first time in school. I taught my students English and history—and how to set and obtain reasonable goals: Stay out of trouble so you don’t get restricted from school. Work to the best of your ability to earn high school credits and a diploma.
Small steps, but crucial in building confidence and the hope necessary to take larger steps. Did all my students rehabilitate and stay off drugs and out of prison? Of course not. But, at the point where my life intersected with theirs, I believe I helped my students realize they were of worth and gave them hope for a better life. And they did the same for me.