More than Worthy

I anxiously awaited the test results. Again. This was the 14th time I had gone through the anticipation, the sleepless nights, the stomach aches, and the excitement in the two-and-a-half years I had been teaching adult basic education and GED preparation at the prison. Another one of my students had just completed the two-day, eight-hour grueling GED test and everyone was just waiting for the outcome.

Finally, the results were in. My supervisor was not permitted to share students’ results with me—they had to tell me themselves; however, sometimes, if I wasn’t in class, she would let me accompany her back into the housing pods when she delivered the results so I could experience the joy, satisfaction, and, sometimes, disappointment with my students. Those who did not pass each of the four tests the first time were able to retest in 30 days and I made sure they knew that I would not rest until they were successful.

I never considered my students anything other than my students—and human beings. I didn’t see them as murderers and gang members and drug dealers, but fallible people who made mistakes, and I certainly didn’t treat them as such. I was a strong proponent of earning respect—not demanding it—and had a reputation among the students—and the inmate population in general—for being one of the few staff members who actually cared about them and treated them with respect.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t challenging because it was. Since the state mandated all prison inmates who did not have a GED or high school diploma to attend school and obtain one, there were many guys who neither saw the value in an education nor wanted one. I would tell them regularly that I couldn’t make them want their GED as badly as I wanted them to have it, and while some actually believed that it was within their grasp, the majority did not. It broke my heart to see such deflated human beings who had been told their entire lives they were not worthy, valuable, or would amount to anything. I became their surrogate cheerleader, providing motivation and positivity in an environment that was quite inimical to the concept.

Far too many people think that we should simply lock up lawbreakers and throw away the key—essentially tossing them aside, again—without realizing that nearly 90 percent of them will someday be released back into society. Without any skills, education, understanding, or positivity then the revolving door will continue and recidivism rates will remain unacceptably high.

While each and every one of my students holds a special place in my heart and soul, there is one who especially made a significant impact. He was a former maximum-security inmate, a member of a well-known gang who was doing time for murder. The state had created a program designed to reintegrate gang members who wished to renounce their affiliation back into the general population. Because most of these guys had been on lockdown 23-hours-a-day for years, getting them to successfully cohabitate in a pod with 50 other guys in the same situation—many in rival gangs—was, indeed, challenging. The prison where I worked was the pilot facility for this new program and I was ultimately given the challenging position of being their ABE teacher.

These guys’ mindsets and attitudes were different than “regular” inmates because of their dire lack of socialization and, subsequently, poor social skills. There were frequent fights in the pods and other difficulties that were to be expected given the circumstances. Because of their maximum-security designation, I always had a correctional officer in class with me, unlike my other classroom with the general population inmates.

Back to my student. He was young—22 years old—and had an attitude the size of Alaska that, I believed, hid all of his insecurities and feelings of unworthiness because as I worked with him he would let the façade fall away—albeit briefly—and I could see the scared little boy he was trying so hard to mask. If he couldn’t pick up a particular concept quickly enough, he would get angry and decide it wasn’t worth it. But I pressed on because I knew he could do it, and I made sure I told him that daily.

He eventually took the Pre-GED test and his scores indicated that he would “likely” pass social studies and language arts but it was “too close to call” for math and science. I focused on ensuring that he was, indeed, ready to pass every subject.

About a month later, he was scheduled to take the GED. While I was a complete nervous wreck, he was as calm as could be—at least outwardly.

The night before day one of the GED test I obtained special permission to work with him for a couple of hours locked in an office—with an officer there for my safety—to ensure that he was as prepared as he was going to get. He told me he felt ready and my two days of nerves began.

He passed all four tests on the first try. I was elated, as was he, but what came next surprised even me. He told me that he was the only one out of six siblings who had a diploma or GED. He told me that he never in a million years imagined that he would amount to anything more than a gang-banging, drug-dealing, thug. He told me that when he called his mother to give her the good news she cried on the phone. He told me all of this with tears in his eyes which, of course, made me cry. He told me that he had no words to thank me for what I did for him—for the support and encouragement and for the time I spent with him that he said were “hours that [I] would never get back.” I told him that I didn’t want that time back, that I chose to give him those hours, and that I would do it again in a heartbeat. He told me that for the first time in his life he felt valuable and valued.

Of all of my students’ successes, he was, by far, the one who made the most significant, positive impact on my life. I only wish I could tell him that. Maybe he will read this story one day and realize it’s about him.

I am very blessed that I was able to help 14 guys obtain their GEDs, and I am extremely proud of them all. Aside from having my children, those two-and-a-half years were the most fulfilling—albeit among the most difficult—years of my life, thus far.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ~ Nelson Mandela

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