University of La Verne’s David Werner retires
by Alana Glenn
photography by Celene Vargas
David Werner, an associate professor of English and department chairman at the University of La Verne, has the ability to tell a story with immense ease. With his feet kicked up onto his desk, he leans back into his chair, hands folded behind his head, David paints the clearest and most colorful of pictures. It is as if staring out his north-facing Miller Hall office window gives him the power to conjure up prolific and poised recitings from Shakespeare done by memory. He points out his office window toward the picturesque hills resting above La Verne to find the faded but still visible letter “L” shaded into the hillside. He tells about the time when he would hike with students from the University to clear out the city’s iconic monogram, a time before the Forest Service put a stop to it, and a time that brings a smile to his face.
David’s ability to recall moments in his life is captivating to listen to, and if it isn’t the way he dresses in tweed overcoats, loud patterned ties and blue jeans that spells instant intrigue, then it is the sight of his office. Writings on prisons are found in never-ending rows on bookshelves, and folders of journals full of inmates’ writings in prison bust through file cabinets. Stories of mythology and poetry stick out in between the writings on correctional facilities and a teaching novel for first-time prison teachers. The story of David’s success in teaching begins and ends in a classroom: While in recent years he stood in front of students at La Verne teaching literature, the first class he ever taught, and continued to teach late into his career, was to a room of prisoners.
Developing a love for teaching
In 1976, David was 30 and had by then completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Soon after realizing his work as a research assistant for a professor at the Claremont Graduate School was leading him into a dead end, he decided that he was in need of a new path. Months later, a call from the University of La Verne would land him his first teaching job. David was assigned to Chino’s Youth Authority Training School, a youth prison facility housing male and female inmates, ages 17 to 22. “I knew little about teaching creative writing, and even then, I knew absolutely nothing about prisons,” David said.
So like any true English major, David picked up the popular book of the time that he believed would tell him everything he needed to know: Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul On Ice.” It had turned out that Cleaver, a founding member of the Black Panther Party, had wrote his memoir reflecting on his time spent in prison during the mid-1960s. “It scared the living hell out of me,” David says. “It talked a lot about killings within the prison, which did not make me feel any more confident about doing this.”
Armed with what he read, as well as a grade book, a pad of paper and pens, and his set of keys, David was on his way to his first class at the youth prison. He recalls the moment he first stepped into his classroom. It was the first time he had ever been able to call a classroom his own. He had stepped into a rather cold room, with dirty linoleum floors and concrete walls. The feelings he had when inmates started to file in were what anyone would feel seeing men twice their size with muscular arms. Off to a rather intimidating start his first day, the next hour and a half continued on effortlessly for David, who felt like a conductor to a symphony when the class gradually began responding to every question he asked. “I would tap on someone and he or she would make music,” David says.
While the remaining 30 minutes of that first day could have gone on the same way, a student in the back of the class interrupted the symphony of a discussion to ask David what he had felt the moment they walked in.
Frozen where he stood, David’s first impulse was to lie to the prisoner’s question. “It was a situation that many teachers and many people would lie in,” he says. “Most people would rather lie in that situation than feel any sense of vulnerability.” As David explains in a chapter he wrote for “In the Borderlands,” what saved him that day was poetry, something he has always been so passionate about. He describes poetry as being nothing other than the communication of some kind of truth. What saved him was the thinking that if he were to ask them for truth, he would need to return to them that same courtesy. David replied to the student, “I was scared. And I still am.”
As the months with the youth authority prison went on, David became increasingly confident in his position, yet felt weary of his now split time between the prison program and classes at the University of La Verne. For a brief time, David considered a change into “corporate America”, a position he believed at the time would better fit him. One day’s visit to the Youth Training School from the University of La Verne provost and WASC evaluators seemed to change David’s decision almost immediately. The gentlemen in suits attended a day of David’s class that was dedicated to allowing the female prison inmates to share their semester’s writings in a sort of coffee house, open-mic style.
