A Cell House Story With a Lesson
In life, I have found that by taking risks, my students can benefit. I’m here today to tell you, you have to take risks! There is no other way to be brave enough to make a change, if you don’t! It’s true, you might fail, but you have to be brave enough to face that as well. Failure is just another step towards success. You will learn from your mistakes, just as we hope the offenders in prison will learn from theirs. The students I taught are not there simply for society's punishment, but to learn. Today, I want to share with you an opportunity I took, wanting to be brave enough to make a change, so that my students inside that prison could also find success.
When my students worked hard on their studies, as so many of them did, I needed to find a way to show them that they were valued. I had to take a risk and do something out of the ordinary, to express to them how they were valued and that their efforts did not go unnoticed. I found that opportunity when I received the first diploma in the mail, for one of my offender students (let’s name him Phil). It came in late one afternoon and so I decided that on my way out of work, I would take a walk in the walls and drop it off at his cell. When I walked into the pod, all the men were in their cells. I went over to Phil’s cell and knocked on his door, catching his eye through his window. He opened the food slot so that I could talk to him, and I slid his diploma into his hands, speaking loud enough to make sure he could hear. I told him how proud I was of him for his hard work and that he was an asset to the school. He needed to understand that now others could look up to him, because his name would be listed as a graduate, on the classroom wall. He smiled wide. As I walked away, a man in the next cell got my attention and asked what I was doing there. I was happy to again say loudly how he had a graduate living next to him and that Phil was an example of what happens when you work hard and become part of a team. As I walked away, I heard this cellmate yelling throughout the pod, “we have a graduate in the house!”
Phil stopped by the school the next day to ask if he could get copies of his diploma to send home. I was happy and proud to give them to him. I found some plastic inserts in my office, so I placed his original inside and made him three extra copies which I put in a folder with his name prominently displayed. He was so appreciative that I decided I could give this small gift to each graduate, from now on.
Joshua was my next graduate, so when the diploma arrived in the prison mail, I again hand-delivered his certificate. This time, I took a bigger risk and was more vocal when I walked into the pod. It was my turn to yell, “We have a graduate in the house.” Joshua was standing outside his cell, so I shook his hand and congratulated him, in front of his podmates. He was talking with a few other men and as I walked away, I looked back and saw the men shake his hand and a smile spread across Joshua’s face. Even the officer in the pod came over to congratulate him and soon after that delivery, I noticed opinions of the school were changing quickly.
I continued this special delivery with each graduate, making little improvements along the way. I began to take notice of when the pods had open times. That was when the men were allowed to hang out, to play games and watch TV in the pods together. I started delivering diplomas during this time, creating a fun scene with each visit. I made the announcement in front of everyone in the pod, letting them know just who their graduate was and expressing how proud I was of his efforts. I always noticed the big smile on the graduate’s face. Everytime, the graduate would say, “Ms. Beth you don’t need to do this,” but I could see how much it meant to each of them.
That personal touch came to be well known, and in class my students would ask if I planned to come to see them, when they graduated. When I promised to do so, they always expressed how I didn’t need to, but they had to hear how much I wanted to do it.
Sadly, a day came when I missed that special presentation. I was not at work the day a diploma came in the mail and it was unceremoniously sent to this graduate through the prison mail before I got an opportunity to see it. I didn’t know it had arrived, when that student came to me and asked why I didn’t deliver it in person? I was so apologetic, letting him know I hadn’t been told. He said that it was ok, and that it wasn’t a big deal, but I knew better. I then asked him for his diploma and told him he could come back the next day so that I could have a few copies made for him. I quickly made the copies and checked to see what time his pod had an open hour. I got there that same day, stood on a chair and yelled, “we have a graduate today.” Everyone clapped for him and I could see on his face, how much this meant to him. All the men and officers congratulating him meant so much to him and to all the men.
This was just a small risk that I took, but one that made a big impact. I did not know how the men would react. Would they be upset because I was catching them off guard or perhaps they didn’t want to be acknowledged? This obviously didn’t turn out to be the case. This little risk had incredible results and it gave me the opportunity to speak with offenders whom I didn’t have in class. Soon, more were coming to class as they were inspired when they saw others graduate. The diploma was something tangible that others now wanted to be part of, something positive in their lives.
Taking this personal step for my students only took a little time from my day, but it had an impact not only on the graduate, but also for the 7th Door, as more students chose to walk through that door and see what was being offered. Consider taking more risks in your life, to be brave enough to make a change for others. Don’t worry about making a mistake, but instead, use that energy to create something meaningful.