Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Rising, Part 1

"What's going to happen next that will totally transform the way I think about the world?" asked my friend Melissa, turning to me.

"I have no idea," I said. I imagine that I was grinning ear to ear.

We were sitting in a large classroom in a prison north of Houston, as guests of a remarkable group called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (a.k.a. PEP). As Melissa said, over the course of a few hours, we had been changed by what we had experienced.

The past couple of years, I've been listening to my father's stories of his visits to see my stepbrother, who is currently incarcerated. My family is proof that any family can be impacted by our country's criminal justice system, but the facts are: you're much more likely to be impacted if you are a) a person of color; b) poor; c) under-educated; d) all of the above (or mentally ill, addicted to drugs... any weakness that might have brought you favor in the eyes of Christ brings you to a cellblock in America). In our schizophrenic "Christian" nation, we espouse the belief that people can change and that redemption is possible, while at the same time refusing to spend money on justice that restores people who have committed crimes.

As I've listened to my father's descriptions of his visits to prison, I've become more and more uncomfortable. You see, education is "my" issue. While I care about most progressive causes, I devote my life to educational justice. What I began to realize, as I listened to my father, is that schools that serve poor children function much more like prisons than they do like the colleges or businesses in which we hope our kids will find a place. Our schools, it seems, are often training children for prison. 

I'll give an example: the "bubble in the mouth." 

You may not be familiar with this term unless you teach young children in primarily low-income neighborhoods. In many schools, children as young as four are expected to walk silently down the halls of their school. Because this is difficult for exuberant kiddos to maintain, they are told to hold a "bubble in their mouth." They puff out their cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie, seal their lips tight, and go.

Try it. It's uncomfortable. It's hard to pull off for more than thirty seconds or so. If upper-middle-class, White children were asked to hold a bubble in their mouths, many parents would call b.s. at best; abuse at worst. Yet this is common practice in many preschools that serve low-income children.

I thought of this the day I visited the prison with Melissa and some of the teachers with whom we work. I saw men walking silently down a cinder block hall that had been divided by a tape line. It looked just like some of the schools where I coach teachers.  The path from classroom to courtroom seemed clear.

Inside the walls of the PEP classroom, though, things were different. There was joy, there was community... there was love.

The idea of PEP is simple: men from Texas prisons who are within three years of release apply to the program, and those who are accepted are taught business skills. The program culminates in writing a business plan - the day we visited, we were giving feedback on the draft plans. The program is wildly successful. Men who go through the program have a dramatically lower recidivism rate than the general prison population.

Sure... you're saying to yourself. I bet they pick the guys who are least likely to re-offend. I bet guys who will fill out an application are probably less likely to re-offend anyway.

Maybe. But when we were at PEP, more than one guy said he applied for reasons other than wanting to be an entrepreneur. Air conditioning was a big theme in the reasons why the men wanted to do PEP. Yet a few months into the program, they were fully bought in, part of the PEP community. It didn't seem like there was anything truly different about the men of PEP... until there was.

All of this is preamble. This is here to set up the post I've been trying to write for a couple of weeks, the post that describes what I learned that "transformed everything I know about the world." I know that nothing I write will really represent the experience I had. Yet this is what we try to do, we idiots who call ourselves writers. We try to describe the indescribable.

Coming up... Part 2.

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