My Students Were Prisoners
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“My Students Were Prisoners,” Ensign, Feb. 1980, 62

My Students Were Prisoners

When I lived in Sydney, Australia, I was invited to teach creative writing to inmates of a top-security prison—habitual criminals. I refused the first invitation. I wasn’t going into any jail teaching criminals! The thought appalled me. Anyway, I didn’t know enough. I was still learning myself.

Three months later I was asked again and immediately I said yes. I think I was prompted in my answer, because the word slipped out before I’d even had time to think about it. I went into that jail every Saturday morning for ten months until work pressure and exams forced me to stop. I learned something: every soul is important to God and must have a chance to hear the gospel.

From the first day I was picked on as religious. They said, “You’re different. You’re religious, and we don’t want any religion here.” I repeated that I was only there to teach creative writing. And so it went from 9 A.M. until 12:30 P.M., and oh, was I exhausted by then!

The second Saturday was a little better; I accomplished more. The third Saturday was different still. As soon as class began they said, “You’re different. You talk differently, you think differently, you act differently. We’ve been talking about you all week, and two of us think you’re a Mormon. Are you?”

I was dumbfounded. I never thought they’d guess my religion. Anyhow, I owned up, waiting for what was to follow. They said, “Well, in a way it spoils our speculation. We had a lot of fun talking about it, but we’re glad to know.” From that day they inundated me with questions on the gospel. I wasn’t supposed to be teaching religion, but it always took precedence over the writing side of the lesson. Oh, they wrote and studied all right, but I took their stories home and worked on them so that we could spend most of the time talking religion.

One of them, Kevin, wrote a beautiful story about Jesus. Another, Peter, had met the missionaries outside jail, and had their cards and a Book of Mormon in jail with him. He softened a little more toward the gospel. And another prisoner, Ralph, eventually asked to see the missionaries.

Church magazines and other copies of the Book of Mormon made the rounds undamaged. Usually religious books were mutilated and eventually destroyed. Pages from the Bible had even been used as cigarette paper.

We usually worked around a rickety old table, but one day a new round table with a wrought iron base and covered with a blanket stood in the circle of chairs. I complimented them on the change; then they unveiled it. It had been a two-week labor of love; they had constructed and painted the table, finally painting the face of a gray cat on top because they knew I loved cats. I was deeply touched.

I’m happy to say that my class was the most popular and the most consistently attended of all that were offered, with an average of ten students each week. It wasn’t because of me, though, and I knew it. It was the material discussed, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Priesthood members helped me by answering most of the countless questions scribbled on scraps of paper. That was another part of my homework.

I loved the work and would gladly go again if the opportunity arose, only this time I’d like things to be organized so that the gospel could be taught openly if the class wanted it. I know now, though, that at that particular time there was a job to be done—a prisoner was ready to receive the gospel. I was sent because I had the means to reach that person. I still correspond with him.