Writers' Fortnight 2019: Reshaping the lives of those neglected by society
By Ahrim Jung, Grade 9, East Campus
From ten years of teaching prison inmates to having his essays appear on the New York Times, Chris Huntington discovers the eye-opening day-to-day reality of prisoners, and the contrasting importance of education towards different individuals but also loses a part of himself that he used to have before.
“I think people can change.”
Chris Huntington, a High School English teacher in UWCSEA East Campus, shares his notable experiences to Grade 9 students during the 2019 High School Writers' Fortnight. His unique journey reminds students once again about the privileges of receiving an education, and the lesson of treating everyone with the same respect.
Benefiting the lives of those who, unfortunately, were not able to complete their education, at the age of 33, Chris was not only given the opportunity to pursue his passion for teaching, but was also able to significantly impact the lives of inmates at Plainfield prison in Indiana.
Chris was born in Colorado and soon settled in Indiana, where he spent most of his childhood and teenage years. Growing up in Indiana with his mother, who is Chinese-American, and father, who is American, he was raised as a third-culture kid. After years of education and hard work, in 2011, he published his first novel ‘Mike Tyson Slept Here’, and received attention from people all around the world. His essays appeared in the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Rumpus, the Millions, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere.
Prior to pursuing his career in educating prisoners, who were taking part in the GED (General Education Diploma), Chris worked as a teacher in a school in France.
He taught in a school where the students were all financially comfortable. He said, “Even if I’m not teaching at this school, those students would still be able to receive the quality education that their parents want for them.”
This realisation was one key factor, which led to his settlement in educating those, to whom his presence would have created a vast impact.
“I want to help people, and make people happy.”
Chris apprises students about his day-to-day life, teaching at Plainfield Prison. He says that he taught around 20 male prisoners in one room for 8 hours each day, in order to help them pass their GED test, and receive their high school diploma. He explains that the GED test consists of all multiple-choice questions, and is much easier than different high school boards, such as IGCSE or IB.
“Although is it relatively straightforward, it can still help undereducated prisoners, once they leave prison,” he said. Chris believes that the scale of success is different for everyone, and for the prisoners, if they stayed out of prison, that was a substantial accomplishment.
(Left) ‘Mike Tyson Slept Here’, published in 2011
While working at Plainfield prison, he was never able to build a strong relationship with the inmates, but shared one of his most memorable experiences to students. One of his most diligent student named ‘Armando’, did not make any eye contact with him, and instead faced the wall when he was informed that he passed the GED test. “He didn’t want anyone to see him cry,” Chris explained.
Chris strongly feels that in the prison there was “no tenderness or love around them”, which may have been a reason behind this action. Unfortunately, Armando, being the youngest member of his gang, did not show up on the day to receive his certificate because he had stabbed someone in the neck, due to an incident that happened among the inmates. His story brings out a different perspectives towards prison to Grade 9 students, and informs them about how “people can change”.
When Chris was asked how he felt teaching a room full of prisoners, he tells students that he acknowledged the possible dangers, but said he stayed focused on the potential positives. “Possibly something terrible can happen when teaching in a room full of these men that can beat up people really easily,” he said. “Educating inmates can be so valuable for the community, and for the inmates themselves.”
A bird's eye view of Plainfield Prison in Indiana
“The only way you can become a better person is when people start treating you like an actual human being, not an animal.”
Chris hopes to have had an impact on each and every individual inmate's life. They were given the opportunity to take the GED test, and he feels that he has made a difference. Although working in prison can be treacherous, he still doesn’t regret the job, and instead takes it as a fascinating opportunity.
“After 10 years of working in the system, I don’t like myself, I’m not as kind as I used to be.”
Working as a teacher in prison was a very eye-opening experience to him, but he also lost a part of himself that he used to have before. His fascinating story opens different perspectives about prison, jail inmates, and the importance of education to Grade 9 students, leaving them with insights about his life-changing experience working at Plainfield prison.