When I became a teachers’ aide for a basic adult education class here at New Jersey State Prison, I learned much more than I ever expected. I had already been incarcerated for nearly 10 years by then, and, as a mid-sized White guy, I survived those years by staying mostly under the radar.
Now I was taking on a job that basically called for people to focus their attention on me.
I was inexperienced, to say the least; I had not even taken a tutor training session yet. In fact, my only real qualification for the job was that I had passed my GED test two years earlier. Then, on my first day, I learned that the woman who had taught high school-level math when I took my GED courses was also new to the class.
My first real trial came in the form of a student who was only a year younger than me, a student many would consider a “hard case.” He would often act out the way someone would if they were still in middle school. He tried making funny comments at inappropriate times to disrupt the class. If we had spelling words on the board, he would change the letters around when he thought no one was looking. He would also pretend he didn’t know what the teacher was talking about, saying “what?” and “why?” over and over. One of his favorite things to do was make a scene by crumpling up his worksheets or homework and throwing them in the trash.
In a maximum security prison like this one, his blatant disrespect might have led to a fight. But I was intent on handling the situation without violence. Something in the deepest part of my brain kept nagging at me, telling me I needed to help him.
I wondered if I was compelled by my desire to be a better person or by the requirements of the job. Or maybe I just felt challenged by him and had to win. But something made me want to see him pass this class.
I later realized that he was exactly how I was in high school and early on in my incarceration, which started at age 18. I was him! I was the pain in the butt who gave the people trying to help me a hard time. That’s why I knew intuitively how to help him.
One day, he crumpled up a worksheet, threw it in the trash and walked out to go to the bathroom. I was starting to get really frustrated with this particular behavior, so I told myself that if he wanted to be the center of attention, then I was going to give him all the attention he could handle. I got up, dug the worksheet out of the garbage, smoothed it out as best I could and placed it back on his desk.
When he came back into the room and saw the paper on his desk, he gave a little laugh. He crumpled up the worksheet again, threw it away and sat back down. I slowly returned to the trash can and grabbed the paper, smoothed it out in a very exaggerated way, and set it down in front of him.
I didn’t say a word, but I was challenging him with direct eye contact. I knew this could lead to a fight if he felt I was making a fool of him, but I was fairly confident that I was reading the situation correctly.
He looked back at me and said, “I’m just going to throw it away again.”
“That’s fine,” I replied. “I’ll just pick it out again and put it back on your desk.”
He broke eye contact, looked down at his desk and said in a low voice, “I’ll just start tearing the papers up.”
So I told him we had plenty of tape.
We went back and forth a few more times, and then he announced, “I’m stubborn and I won’t be moved. I’m like a mountain.”
“Well, I’m stubborn, too.” I shot back. “And I have a whole bunch of time, so I’ll be like the wind.”
A confused look washed over his face, and he asked why I would want to be like the wind. I explained how, with enough time, wind could wear down a mountain. He wanted me to show him where I got this information, so I grabbed a science book and showed him the chapter that explained erosion. He was hooked.
After I was able to show him that there were interesting things out there to learn, he began to let down his guard. He was still a pain in the butt, but I was able to get him to do at least some of his work. I started by making deals with him, like if he’d do three questions out of 10 I’d give him full credit. He could even choose which questions he wanted to complete. Eventually, he began to finish all the questions just to show me that he could. He wanted me to be proud of him. I was, and I often told him just that.
I didn’t really understand what I had achieved with him until the day he passed the test that would allow him to move up to the next level. After he got his scores, he came over to my desk to show me. In a quiet voice, so no one else could hear him, he said, “Thank you for not giving up on me.” I was stunned, but then a deep sense of accomplishment swept over me. I had actually helped this guy!
I could sense that he was nervous about the next level, so I told him that even though I couldn’t continue to teach him, I had the utmost confidence that he had the skills to continue on his own. I made him promise that he would keep me updated on his progress, and every once in a while he does stop by to show me his test scores.
This experience helped me understand why people continued to help me even though I was such a “hard case.” I also realized that I had so many thank you letters to write.
First incarcerated at age 18, Thomas Koskovich is 43 years old. When he is not working as a teachers’ aide, he is reading sci-fi and fantasy novels, writing and watching funny videos on TV. Koskovich was originally sentenced to death for homicide, but the sentence was overturned through appeals. He is currently serving two consecutive life sentences plus 30 years for double homicide and armed robbery at New Jersey State Prison, and won’t be eligible for parole until 2067.