Letters from John: My Educational Autobiography

This is a guest blog from my husband, John Dukes. You’ve read his writing before in an ongoing series here at NYST entitled “Letters from John.” Throughout the series, John speaks poignantly, passionately, and truthfully about his journey along the school-to-prison pipeline.

John is currently incarcerated and is enrolled in Mercy College. He had an assignment for his English 220 class to write about his personal experiences with education, both in and out of prison. This, his finished product, is yet another insightful nuanced look into the key role education plays in changing all people’s lives — even the lives of incarcerated individuals,  those most looked down upon and forgotten in our society. We forget that they weren’t always locked up and much of what happens in their homes and in schools contributes to or subtracts from their journey. There are many common threads woven through the lives of those who are or have been incarcerated. Existing research speaks to the need for more funding for education, hiring more teachers of color — especially more male teachers of color, — more opportunities for students to see themselves in the curriculum they are taught via the creation of culturally relevant pedagogy, more need for support staff in school to make up for the lack that many students have at home, and more programs of education in prison as a true means for the formerly incarcerated to meaningfully re-integrate back into society.

Here are my husband’s words. The wife and the educator in me is super-proud of him because his road, as you will read, has been anything but easy.

In my household, education wasn’t monitored around the clock. Of course, my mother asked basic questions concerning homework in addition to checking my report card. Nevertheless, growing up in a single parent household leaves room for error. My mother worked hard and her schedule did not permit her to fulfill the necessary tasks given to two parents originally. This explains my acting out when I attended school. I noticed that when you get in trouble, people pay attention and we all know that children love attention — be it good or negative.

For me, if someone had explained the importance of education, that would’ve piqued my interest. Instead, I was left with my own thoughts and perception of school. In fact, school resembled a day care center to me. It was a place where parents left their children to be supervised while they went to work. I was wrong. Another fallacy of mine was viewing schoolwork as punishment. Seriously, school reminded me of an undesirable chore. I hated school — or at least the work.

I was raised not to be a punk, especially since my father wasn’t around. Being strong was more important than grades, it seemed to me, because not even a mother wanted a “soft” son. However, my perspective on school changed when I got left back in the seventh grade and placed in special education. First, I was just going through the motions — cutting class, skipping school, and fighting — a lot. Then one of the three teachers assigned to my class questioned my intelligence. He was a Black male teacher. That was a first and a rarity. He took an interest in me and asked me why I was in special ed. He said that he didn’t see the need for me to be in classes like this and he continued to probe. Finally, he asked me a question that resonated: “Don’t you want to be in your right grade and graduate with your age group?” That question made me think. Instantly, I was willing to put the work in so to speak and eventually, I graduated on time.

Be that as it may, I went out like a rocket. I did what was needed at that time and fizzled out into space. My mother was satisfied that I had graduated from high school and I felt free for a moment. Then I had a daughter with my long time high school sweetheart and she was enrolling into college. Still, that didn’t bother me at first because now my excuse for not pursuing education was that I had a child to provide for. I needed to provide for my family and school wasn’t paying the bills up front.

Meanwhile, my daughter’s mother was about to graduate and start her career as a nurse. My light clicked on again and I wanted my daughter to have two parents who earned college degrees. I remembered my love for fashion and I had taken courses in fashion design so I went to Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) for a new student orientation. Sadly, I got arrested one week later for a crime and I’ve been locked up since 1999. Having said that, I started Mercy College in 2007 and  dropped out in 2008 or 2009. I felt lost in class. I questioned my high school diploma at times, occasionally referring to it as social promotion because college was so difficult for me.

Currently, I work with men in prison involved in the Community Orientation Reentry Program through the Office of Mental Health. I realized that that the more educated I became, the more assistance I could provide in this role, one that is not only gratifying, but one that will prove to benefit myself and others when I come home from prison and work in society. I started a book club at my job called “Shooting the Breeze.” I create activities for the clients to engage in that are vetted and approved by staff and social workers. Education has changed my life. In turn, education has helped me change the lives of others as well.

In 2016, Mercy accepted me back into college and I am working towards earning my Bachelor of Science degree in Behavioral Sciences. