The Language of Literature
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"The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses" by Bessie Head

Overview

Hannetjie, a tough new prison guard or warder, takes charge of Span One, a closely-knit group of black political prisoners in a South African work camp. Hannetjie punishes Brille, the prisoner with glasses, severely for stealing and talking back to him. Eventually, Brille catches Hannetjie stealing fertilizer and uses this leverage to strike a bargain with him: the prisoners of Span One enjoy privileges that enable them to endure their long, hard confinement and, in return, they become the hardest workers in camp, helping Hennetjie steal fertilizer and other items he can use on his farm.




Issues

This story addresses

  • political imprisonment,
  • bias,
  • collusion,
  • theft.




Instructional Focus

To encourage students to

  • understand the concept of political imprisonment,
  • analyze their beliefs about political imprisonment,
  • appreciate differences,
  • avoid collusion and theft.




Activities

Oral Reading
Read the story aloud. Pause to discuss the issues as they arise. Focus on the juxtaposition of political imprisonment and criminal behavior. Have students consider whether the characters' behaviors are justified given the circumstances.

Class Discussion
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:

  • We are not told the specifics of each Span One prisoner's crime, only that each is a political prisoner. What constitutes a political crime? Do you think the prisoners are "guilty" of similar offenses? How can political crimes differ? Give examples.
  • The narrator says the battle between warders and Span One prisoners is "entirely psychological." What does this mean? How/Why are these prisoners different from the rest? How does race affect the situation?
  • After he is beaten by Hannetjie, Brille apologizes to the other prisoners. Their response is, "What happens to one of us happens to all." Are they simply referring to the loss of meals? Explain. Are there instances in which you feel you have been punished for the actions of another?
  • Brille says he is only learning to be a politician in prison. What does he mean by this? What does it imply about the state of politics?
  • Brille advises his children to be good comrades and cooperate so that life will run smoothly. How does this contradict his political imprisonment? If everyone always cooperated, what might happen? Identify examples of a good change that occurred only after people refused to cooperate. (The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is a good example.)
  • Why do the prisoners steal? How do you think they justify their actions? Does justification make illegal activity okay? Explain.
  • Hannetjie eases up on the prisoners only when they agree to steal for him as well as themselves. How do you think he justifies his behavior? Does his assumed rationalization make the illegal activity okay? Can you identify instances where you did something you shouldn't have and rationalized your guilt? Explain. How can rationalization lead to further wrongdoing?

Partners in Crime Prevention
Have students work in pairs to identify "typical teenage behaviors" that thwart the law. Have them focus on the rationalization teens use to convince themselves it's okay. Then have the pairs identify actions adults could take to prevent the illicit behavior. Have pairs share their results and discuss the viability of the suggested adult actions. The following is a sample pair response: Teenage drinking is against the law. Teens may justify it by saying, "Everyone does it." Some even say their parents drank as teens; it's just a right of passage. In states where the legal drinking age is 21, 18-year-olds say they should be allowed to drink because they are "legal" in every other sense of the law. Adults might prevent the illicit activity by being better role models themselves and showing teens how to enjoy themselves without alcohol, by not providing or selling alcohol to minors and reporting those who do, and by ensuring the laws are enforced.

Role Playing Alternatives
Ask student groups to identify illicit behaviors peers might encourage them to participate in. Have each group select one behavior. Then ask them to write a skit that shows the peer's encouragement being thwarted. Have groups perform the skits. Following each skit, evaluate the efficacy of the proposed solution. Ask the class to suggest additional alternatives for getting out of encouraged illegal activities.

Role Playing
Have student pairs rewrite the scene where the men decide to go fishing. Have one character convince the other it is a poor decision after much debate. Instruct students to play out their scene for the class.




Real World Connection


Ask student pairs to conduct Internet research on political imprisonment around the world. Instruct them to use viable sources such as Amnesty International and the United Nations. Ask them identify one case about which they feel strongly. Have them report on the case. Encourage them to identify and take measures to alleviate the situation.

 

 


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