This past Tuesday was a rarity in prison: men dawned black gowns and caps with gold tassels dangling from them as they sat together, patiently waiting for their names to be called individually. Behind them and across from them were rows of visitors there to celebrate and acknowledge their accomplishment — family members, counselors, administrators, and even the superintendent of the prison. We tutors were also in attendance for this monumental celebration and culmination of our students’ hard work in earning their GED.
The ceremony took place in the visiting room, which is nicely furnished, air conditioned, carpeted, and spacious. Tables were set up on the far side of the room with cakes, cookies, fruit trays, and beverages for everyone to enjoy after the ceremony itself concluded.
Before the ceremony started, though, I took in the atmosphere, which was vastly different from what I’ve grown accustomed to in prison. Inmates were still covered in tattoos, but these tattooed men were not cliqued-up on the yard wearing a mean mug scowl on their faces to ward off any threat from a rival gang, but they became soft, playful and even docile in the company of their children and parents. Their demeanor that day was night and day compared to what they otherwise would be on any given day. There is unequivocally something humanizing about simply being in the presence of people who pose no threat to you and love you, in spite of your many flaws. This was more than evident on that day.
The ceremony started with the director of education making some brief remarks, encouraging the graduates to continue their education after that day’s festivities concluded. Then my boss spoke. He mentioned the statistics that pointed to a lowered chance of recidivism they now all had as a result of attaining their GED. He also highlighted statistics that showed people with GEDs earn more money annually than those without one. He then introduced me to speak. I had already recited my speech in my cell probably 20 times in the previous two weeks leading up to this event and therefore was able to deliver it flawlessly without notes (my speech can be read at the conclusion of this blog). The applause was enormous and, obviously, I was flattered; but it wasn’t about me . . . it was ALL about the 19 men who had worked tremendously hard to accomplish something invaluable for the first time in their lives and the fact they were able to share it with the people they love the most in this world.
Each man’s name was then called, one by one, by the director as they stood to make their way to the stage while the crowd applauded their accomplishment. Some men were noticeably nervous and yet giddy, while others hid their emotions outwardly but undoubtedly basked inwardly in what they’d achieved that day. Mothers and fathers wiped tears from their eyes, and wives and girlfriends beamed from ear to ear as their loved ones were acknowledged. It was refreshing to say the least to be a part of this type of atmosphere when you’re normally exposed to a climate that is rife with bravado, conflict, and superficiality. It is a cherished memory I will store in my memory bank and reflect on whenever I am in need of a reason to smile.
“Good afternoon. Let me start by thanking Jon for hiring me as a tutor last year, which has allowed me to be a part of this momentous occasion. I would also like to extend a great deal of gratitude to the friends and family members who are here today to support these men on perhaps one of the most important days of their lives. I have no doubt that your encouragement along the way helped to bolster their determination, which now culminates with this moment. And obviously I would be remiss if I did not congratulate you — the GED graduates.
As a tutor, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of you, and I cannot begin to express how proud of all of you that I am. For some of you, the road here was fairly straightforward and without interruption. You showed up, studied, took and passed the tests, and now here you are. For others, not so much; your journey here was much more challenging, daunting, and certainly more frustrating at times. You celebrated victories that were countered by agonizing moments of discouragement — but you didn’t give up. You stayed the course, persevered, and ultimately saw the goal you had set for yourself materialize.
Having a GED yields tangible benefits, and I know it’s cliche but I’m going to say it anyway . . . and that is statistics show that ALL of you have just substantially reduced your likelihood to recidivate — and that’s obviously a great thing. Furthermore, you have now just become more employable — and we ought to celebrate that as well. And yet, as noteworthy as those things are, I still believe that what you have all accomplished today signifies something even greater . . . and that is the attitude and mentality behind your efforts. You see, today represents what you can do when you commit yourself to a goal and see it to fruition. Today is reflective of your desire and resolve to take your life in a new direction. And I have no doubt that today is merely the first of many accomplishments for all of you. So we celebrate today for many reasons, but there is another aspect I would like to consider here.
When this ceremony concludes and the food has been eaten, the caps and gowns have been returned, the visitors have departed, and we’ve returned to our cells . . . the coming days, weeks, and months will prove to be critical, and here’s why: going forward there are essentially two possible outcomes. A) you will continue to celebrate what you have accomplished here today over the next several days and weeks, but as the feelings of euphoria that are associated with victory begin to dissipate, so will your enthusiasm and drive for more education. You will find yourself content with what you’ve done and complacent where you are. . . or B) you will continue to build on the momentum that has propelled you to this point by pursuing even greater educational aspirations. For those of you who will be here a while longer, that means you can take advantage of the College Inside program that will be returning in the fall. For those of you who are fortunate enough to be leaving much sooner, you also will have immense opportunity at your feet to capitalize on your new-found educational growth. I implore all of you to vigorously pursue option B. Here is what that has looked like for me . . .
Twelve years ago when the judge authoritatively slammed his gavel — after having just sentenced me to 17 1/2 years in prison — it was painfully obvious that I’d made an absolute mess of my life. But I also knew, with time, that that did not have to be the final chapter to me story — and it wasn’t! But make no mistake, I knew the road ahead would be arduous; the process would be challenging. After all, it wasn’t merely one bad choice that landed me in prison but rather a series of bad choices. Therefore, I reasoned, it would now take a series of good choices all being strung together continuously if I was going to begin to set my life on a better path. So like all of you, I embarked on an educational journey myself.
In 2005 I began taking one college class per term for $25 through the New Directions Education Project. In 2008 I enrolled in Distance Education programs that still offered such correspondence. In 2010 I was awarded my Associate of Arts from Indiana University. That same year I began writing my memoir.
The following year I earned a Certificate of Human Services from Louisiana State University. In 2013, I graduated from Colorado State University-Pueblo with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. That same year I published my memoir. And later this year I will sit in one of those seats and be called to this very stage to receive my Master of Science in Psychology from California Coast University. But there is one more thing worth mentioning here, and that is like all of you, I also did not graduate from high school; thus, I also earned my GED — in prison! And contrary to what some of you may be thinking right now, I did not just chronicle that list of milestones to give myself a proverbial pat on the back, but rather to exemplify that your future can only be as bright and as promising as YOU believe it can be! And gentlemen, today should be all the evidence you need to believe your future can be very bright — very bright indeed! Thank you.”
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