Oct/Nov 2011 Nonfiction

The Perfect Job for a Bleeding Heart Liberal

by Diane Mierzwik

Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins

Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins

When I told a friend "I'm a program coordinator for parolee education," he asked, "Is that some sort of French style of education?" My new job was foreign to the group of successful professionals. I had to explain that parolees have committed felony crimes, crimes that include but are not limited to aggravated assault and/or battery, arson, burglary, illegal drug use/sales, grand theft, robbery, murder, rape, and vandalism of federal property. I further explained that in California, if a person has committed a felony, after serving prison time, the person is placed on parole, a period of supervision to be successfully completed through compliance with the conditions and terms of the release agreement. I would be working with these students, adults who seemed as wild as beasts to our genteel circle of friends.

At first, all my friends who still taught in the public education system asked, "Aren't you afraid?"

"When you're teaching kids, you have very little leverage. You threaten them with calling home and they tell you, 'Go ahead. My mom hates you.' You threaten to send them to the office, and they tell you Principal Womack gave them donuts last time they were in the office." I look around at all the nodding heads and knowing smiles. Then resume, "But when you tell one of our students that you are going to call their parole agent, they are immediately cooperative. 'No, that's okay. You're right.'" I hold up my hands in mock submission to make the point.

I don't talk about how any of my students can overwhelm me with their size and strength, not to mention weapons they may have brought to class, because these circumstances are true for high school classrooms, too. The difference is that high school students are an unknown entity. Most kids will turn out to be good, upstanding citizens, and the few who won't are usually kicked out of class enough to virtually eliminate any threat they pose. But in parolee classes, most students have been convicted of a crime involving violent behavior.

I wonder how to explain that what I fear is not for my own safety, but for the health of society, for the safety of the person who is unaware that if these students do not get help or the skills to reintegrate into society, they will commit another crime, probably not in my neighborhood, probably not even to anyone I know, living where I and my friends live, but we will still pay a price for their crime in higher taxes, in expensive security systems, and in the cost of private patrols of my sidewalk-bordered, tree-shaded, green-grass neighborhood. I want to tell my friends to not be afraid for me, but to be buoyed by the hope I provide my students.

The teachers I now work with know this. They go to work every day like a lion tamer faces his lions each morning, understanding the lions could turn against him at the slightest wrong move, but knowing that with the proper measure of discipline and reward, the students will be in a classroom where the scope of harm is contained.

Working to help convicted felons leave their past behind and reintegrate into society isn't just about helping the students. It is also about believing that the work is helping the immediate community and larger society.

Mark K. Smith emphasizes that "teaching ... emerges from one's inwardness, for better or worse" and goes on to explain that "[i]f we do not know who we are then we cannot know those we work with, nor the subjects we teach and explore."

Facing a sea of criminal faces and not worrying about what possible harm they could do to you, but focusing on what possible support you can provide them, requires a person to be faithful about his or her impact on the future.


"How do you feel about working in a correctional setting?" This is one of the questions our program asks when interviewing potential teachers.

The responses tell us a great deal about the applicant.

"Well, there are agents everywhere, right?"

"There are no violent criminals in the classes, right?"

"I'm getting used to those people."

Finding a person who is able to compassionately work with our student population while adhering to the strict security and safety behavioral standards is difficult. If I err on the side of hiring a person too compassionate, he ends up siding with students who complain about unnecessary searches and gets walked off the premises, having his security clearance pulled. If I err on the side of someone too cognizant of the inherent dangers of working with convicted felons, he refers to our students as "Those People" and keeps a wary eye on the exit door at all times.

Our students can smell weakness and fear. If a teacher is too weak, he ends up giving a student a ride home after class then is accused of sexual improprieties. If a teacher is too fearful, he overreacts when a student approaches him and the class erupts into mutiny.

A balance of understanding the dangers of working with our students while maintaining the hope that, with the right education and tools, a student may change his path makes the perfect teacher.

I must find a teacher not so liberal as to tell me, "I treat them like I would anyone," but not so conservative as to tell me, "They should install metal detectors for the classroom."

Though many refuse to be labeled as either conservative or liberal, actions speak louder than refusals and defenses. Diane Moczar explains the genesis of liberal and conservative thought: liberals "...operate according to utopian schemes which evolve within their heads since they accept no fixed and natural social order... [whereas] conservatives... [operate according to] realism, with its insistence on an objective and knowable moral and social order." She goes on to explain that the political ideal "[f]or liberals... is Liberty [and] for conservatives, [it is] order and the common good."

