The Phoenix

Here I lay on my pyre, contemplating change and my eventual rise. My rise was not certain because I was dying a slow death of isolation, shame, and the contempt that surrounded me. 

Higher education saved my life.

Access to higher education counteracts these circumstances and this is not an exaggeration. I challenge the reader to look up critical pedagogy because it is the only type of education that I believe can transform the way we learn.

Quality higher education programs utilize critical pedagogy to awaken the consciousness of its students. Our instructors act as midwives, helping draw out ideas. It uses dialogue, debate, extensive reading, and analytical writing to help us draw connections between our lessons and our lives. This teaches us critical thinking, communication skills, civil discourse, and respect for the ideas of others.

I learned that in order to learn and grow, I had to make myself vulnerable. This is no easy task in prison, where weakness can mean death. Our instructors helped us build a community of learners and that created a safe place for us. Instead of wasting time discussing trivial things, more and more men coalesced around discussions about Plato and Kierkegaard.

The greatest gift that critical pedagogy gave me was helping to awaken my sense of self. I learned that a lot of my thoughts and beliefs were not only destructive to my family and I, but also to my community, both in and out of prison. Education taught me to be mindful and reflective. This allowed me to see my life as a whole, not in parts. In time I grew mentally and emotionally. 

For far too long, my life was driven by the wounded little boy in me. Education gave me a voice and a foundation to articulate the pain that I had buried. In time, I was able to process, understand, and finally exorcise a lot of my childhood trauma. Psychology taught me how complex PTSD and a lack of proper childhood development affected my life. Sociology taught me about structural functionalism and helped me understand social stratification. I credit critical pedagogy and its byproduct, praxis, with helping me piece together all of these thoughts and ideas in order to understand the world around me, and my place in it.

The best gift that I could give my family was proof of my redemption, not through words but in actions. I prove every day that their love and support were not in vain. And for all of this, I thank my instructors. They have taught me compassion, selflessness, hard work, and an unconditional commitment to something greater than ourselves. Their belief in us made it possible for us to believe that change was possible. The sad thing, though, is that only a handful of people can experience the power of higher education. Second Chance Pell is a good start, but it must be made permanent and with no limitations on time or conviction.

I encourage states to support programs that provide access to higher education to people in prison through grants and donations. Higher education must be seen not only as a benefit to public safety but as a benefit to society overall. The majority of the over 2 million people in prison in this country will one day be your neighbors; most of us will be free one day and higher education is integral to facilitating the growth necessary to fully accept our actions, to feel true remorse, and continue our growth into contributing members of our society.