I always look forward to graduation because it’s not just a finishing, it’s a start. That’s why they call it “Commencement Exercises.” I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. when I went to my first graduation at Morehouse College, 45 years ago. When I saw all those black professors with robes from Harvard, Yale and Columbia, I said to myself, ”Gots to get me one of those!”
But my favorite graduations were at Sing Sing prison in upstate New York. I was the dean for Masters’ programs at New York Theological Seminary, so I had to go to sign diplomas and shake hands. The guys spoke. They had just finished 42 credits in 10 months, so they were like co-valedictorians. Some of them are still there, 20 years later, some have died. Some, I still see from time to time. They’re home now. They’re pastors, social workers, teachers, running agencies, serving as consultants. But when I saw them each of those six years at graduation, something went through me. They were proud of what they had accomplished, and they were about to commence to getting busy in prison jobs, like teacher, chaplain’s assistant, social worker.
Getting an education while locked up is one of the best ways to come home and stay home. And while a bunch of states cut back funding for college classes in prison, schools are finding ways to get inside. You may not be ready for college yet, but don’t tell me you’re not college material. Every guy in those classes I taught at Sing Sing had a felony conviction. Some had bodies. Some had to learn to read and then get their GED while locked up.
My guys at Sing Sing, and subsequently at Holmesburg, Green Haven, Curran-Fromhold, and soon DC Jail are some of the best students. They always read the books, wrote the papers, finished the assignments. You are capable of being in that number. You can do this.
So, I will put on my blue and green robe this weekend and march in Commencement. It’s not as cool as Sing Sing graduations, but I have one student at my current school whose father is finishing a bid. She’s graduating this week. I have two more in the pipeline with pops’ in prison. And those are just the ones I know about. But I’ll be thinking of Sing Sing. And, hey, “You gots to get you one of those!”