Finally, Morcaz explains that liberals and conservatives differ on what the law is for: "For liberals it is the expression of the common will; for conservatives, it is the expression of God's law and objective order."

Liberals believe that everyone's path is valued. Conservatives believe that some paths are right and some paths are wrong, black or white.

Denise Gellen summarizes how when researchers examined whether or not there is "a biological basis for people's political attitude" they "...found to their surprise that opinions on such contentious subjects as gun control, pacifiism and capital punishment are strongly associated with physiological traits that are probably present at birth" and that "[p]eople with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful than staunch liberals."

If a person believes there are no shades of gray, she is clear about what to fear and what to embrace.


When hired, one of my first required training session cautioned me that when approached by the media, to always refer the inquiry to the communication department of the district office. I was warned even to be careful of whom I talk to at cocktail parties, that anything I say could be taken out of context, a bastardization of the facts and my good intentions. Though the district did not want to infringe on my constitutional right of freedom of speech, I was to "[w]ork with the Communications Office to determine the appropriate response."

At the local jail's safety and security training, the deputy warned us, "There are always news crews outside. Your best bet is to tell them 'no comment' because if you show up on the five o'clock news, you can be sure your clearance for the jail will be revoked."

While driving to a site, I heard a news report about the wonderful programs our state offers to help rehabilitate people who have paid their debt to society and are now returning to their communities. I listened closely, wondering how our program measured up to the programs being highlighted when suddenly it was one of our teachers on the program explaining to the reporter the curriculum and job placement and life management skills our program offers students.

I worried that if anyone else heard the program, the teacher would be in trouble for not clearing his statements with the communications department. I listened for anything that could be misconstrued. I listened for anything that might be taken out of context then I realized that anything could be taken out of context and misconstrued, especially things I would not recognize as having the possibility of being twisted into having a negative connotation, camouflaged to my liberal ears as reasonable.

Usually, friends and acquaintances are polite enough not to attack me with questions about why criminals are getting programs and how much of the government's money could be saved if we cut the programs. On the other hand, parole agents, the same agents we depend on to refer our students to use, are not shy.

"It's a waste of money. These guys never change. You're just glorified babysitting," they lament, having surrendered to their worst fears about our ability to rehabilitate them.

Though all rehabilitation programs end up saving taxpayers money in the reduction of recidivism, people are suspicious of spending taxpayer money on school and services for criminals when they, law-abiding citizens, can't afford to go back to school, let alone afford to get quality medical care.

In addition, many people wonder why anyone would spend their time helping people who have harmed society, cost society and continue to drain resources from society. People are often suspicious of program providers, wondering if there isn't some unhealthy motivation for being in the profession, as if program providers are getting some of their own needs met through the job, like an opportunist preying on the system and those at the mercy of the system.


I watch a student collect his things to go home as Dorothy, the teacher, approaches me to explain, "His small daughter at home is sick and he needs to go home to take care of her." I try to keep my face emotionless as I nod, making a mental note to remind Dorothy, when we are no longer surrounded by the tuned-in ears of students, that attendance in class is mandatory unless approved by a student's parole agent. I will also remind her how inappropriate it is for the teacher to suggest to a student that he needs to go home, especially a teacher of a classroom that fails month after month to meet program goals for student attendance.

When break comes, Dorothy agrees with me that she shouldn't have encouraged the student to go home and, though I am glad there is no conflict between us and she is amiable any time I give directions about suitable teacher conduct in class, I am also quite aware that as soon as I leave the classroom Dorothy, as the solitary authority figure in the class, will behave exactly as she sees best, not according to our strict safety and security policies.

Then Dorothy launches into the story she tells me every visit, about her dad being in prison and how she had no friends or boyfriends growing up because her dad was "protecting" her from "inside."

"One day I noticed a strange man following me and when I asked my mom she told me to pay no never mind, that he was just there to protect me, sent by my dad."

I worry that as a child Dorothy was never able to make friends and now as an adult, she substitutes the students for her friends, and believes that they, much like her dad was, are protective of her.

I wonder if Dorothy pays attention to the lesson on healthy relationships and the dangers of co-dependency.

Karon Brant points out the "Co-dependents need to be needed. They make wonderful caretakers because they take care of everyone but themselves...In professions where people are expected to take the backseat to others, while interacting with others' personal lives, co-dependents can become overly absorbed with the clients and become even less aware of personal needs."


