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It was a couple of months ago now that I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a graduation that would be taking place inside a correctional facility near here. I didn’t think much of it at the time. One of the programs my college runs is prison college courses. It makes sense. Educating people who are incarcerated makes sense on a ton of different levels.
And so I wrote the speech. I love graduation speeches. They are always a time to talk about hope and change and dreams. Even for people who are currently not in the best situation. And I have to admit, I was pretty proud of the speech that I ended up with. It was sincere but honest. It touched on the realities of their situation but not without hope.
Going to the prison was another experience entirely. I don’t know exactly what I expected. I hadn’t really thought about it to be perfectly honest. I mean, I expected guards and things I guess. Fences. Uniforms. But when I arrived the experience that I had was much more intense. From the moment that we walked into the small receiving room. All I was allowed to take with me was my notes and a photo ID. My cellphone stayed in the car.
Once we were through the small receiving area we were walked across the grounds to another small building. Inside was a tiny gymnasium that had been set up with a small platform and several tables that held around 50 graduates. They proceeded in, in the traditional blue cap and gown, to Pomp and Circumstance. It was clear that many of them were triumphant. In spite of the meager surroundings and the small group, this was definitely a graduation.
The warden spoke briefly. I wondered about my own speech. I wondered a lot about these men, why they were here, how they felt, what this all meant. I wondered how effectively you could talk about hope to people in prison, about the future, about dreams. But I did. And I meant what I said. Because from my perspective, I cannot see the reason they were there in the first place. That is the job of the police and the judge and the rest of our judicial system. I have to see the person who is going to come out. As a teacher, as a leader, that is how I can help make my world better.
The speech went well. Most of them listened with open hearts. Clearly. After the speech I was able to shake each of their hands as they received their diploma. And though graduation was over, my experience was not. As I ate I spoke with some of the people that worked with the inmates in the education program. We talked for a long time about the life they lived in prison. About the effects of being told that you are worthless. About the effects of having something to be proud of. About how the mentality of an inmate on the inside ripples to the family on the outside. About how educated men and women are less likely to end up in prison again. About hope. About value.
Toward the end of the meal that had been prepared by the culinary arts class, one of the graduates came over to the table. He waited until the director I was talking with to turned to him and then he spoke to me. He told me that he really loved my speech. He asked if it might be possible for him to have a copy of it. As he asked his eyes shifted between mine and the director’s. I opened my portfolio and handed him my copy of the speech. He looked at the director before taking it and thanked me again.
But you know, it was me who felt thankful. For a lot of things.