February 5, 1995 in City

Some Learn While Being Taught Lesson

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:column

A fter 40 years of teaching, Bob Schlim may have the bestbehaved students in town.

They don’t skip school. They don’t smuggle weapons from home. They don’t sneak out to the corner for a cigarette.

Nobody ever claims the dog ate his homework.

Schlim’s classroom is in the Spokane County Jail.

“You expect all these people to act like criminals and obviously they are or they wouldn’t be here,” says Schlim, 66.

“But what they’ve done is totally irrelevant. When I’m teaching I deal with the individual and I’m almost always treated with respect.”

Schlim is one of a handful of dedicated educators trying to raise the intellectual sights of Spokane inmates. Through individualized instruction, the teachers help prisoners earn their general equivalency degrees.

Schlim is a tenured faculty member for the Community Colleges of Spokane. He has been at the jail less than two years, but has extensive experience with the colleges’ adult education programs.

He is also a Roman Catholic priest. Schlim doesn’t advertise that, but it may explain his compassion for these streethardened students.

The colleges also employ two part-time instructors at the jail - Carl Johnson, who has taught inmates for 15 years, and Jim Burgen.

It’s often a thankless job, working within this surreal, vault-like setting. Many inmates don’t follow through or don’t wish to be bothered.

But there are rewards.

Schlim, a Jesuit, talks fondly about one student who dreamed of building a cabin on some property he owned near Ford, Wash. “He’d never used a framing square,” says Schlim. “I showed him how to figure out the angles and that led us into trigonometry.”

The inmate, he says, actually checked himself into solitary confinement so he could concentrate better on his work.

Count me among those who would make time in the slammer an uncomfortable, soul-searching experience that just might deter future stays.

Take away the color televisions. Ditto the basketball hoops, the weight rooms and the legal libraries that are invariably better equipped than most law firms.

But don’t count education as an unnecessary frill. Last year, 211 county jail inmates passed at least one of five GED tests.

“As you get older you see that learning is a lifetime thing,” says Toby Lawson, 33, who is working hard on the English portion of the GED.

I met Lawson in the Four-West section of the jail. The Spokane man is in for a year on drunken driving convictions, but Schlim says he’s making the most of a bad situation.

“This is something I really want to finish,” says Lawson. “I dropped out in the 9th grade. I was too busy chasing girls. I’m good at that.”

Getting a high school diploma, he adds, will be his ticket into college. “It’s the piece of paper that will let me take that next step in life.”

Raymond Armijo, 43, is a gregarious former carpenter from Kennewick. He’s also looking at a 10-year stretch for being one of the drug mules nailed in the sweeping Operation Doughboy cocaine busts.

“Getting a GED is something I’ve wanted to do,” says Armijo. “I’m gonna get it before my kids” graduate.

You want to believe that education can make a difference in such troubled lives.

The sad reality is that most inmates are creatures of habit, just like anyone else. They leave jail and go right back to the bad company, drugs, alcohol and crime.

But that doesn’t make Schlim and the others stop trying.

“You get some kids in here who want to swagger around and pretend that they’re the boss,” he says. “Others are really smart but just don’t know it.

“You just have to get them to see it.”


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