Robert will only hint at the life he lived before getting clean. A short Hispanic man, he brags about how his father was a boxer, his cousin played briefly for the Dodgers and he is happy to have the job he has.

When I observe his class, the students often challenge the information presented, and Robert challenges them back. A young black man explains that the last time he got arrested all he was doing was walking down the street. Sympathy rears up in front of me and I wonder what unfortunate circumstances caused the police to suspect this man and not another. Robert can sense that I am falling for the student's story and whips the conversation back.

"Pull up the leg of your trousers. Show her your tattoos and then tell us that you weren't doing anything wrong."

"They had nothing on me."

Robert laughs, "No, nothing but all those tattoos telling everyone which gang you're in."

Later we laugh at my naiveté. "Robert, how do you know so much about all of this?"

"I've seen things. I grew up on the wrong path."

Each time I visit I only get glimpses of what that path looked like. Robert has admitted he was in gangs, he has been in jail, he did drugs, and he said to me once, "I didn't get caught for everything I did." He looked me right in the eyes and I nodded, not pressing him for more information.

His sobriety birthday is the same as my actual birthday. He has been sober for as long as I have been an adult. He practices gratefulness everyday and tells me, "Who else is going to call them on their stuff? I'm not saying you need to have seen the things I saw to be a good teacher to these guys, but I do have an advantage. I understand these guys because I lived with them for so long." He says like a foreigner describing the land once inhabited.

Because Robert knows the life our students have lived, he is able to motivate students with a balance of discipline and encouragement. He is able to provide strategies, tools, and support to students for changing their fate.

B.L. Strickling explains that

The helping professional works almost exclusively with the distressed and vulnerable," and must be "someone who has a strong respect for persons, a steady regard for autonomy and reality of others. In addition, she/he needs to be capable of insight, understanding and compassion without losing boundaries... A certain amount of realistic self-confidence and a sense of humor are essential... they are qualities that are usually only achievable through considerable personal struggle and growth.


"I don't have a drug problem. The test picked up my medication."

"They put me in this class so I'd have to quit my job."

"My agent is out to get me."

In a classroom full of criminals and addicts, the teacher juggles the student challenges, jabs, and concerns like a clown, as if she grew up as part of the circus and knows no other life.

Vanessa's mother died when she was nine years old. Having no knowledge of her biological father, her stepfather adopted her and raised her. Unfortunately, her stepfather was the head of a biker gang which trafficked drugs as part of their charter. At the age of 18, Vanessa was told she was on her own and set afloat in the world with only her looks and her smarts to get by on. Luckily, her looks landed her a man who would take care of her, then another, then another. Luckily her smarts got her a college education and a job teaching in a substance abuse treatment and recovery classroom for our program. Our classrooms are full of people from the same background as herself, people distorting the intent of the law and believing all authority is tainted with malicious intent.

When I ask Vanessa why her monthly report wasn't turned in on time, she tells me, "I put it in the mail on time. It must have been something wrong in the mailroom."

When I ask her about needing time off, she tells me, "They forced me to make my appointment at that time."

When I ask her about her lesson plans, she tells me, "You're out to get me."


Today, the man holding the cardboard sign trudging beside the idling cars on the off-ramp only gets a silent blessing from me. Often I try to catch his eye and smile, bowing my head in his direction. I look forward to the day when I have moved on from this job and once again can hand out the loose bills and change I have in my wallet.

Sam, a northern California Program Coordinator, warned me privately after overhearing me talk about giving money to beggars.

"You better not do that any more. It'll get you in trouble."

My mind was blank with what kind of trouble handing over a few dollars to someone in need could get me in. I was prepared to explain that since I had been given more than most, it was my duty to share.

"Say you give money to one of those guys and he turns out to be one of our students. He shows up to the parole office and points to you, telling everyone you gave him money..."

I thought about our safety and security training: absolutely no personal help for students, for our own safety. I thought about how someone could misinterpret the generous gesture for some shady business with a person convicted of a felony.

"No one will be interested in your explanation."

I nodded and wondered if I'd get in trouble if I carried water and crackers and handed those out instead. I suddenly saw a different shade of reality, like I had these big eyes I had never fully opened, a reality where people were more interested in manipulation than in generosity.

