award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host
Look Into Their Eyes, They'll Show You Their Hearts (Revised: 11/4/14)
Individuals who have stumbled by making a poor choice or choices often continue to be ostracized not by their crimes, but instead by the judgment of individuals who empower themselves to evaluate someone’s worth. This is unfortunate because most of us have had a moment that wasn’t our finest. Notwithstanding, this shouldn’t be a reason to prevent anyone from having a fair chance at redemption and making positive forward-progress.
I never considered – not in the slightest way – that I would or could teach inmates. The only reason that I teach at a jail is that friends and family told me that my inspirational books in the "It’s a Crazy World...Learn From It" series would be good to use in this type of environment. These suggestions, along with assisting students with legal challenges in my classes, drove me to be open to the idea of teaching at a correctional institution.
On the first night I was scheduled to teach at a jail, a conscience decision was made to ensure that I had a positive attitude; didn’t prejudge the environment, and focused on my purpose instead of the location that I would teach. My first experiences at the jail were a little overwhelming; the sights, sounds, rules, structure, and controls were different but not surprising.
After I arrived at my assigned housing unit and checked-in with the correctional officer, I knew that I would be assessed by the inmates from the first moment I addressed them until I started my program. I knew that I had to own this moment from the beginning or my impact might be minimized prior to getting a chance to connect with these men based on my knowledge --- and my ability to make a difference in their lives.
It didn’t take long for me to establish a relationship with these men. The relationship developed wasn’t based on my knowledge, but it was related to the manner in which I treated them. I looked beyond their uniforms to treat these men the same as any student that sits in my college classrooms. This approach allowed me to forget the location in which I taught and focus on the purpose of my visit.
From the first night to every night that I’m in this jail environment, I look each of these men in their eyes and give them the dignity and respect that they deserve. The reason for their incarceration isn’t any of my concern, but my ability to provide valuable lessons that might help these men on the rest of their life’s journey is my sole objective.
I get very excited every time I’m asked a question, challenged on my position, or my favorite is the moment that one of these men references a lesson learned from me. These are the moments that I know that these men get it, want more, and it inspires me to develop even more material to transform a feeling of despair to feelings of hope that with a changed attitude, some effort, a dream, a desire, and determination these men can be redirected to become productive members of society.
Prior to being in this environment, I made presumptions about the types of individuals that I would encounter and maybe in some ways questioned my ability to make a difference. Although, with a little soul searching and reflection, I realized that these inmates are representative of the types of men who might walk past me on the street. The difference in this environment is that there are a lot more controls.
It’s interesting to me that some of my friends and family told me that they couldn’t teach in this environment --- and I didn’t think I could either. However, I realized – and I tell those who make this comment – that if I had to spend a few moments with someone who was incarcerated: Would I rather spend time with some of these men in a questionable situation or in a jail environment doing work to make a difference for them and society? After I offer this reflective question, most individuals realize that their position is a little silly.
I don’t know the reason for their stay, I can’t change their situation, but I can make a difference today to help each of these men have a better chance tomorrow.
I hope that this article will help others to consider the importance of providing someone a hand-up so that the extension of their arms can be used to help propel themselves forward. All these men need is someone to look into their eyes, give them a chance, and not continue to hold them back from a poor choice that was made at a moment in time --- and shouldn’t always be used to punish them for their entire lifetime.
No matter the length of your journey, don’t forget to be your best!
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