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2: the masks we wear
are we invisible without them?
by candy green gustavson
pop culture

(Candy Green Gustavson teaches a course called "Becoming a Mentor" to women prisoners living in a Faith and Character Dorm. She is attempting to draw metaphors from life as she explores our abilty to share experiences of personal growth and change. In the first article she took a peek and a poke at the tattoos we wear. This is the second article in the series.)

These women are really smart, I think, as I look at them...but I haven't gotten to know them yet. I don't know who they are. I don't know their stories. Even though they made the name placards which sit on the tables in front of them, I'm not learning their names. I hate that I have to put on my teaching mask and give them so much information. What other masks keep us from knowing each other?

A guard watches as they enter the classroom, taking a count to make sure they are all here.

I've gotten to know other inmates better, more personally, in other venues inside the prison: at the Toastmasters club formed by the community club I belong to and which the women have named "Voices of Vision." I've heard their "icebreakers," their first speeches. Many of them share, for the first time, their horror stories: sexual abuse starting at three, for instance; battery, generation to generation child abuse, prostitution, drug making and trafficking, computer and identity theft, armed robbery, murder of varying degrees. The structure of a Toastmasters meeting helps these women--and me, because I am one, too--take off our masks.

Another group of women I work with, those who write, have formed an inmate-led author's club. I am the liason with administration and the outside world. They call me their "proctor" for reasons I've never asked; the word has such a negative connotation. As long as they don't get into fights, they can meet. I try not to get too involved or answer when they complain; it reminds me of gossip in junior high or, even, in church. They have other, more proper ways, of dealing with grievances.

The writing group is so enterprising. The women are doing their time, but taking time to think of ways to solve the constraint problems. As they can't use word processors or computers, everything they write is first written by hand. They can't use retractable pens and have no access to paper so those items have to be brought in. Many are indigent.

One of them, in for life, has created a supportive mailing system, entered contests and obtained a Mentor through penwriters (www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/232). She is so hip: with no access to the internet for 15 years, she asked me to find out about ebooks and that's how I found out about intrepidmedia.

During the time I've known them, the author's club has managed to obtain a room of its own--with a window and a view--and two old floppy-disc style computers, and a file cabinet. They're thrilled, but aren't finished with their vision. It's not their writing, but the process of working together, being Mentors to one another, that helps them take off their masks.

Already I am sensing this new venture of teaching women living in the Faith and Character Dorms is going to be different. I'm creating the structure based on the assumption they're concerned with developing their Faith and Character. Never make assumptions, it's said. But, like Michael Jackson, if we wear a mask, isn't it because we are out somewhere, knowing we could be known?

I teach this new group of women as part of being a Volunteer in Service to America (Americorps/VISTA). I'm charged to break cycles of poverty, recruit and train Mentors, make whatever I do sustainable. This is the last year I can be a VISTA; I want to continue working with these women.

There are two of these dorms, I muse, with almost 100 women in each, leaving the dorm as they leave the prison, making room for others coming in. I can teach them 16 at a time, for 10 weeks at a time. I can have something to do for quite a while, I realize!

Perhaps I've been doing too much talking, I think. Perhaps I haven't given them a chance to express themselves? I've spent a lot of time laying a foundation, trying to create some kind of vocabulary we can share and refer to. I'm trying to give them the best I've gotten. I keep telling them this. It makes me wonder if it's some kind of desperation on my part, among my last chances to make a difference in someone's life.

I've seen how capable the women in the Toastmasters group are. Their speeches are well-organized, well-prepared, and dynamic. They love the politesse of the agenda and make it come alive with their lively participation and leadership skills.

I've seen entreprenurial skills in the author's club when they waited (somewhat!) patiently for approval--and now have that room with a view! I've seen their writing skills at work: the racy and racing plots, colorful characters with even more colorful and creative names. For instance, Bonita and Claude is Bonnie and Clyde, a shoot 'em up with a happy ending! (Although this manuscript has made it outside to be read by a publishing company, the Deputy Warden has given warning: due to rules and regulations on subject matter, a published book might not make it back in!)

Today! Yes, today, the Faith and Character ladies and I must begin to take off our masks, I decide. But, how can we? Perhaps we need to take a look at the ground we stand on, the buildings we live in, the places where we wear our masks. Perhaps we need to make sure of the strength of these foundations and protections, make sure we won't want to run away when we are exposed--or in case there are mirrors!

After reviewing what a Mentor is (role model, non-judgemental confidant, advisor, fount of wisdom), we will think of those who have been Mentors to us: our mothers, sisters, aunties, teachers and friends. We will discuss whether these relationships have had defined or undefined, spoken or unspoken, boundaries. We will come to realize that we, too, are mothers, sisters, aunties, teachers of something, and a friend to someone.

Women are nurturers, even in prison. I hope they will begin to see their solicited or unsolicited advice, their sought or unsought comfort is a form of Mentoring. I will share with them from the mistakes, the brokeness, of my own life. Then, perhaps, we can begin to take off our masks. Bloom's Taxonomy and The Johari Window will be a good place to start.

First, we will have some fun with Mr. Bloom's taxonomy and figure out what a taxonomy is: taxis from the Greek meaning an order or arrangment + nomos from the Latin meaning a law or science; hence a taxidermist (a word they all know) is a person who orders the skin or dermis of some animal.

Mr. Bloom's taxonomy (www.businessballs.com/bloomstaxonomyoflearningdomains.htm) is the inverted ordering of the names of critical thinking skills. It begins, at the bottom, with Knowledge--not the highest thinking skill as I would have first thought--I mean, afterall, isn't knowledge power? I will tell them about my daughter learning "The Lord's Prayer" by heart when she was only 18 months old.

Yes, my daughter had it memorized, but she didn't understand it. She wasn't ready, willing or even able to move on to Mr. Bloom's next steps of Comprehesion, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and, finally, the highest thinking skill of all: Evaluation--the ability we have to say whether we like something or not, whether we approve or don't. Is this good for me or bad for me? Right or wrong? Nice or naughty? Legal or illegal?

But, I will tell them, when we were babies and we spit out our first taste of spinach, we were evaluating. And so, I will hope--as I look at their faces--I will hope these women are challenged to see that everyone, from babyhood on, is continually thinking, figuring things out, seeing if it works, taking it apart and having a good look at it, putting it back together in a new way and deciding whether it's liked or not.

I will hope these women can realize they have a brain and it has been being used for a long time. And that, in spite of poor judgement on their parts in the past, they have not lost their abilities to try again.

Are they as nervous and excited as I am? Are we ready to take a look at (or through!) the Johari Window(www.businessballs.com/johariwindowmodel.htm)?

I first learned about it in New Zealand in a youth worker training setting. The Johari Window isn't some exotic Indian chakra-type mystery, as it might sound, but simply named after two guys named Joe and Harry!

When presented, people seem to like the idea of the Johari Window, that we can know things about ourselves and others know them, too. But, the Johari Window teaches there are also things we don't know about ourselves that are obvious and known to others. According to the Johari Window theory, the more transparent we are, the more we open up and enlarge the view, we fine we have done away with the panes. Pains? Yes, because being transparent, honest, open makes us happier. And the happier we are, the more productive we can become.

They look so young, I think, as I see them taking their seats, talking quietly, beginning to wait. Overall, they seem much younger than the Toastmasters group...and the writing group.

They are so quiet now. They are looking at me...to me.

I take off my mask and begin speaking.


late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

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