Love before you look: Teaching behind bars

Betty BeanFeature, Inside 640

Note: I’ve written about education in Knox County for many years and knew Gary Harmon as the president of the Knox County Education Association (“union work,” as he calls it.) He served four years and did a lot of public speaking. I remember him as a fierce and effective advocate. I could see that he has no right hand and a stump with two fingers on his left arm, but what I didn’t know is that he walks with the aid of prosthetic legs (no crutches or walking sticks) because he was born without feet.

When one of the employees at the juvenile detention center calls in sick, Richard Bean has a ready-made response:

“I’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll mark you down. Gary’s already here, and he has to put his legs on.’”

Bean, who is the superintendent of the facility, is speaking of Gary Harmon, who just finished his sixth year of teaching English and history at the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Detention Center, where Bean has worked for 47 years.

Harmon has been a teacher with Knox County Schools for 33 years and did stretches at Bearden, Austin-East and Halls high schools, a resume that has served him well for his current assignment.

“I feel like it prepared me for this job. I feel like I’ve been everywhere and seen everything,” Harmon said.

Like all KCS teachers, he is evaluated by a supervisor, who has learned to take into account the special demands of teaching an incarcerated student population.

“They placed me in the facility and they come out and evaluate me – the whole thing. My supervisor and I had to grow together. At first, she wanted me to do group work, but that doesn’t work in this environment,” he said, explaining that he had members of three different street gangs (the Latin Kings, the Bloods and the Crips) in his class, and would have run into serious difficulties if he’d attempted to divide them into groups.

“Groups don’t work here. My way is a little old school, but it keeps it safe,” he said.

He makes a point of not looking up his students’ offenses and has devised methods and practices that work in the confines of the detention center.

He and his wife, Katherine, are the parents of two teenagers who inspire and challenge them daily. A life-changing incident happened to Harmon when his older child was in daycare. It was summer, and he came to pick her up wearing shorts that exposed his prosthetic legs, which scared the other children. His daughter told him that some of her classmates asked her to tell him not to come and pick her up at school anymore. He talked it out with her, and they got past the episode, but the memory stuck with him – so much so that he has written a book about it, “My daddy takes his legs off.”

“The book is about that event and how we solved that problem together as a family,” he said. The purpose of the book is to help kids talk about disabilities.”

He has become a motivational speaker, helping groups and businesses explore ways to accept people with disabilities, and has had several engagements already this summer.

Come August, he’ll be ready to start a new year with the kids at the detention center. He said he enjoys working with Bean.

“I tease him, but he is the best boss I ever had. He really is. He’s very compassionate and wants what’s best for those kids. But he’s tough. He was the one who said I have the authority to lock them up if need be, but he told me to remember, is it their job to be in school and my job to teach them.”

For more information about Gary Harmon, or to buy his book, go here.

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