The women dressed the class up with handmade decorations and offered coffee supplied by the prison’s kitchen. The men evaluating spent about an hour in the classroom before they stepped out into the hallway. Reports of grown men in suits, the WASC evaluators, with their heads in their hands crying, surfaced, and the provost of the University could admit that what David was teaching in his classes was not only moving, but extremely beneficial. “It was this enormously emotional time, and I had decided by the end of that day that… [Forget] it, I wasn’t going to give up teaching. I wasn’t going to give up this kind of experience.” David says with a sort of welled up emotion in his eyes.
While teaching creative writing to inmates of the Chino facilities, David had upped to three classes a week, adding in a speech course. Teaching speech gave David a chance to hear about other people’s stories. Inmates would share narratives about their lives and growing up. “Some of them were the most horrific stories you can kind of imagine, the kind that would make your hair stand up,” David says. “The more I listened to stories like that, the more I realized that if I had grown up where these guys had grown up, I would be exactly where they were. “ David’s realization, now in the fall of 1982, was that these men and women that he had been teaching and listening to, were no different than those outside the prison walls. Though stuck in different situations, David explained that there is no such thing as a divide between “prisoners and the rest of us.”
Now heading up the prison program as director, David gradually found himself in a tenured faculty position as an associate professor of the English Department at the University of La Verne. “I went from not having confidence to sort of gaining this ability to provide for my future and figuring out how to do it,” says David. For years, David carried the title of director and of professor, and balanced a career in both very successfully.
By 2009, budget cuts and statewide recession called for changes in the Chino Correctional Facilities and the University of La Verne’s prison program was finished. Using what he learned and experienced in his time with the prison program, David published and co-authored many books and journals. One of the published works being, “Everything I Needed to Know about Teaching in Prison, I Learned in Prison”. “I guess you can say I had become an expert on post-secondary prison education,” David says.
Leaving a mark
In the years that have followed, David has moved offices and positions. He began as assistant professor, moved up to associate professor and in time gained the English Department chairman position. Through a long list of changed titles, it has seemed as though David continues doing what he enjoys. “More than any teacher I have ever known, David Werner acts and speaks with a sense of purpose,” says senior Cameron O’Brien about his experience of taking David’s Literature and Incarceration course. “He embraces the role of a guiding force in the lives of all his students and leads us towards collective enlightenment.”
Teaching in the prison program inspired David to discover his teaching creed: “People respond to the way they were treated. People live up to or down to your expectations.” The feeling of being scared his first day at Chino’s Youth Authority made him realize that if you expect bad work, you will get bad work. If you believe a student can provide their greatest work, they will provide you with such. Since that first realization, David has used this creed to teach every one of his classes at the prison and later on at the University of La Verne. “The way he chose to memorize quotes reminded me of when he would tell his class that we are all capable of doing anything we set our mind to,” says Catalina Lopez, senior English major. As David mentions in his chapter of “In the Borderlands”, what matters is what you truly believe about your students, not what you tell them.
In teaching at the prison program, David helped countless men and women gain an opportunity at an associate’s degree from the University of La Verne. The opportunity, an opportunity that many men and women in that position don’t get the chance at, was all due to the efforts of those involved with the program. “Professor Werner is an unsung hero at La Verne for his work with the prison program,” says Jonathan Reed, University of La Verne Provost and VP of Academic Affairs. “Through a La Verne education, he offered hope, provided a way out of the cycle of recidivism, and helped many young men back on the right path.”
David taught his last few English courses in the spring of 2015, and formally retired to California’s central coast after a remarkable 39 years of service to the University of La Verne. “I suppose if La Verne was on the central coast, I’d teach here for a few more years,” David says laughing. The years spent teaching were some of the best for David. While it is a time he will miss, he is looking forward to filling his days with sailing on the bay and building anything he can from scratch, ground up. And as views of California’s scenic central coast replace that of the green hillside outside of his north-facing Miller Hall office window, the folders of years of inmates writing journals and La Verne literature text books that made up nearly all of his bookshelf space will follow David. As they follow him into retirement, so will they continue to serve as a sentimental reminder of his time in the classroom and the lasting mark he left at La Verne, a mark as subtle but as forever remembered as that lightly visible “L” shaded into the hillside.