Gainesville author shares her heartfelt stories of teaching inmates
Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 3:37 p.m.
When most authors envision their works being read, they imagine readers will cradle their books, holding them close to their hearts.
Gainesville author Leanne Lawrence encourages readers to throw her book across the room in anger.
That's because the true-life stories in Lawrence's book, "Between Hell & Hope: Teaching Humanity in an Imperfect World," which details her experiences teaching GED classes at the Alachua County Jail, covers topics that include animal abuse, rape, prostitution, drug addiction and domestic violence.
Lawrence says she hopes the book will serve as an inspiration to all readers to affect social change in their communities.
"You don't have to do it all, and you don't have to do it perfectly," she says. "You can write a check. You can write your congressman. You just have to do something. Stop griping and start doing."
Lawrence has taught GED classes to students ages 14 to 70 at the county jail since 2000. Before that, she taught at the One Stop Career Center, now called Florida Works. She says her job is taxing but rewarding.
"I have the best job in the world. People walk in, they're deflated. They don't make eye contact. And I shake their hands with every ounce of strength and I tell them, ‘You just passed the hardest part of this. You had the guts to walk through that door. It's all downhill from here,'?" she says.
Many of Lawrence's students are charged with rape, prostitution, assault, robbery and dealing drugs like crack cocaine. In her book she describes her students as "textbook victim(s) of a culture that would fail (them) time and time again." She says it's her goal to empower her students and to encourage them to look outside of the environment they found themselves in.
"It's an attempt to raise the bar," she says. "It's putting the mirror in front of their faces. I ask them, ‘Do you want your sons and daughters to go through this same thing?' No 5-year-old girl ever woke up and said, ‘I want to be a drug-addicted prostitute.'?"
Though she says she's referred to as the "Drive-Thru GED teacher" for her fast-paced learning environment, Lawrence says she adopts countless number of teaching strategies: whatever works. A former student of hers, now living in Alabama, still calls her for help solving math problems with fractions.
Sheriff Sadie Darnell says Lawrence's work exhibits an attitude of compassion toward her students, many of whom are using her GED class as an early step toward rehabilitation.
"We should not give up on people who have made poor choices. There is potential and possibility in everyone," Darnell says. "Getting their GEDs gives them a sense of achievement and pride — not just for them but for their families."
Demi Appling received her GED last August after attending Lawrence's classes. She says Lawrence's positivity and perseverance encouraged her to continue with her education.
"Her personality alone was enough to make you want to come to class. She was a really cool person to be around," she says. "She made learning a fun situation, and that made the material stick in my mind easier than in my earlier schools."
Even after receiving her GED, Appling stayed in touch with Lawrence and invited her to the hospital to visit her and her newborn, now 8 months old.
"She shows you to go after what you want and to never give up," she says. "I learned that people with patience get further along. I only knew Ms. Leanne for a short time, but I'll never forget her."
Lawrence says she began journaling about her classroom experiences 14 years ago as a way to purge them from her memory, but she now sees these stories as invitations to start discussions about how to fix problems like poverty, drug use and violence.
In her book, she says that at the core of society's ills lies a "lack of compassion and ... unconditional love for all living things, coupled with the obsession with money and possessions." To remedy these ills, she recommends compassion and kindness be taught to every student, both by their families and teachers.
"For so long, it's been swept under the rug. It's someone else's problem," she says. "We have to stop the bleeding. And creating a dialogue is the answer."
Darnell says reading "Between Hell & Hope" reminded her of Theodore Roethke's poem "In A Dark Time."
The poem opens with the line "In a dark time, the eye begins to see."
"She experienced a lot of people's dark times, but she could see the positivity and the hope," she says. "She has a gift for helping people find their way and become positive members of society. She should be celebrated."
To purchase "Between Hell & Hope" for $20, email Leanne Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org.