Everyone who works in our program has their own story of survival and triumph. According to JoNel Aleccia, people who have survived adverse events, when others did not, often suffer from survivor syndrome. "Commonly such survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others—such as their family, friends, and colleagues—did not." Aleccia goes on to explain that "sufferers may with time divert their guilt into helping others deal with traumatic situations. They may describe or regard their own survival as insignificant."


Rick has been a high level executive, a manager of public programs for a non-profit organization, and now teaches a classroom full of homeless parolees. As the administrator for the classroom, I gently nudge him to transition some of his long-term students out of the class because they have exhausted all we have to offer them.

"Where else are they going to go?"

Most of his students are sex-offenders. This means they cannot go to the local library to spend their days, and they are not welcome in other programs. I cock my head to the side and tighten my lips into a grimace. I want to tell him that where the students go is not our problem, and it's not. But, I also don't have the fortitude needed to turn them away from the one place they have, where they roll in their shopping carts or bring in their bikes, loaded with clothes dirtier than the ones they are wearing, hygiene essentials, and a sleeping bag.

When I ask Rick why he's teaching for our program he looks me right in the eye. "I could have been any one of these guys."

I am reminded of the scene in Capote (2005) where Truman explains why he is talking to one of the killers from In Cold Blood. "It's like we grew up in the same household and I walked out the front door and he walked out the back."


The "hidden curriculum," those things we teach our students through our actions and behaviors, is often more important than the actual curriculum in our classrooms. Remaining calm in the face of adversity, not allowing others to undermine our intentions and goals, rolling with challenges to our authority, and behaving in socially acceptable ways are just a few of the behaviors we must model daily for students, not to mention empathy and resilience.

Inevitably, teachers move on professionally from our program. Some go on to other professions; some find work teaching elsewhere; some retire. As their supervisor, it is my job to check them out, collect their program identification cards, and to conduct an exit interview.

I am always sad to see a teacher leave because training a new teacher how to navigate the treacherous path between being in a helping profession and working in a correctional setting with safety and security issues constantly pressing on every decision is difficult. But, I am also always happy for the teacher, happy for the new opportunities the teacher will be embarking on. It feels like they have finally escaped parole themselves.

I tend to gush about how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to work with the teacher and they tend to thank me, to assure me that their time in the program has been beneficial.

"I got the better end of this deal," Sterling tells me as I take his classroom keys. "I've learned a great deal about myself from working with our students. It's crazy what you think is normal and what you learn is normal."


As a child on Saturdays, I pulled my wagon from house to house, collecting coke bottles and stacks of newspapers from neighbors to turn into Mrs. Cameron, my third grade teacher. The money was to go toward our class field trip to the San Diego Zoo. I ventured all the way to the end of our street and onto Avenue F, knocking on neighbors' doors, some of whom knew my parents, but many who did not. I did this alone, often following stooped old men onto their cool screened backyard patios where they kept the old newspapers and used bottles.

One Saturday, as I was carefully pulling home my brimming wagon, I noticed an elderly woman stumbling in the middle of the street. I rushed home to tell my mom.

My mom and I got in the car as I worried that I had taken too long to make it back to my house, get my mom who was taking too long to drive back to Avenue F, and we would not find the stumbling woman, instead finding a corpse on the street.

We did find the woman who explained she had left her retirement home to go for a walk and had gotten lost. She looked at me and told me, "You are an angel from God."

To this day I wonder what made me think I needed to help some lost old lady.


Works Cited

Aleccia, JoNel. "Guilty and Stressed, Layoff Survivors Suffer Too." Behavior on MSNBC.com. Dec. 15, 2008. 15 November 2010 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28196734/ns/health-behavior/.

Brandt, Karon. "Recognizing Co-dependency in the Helping Professions." Associated Content from Yahoo. May 23, 2010. 15 November 2010 http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5414624/recognizing_codependency_in_the_helping.html.

Capote. Dir. Bennett Miller. Perf. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Clifton Collins Jr. Sony, 2005.

Gellen, Denise. "Born to Be Conservative?" LA Times. Sept. 19, 2008, 15 November 2010 http://articles.latimes.com/2008/sep/19.

Moczar, Diane. ""Thought and Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century." Renew America. Aug.28, 2007. http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/abbott/070828.

Smith, Mark K. "Helping Relationships—Principles, Theory and Practice." Infed. 2008. 15 November 2010 http://www.infed.org/helping/helping_relationships.htm.

Strickling, B. L. " A Moral Basis for the Helping Profession." Bioethics and Medical Ethics. 23 November 2010 http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Bioe/BioeStri.htm.


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