417 | Will Work For …

January 10, 2016
Sunday, 12:00 p.m.
Letter #417: Will Work For …


Dear Family,

Now that I’ve run the music program for a little over a year, I’ve seen my share of changes due to the prison system, this institution, and the varying personalities who have joined the program. The change that affected me the most isn’t the many guys who start piano lessons only to quit mere weeks later. This is normal by outside-prison standards, though it is far more prevalent here. (I believe this is because my clientele have typically quit everything from grade school and junior high to jobs and parenting. Basically, they’re great at quitting everything but alcohol and drugs.) And even the institutional changes in programs and schedules aren’t all that difficult to overcome and adjust to. The toughest change is when people I count on to help organize or teach have to leave or decide to move on.

After the first batch of music tutors left, I made another attempt to get my remaining volunteer tutors approved for tutor pay. At thirty-two cents an hour, it is the highest-paying job at the prison, staff excluded. However, my boss told me he didn’t want to “pay guys who have no piano experience.” Though I respect Mr. Lohman and work hard to do my best for him, this was tough for me to hear. I felt that he should trust my judgment regarding who is capable and accomplished enough at the piano to teach others and who isn’t. After all, I’d proved they could teach by having the tutors with “no piano experience” present their students to play for him. Clearly, I reasoned, these guys are good enough tutors if their students can already play intermediate-level songs. At that time, I got permission from Mr. Lohman to bring up the new tutor pay idea in a few months, once the guys had a little more teaching experience under their belts. (To be clear: None of them actually wear belts.)

Well, I wish I could say that the volunteer music tutors were totally fine with teaching piano for no pay. Yeah, that didn’t happen. They stayed officially as “pod porters,” receiving just $0.08 an hour for sweeping or mopping in the pod while teaching piano during their free time. And the rest of their free time was spent complaining to me about how unfair it was that they were not being fairly compensated for their work. One of them at that time was my cellie, Andrew, who was an excellent piano tutor and even better complainer.

I tried to empathize with them; I really did. I told them how hard I’d tried to get them the higher pay. I’d consistently spoken highly of them to my boss and other staff members, letting them know how successful their students were and how willing the guys were to take on additional students when we lost two key tutors due to institutional moves. Neither my then-cellie, Andrew, nor the other guys seemed to believe that my hands were tied in the matter. Having seen me ask for and receive permission to do just about everything else, they held me in high regard, thinking there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish. Yet, with their very outspoken complaints directed at me, it didn’t seem as if any of my so-called accomplishments (which were, in actuality, simply God’s hand of favor and blessing) had done much lasting good. Everything was worthless, now that they couldn’t get paid. Andrew transferred back to California shortly thereafter, and the other guys dropped off, leaving me with just two students who had never taught before. When they brought up the pay issue, saying they’d be willing to teach only if they were paid the highest rate, I called for a meeting and sat down with them for a brief history lesson.

I told them how I had taught four types of classes for a period of over three-and-a-half years, working an average of thirty-two hours per week at this very institution. After several semesters, I’d drafted a proposal seeking tutor compensation, but I was denied. My pay stayed at $0.08 an hour the whole time. I didn’t mind, I told them, because I wasn’t doing it for the pay. I simply enjoyed teaching, and I believed it was what God wanted me to do to benefit those around me.

Having worked themselves into an indignant fervor: “He can’t just expect us to work for free,” the guys told me: “Well, we aren’t like you. We want to be paid for what we do. We should get some benefit from all this work!” I guess I had higher expectations of the guys’ character than they did, as I tried to reason with them that sometimes people do things out of the goodness of their hearts. That got me nowhere.

Finally, I reminded the guys that the reason I’d asked them to consider being tutors in the first place is so they can get better at understanding the piano themselves, while they practice teaching others. Should they become proficient enough at teaching, I told them, they could make incredibly generous wages teaching piano once they leave prison. The going rate in my area of California is at least $70 an hour and goes up an average of $5 to $7 every three years.

Eventually, they agreed to stick it out and take on as many students as I want to give them, once our next semester of piano lessons begins a month from now. “Hopefully,” they said, “you can get us better pay.” No, hopefully you will learn that not everything in life needs to be about how much money you make and that some smaller-perceived benefits can be far more valuable over time than any amount of money. Even a whopping $0.32.