It’s been 35 days since I was inside an Oregon prison. Considering my experiences with Inside-Out over the last year that’s a long time. As a Teacher’s Assistant for a course taught inside Oregon State Correctional Institution and a member of Another Chance at Education inside Oregon State Penitentiary, I quickly became accustomed to being inside once, sometimes twice a week. Like other University of Oregon students who have participated in the Inside-Out program, I have a unique relationship with the stretch of I-5 between Eugene and Salem.
As an Inside-Out alumni I also co-facilitate the Serbu Book Club, but’s been about month since I was inside the Serbu Juvenile Detention Center, too. Earlier this week I made the much shorter drive across the Willamette River to Serbu just to do some logistical work. Rather than entering the detention facility I just went in the front door and up to the main office. I knew right where to go, just who to ask for, and in a way, I felt in my element. Again, my experience was not altogether unique—many Inside-Out students have described a sense of familiarity inside what is typically a very foreign place. It’s a sort of belonging—even comfort—that is very reassuring but equally disturbing.
Over the last few days I’ve been replaying this mini-trip to Serbu in my head over and over, and today I realized part of why it felt so unique. I found myself thinking about how I actually miss Serbu. I’ve been saying it over and over in my head and I told my co-facilitators: “Man, I really miss Serbu.”
Maybe someday I will feel the same about OSCI, but right now I don’t. Sure, I miss being a TA, I miss the class, I miss those guys, I miss making Tolstoy jokes (the class was called “Literature and Ethics: Tolstoy’s War and Peace”). But I do not miss OSCI. And there’s something obviously reassuring about not missing a prison. So I’ve been wondering, why is Serbu different? Why do I miss Serbu?
What makes Inside-Out courses unique is the relationships that students build with one another, of course most notably, the “inside”-“outside” student relationship. With Book Club, there is still an inside-outside relationship, but its terms are very different. The Serbu detention facility population is transient and a new power dynamic is introduced. Inside-Out alumni enter Serbu trained volunteers and trusted to be responsible mentors. I have built many short-lived relationships with kids inside Serbu and returned the next week to discover that they are no longer there. I rarely know why, where they have gone, or anything about their life “outside” (as is typical with Inside-Out programs nationally). But two years ago now, in my first Inside-Out class I spent ten weeks developing a relationship with a man named David. I remember David, and I miss David. I can recall his face and what it felt like to talk to him. I remember our conversations and how the nature of them progressed as I returned each week. I can’t say that about most of the kids that I have worked with inside Serbu, but I do remember Serbu.
I remember what it feels like to sit in a circle inside Serbu’s fishbowl classroom that looks out at sixteen numbered and locked doors. I know what it feels like to read stories while looking out at those doors, knowing that the kids to either side of me will return to one when the all-too-short story ends. I can remember the muted light seeping in through the miniature basketball court, framed with glass panes right next to where the kids sleep. So I return to my original question: Why do I miss this place?
My experience co-facilitating Book Club has been a huge part of my growth over my final year at the U of O. When people ask me what I want to do after college I know what the answer is now. I don’t always say it eloquently, but it’s all very simple: I want to work with kids, I want to read books, I want to sit in circles, I want to design and lead activities that prompt new and creative thinking. I want to do things like Book Club. So when I imagine Serbu, what comes to mind is a place that I have repeatedly felt what it’s like to have a short, tiny, imperfect interaction with someone, rarely knowing the impact, and doing it anyway. It’s a place where I have reached out into that strange abyss of other people time and time again, and developed a sense of confidence in my work in education. I can’t necessarily recall the person on the other end of all of those interactions with the depth that I can recall David, so instead I recall the place: Serbu.