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by James Vanden Bosch
It started out innocently enough. Andrew, a friend of mine and a fellow grammarian, had been asked if he knew of anyone who would be willing to teach traditional grammar for students at Handlon Prison, where Calvin Theological Seminary and Calvin College had paired up in what is now called the Calvin Prison Initiative.
In the middle of the second year of this program, a group of CPI students had come to the conclusion that they’d be able to make better use of the writing class and the tutoring they were receiving if they had a better grasp of English grammar. As they said in various ways, “We’re Calvin students, and we’re writers.” They were aware of the limitations of their writing skills, but they also knew they were improving, and they wanted better working knowledge of the names of things—parts of speech, phrases, sentence patterns, clauses—so that they could have more conscious control of their revising and drafting. They needed this additional knowledge—was there anyone who could help them?
When Andrew asked me, I almost immediately agreed to do it, provided that we could do it as a team, so that scheduling problems or illness or emergencies wouldn’t force these students to wait two or three weeks between classes. Besides, Andrew had already taught a section of Written Rhetoric in the program, and I could depend on Andrew to show me how to work with these students in this new educational context. Since January 31, Andrew and I have been driving from Grand Rapids to Ionia every Tuesday evening to provide an introduction to traditional grammar to eighteen students in Handlon Prison.
Apart from the fact that all of our students are males, they present a great deal of variety in the classroom—young and old, black and white, well or poorly educated, lifers and those with much shorter sentences. But they have many features in common—they feel honored and privileged to be allowed to take college courses in this program, they want to work hard and thus achieve a high level of mastery of the material, and they are deeply grateful to us every week for coming to Handlon to teach them. They have various skills, and not all of them are natural candidates for mastering the ins and outs of grammatical analysis. But they work hard on the grammar exercises all through the week, often in small groups, and they come prepared for class.
Almost every class begins with their grammar questions—twenty to fifty minutes of questions about grammatical complexities. Many of them have a powerful need to know how to do grammatical analysis in a deeply consistent way. From the very beginning, they needed to know the rule as well as the exception to the rule, whether we were considering word order or the order of attack when determining where structures in a sentence begin and end, or the ordinary rule for whether adverbs always precede the adjectives they modify. Their tenacity and curiosity are remarkable and admirable.
And they are eager to use all of our two-hour time slot productively. On the first night of teaching, I made what Andrew later told me was the rookie mistake of asking them if they needed a short break after the first hour of instruction. They answered my question quickly and impatiently: Of course not—they were already on a terrible extended break, and would be for years. Our time together in the classroom is precious time, and they wouldn’t willingly waste it.
It became clear to me that night that Andrew and I would be learning a great deal every Tuesday evening. Our course syllabus provided a basic map of where we were going and when, but the lesson plan for each evening was not in our control. We became active learners in that room on Tuesday nights, and active in directions we couldn’t have predicted.
Each night, a student provides a brief opening devotion and prayer; each one finds his own way to set the tone for the night. On the first evening, the student read Paul’s great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, and he read it from his King James Bible. As he read those ringing words, I listened to them more carefully than I had in years, simply because of who was reading them to me. On another night, a student read a very brief text about keeping guard over our mouths and thus guarding our souls, and he prayed a simple prayer, asking for a blessing on our grammar work in the coming hours.
And last Tuesday evening, one of the preachers took his turn and preached on John 11, focusing on this verse from the Lazarus story: “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” The sickness he preached about was their incarceration, and he began to proclaim, ever more emphatically, that this sickness is not unto death: “God finna work a resurrection in someone in this room, and it will be for the glory of God. In this story, Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, but next time it could be you.” His voice was strong, loud, stirring, urgent—aimed at each one of us in that classroom.
Fifty minutes of grammatical questions followed the preacher’s impassioned sermon and prayer, and then we picked up the official work of the night, explaining the features of adverb clauses of cause, adverb clauses of purpose, adverb clauses of concession, adverb clauses of result, and adverb clauses of condition.
We came because visiting the prisoner pleases God. We came to Handlon so that we could help train these inmates for freedom. We taught the men there, even though our knowledge of their needs was partial, at best. We came to our Calvin students that night so set on our own plans that we weren’t ready to be raised from the dead. It started out innocently enough, if you have any confidence in your innocence.
James Vanden Bosch teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.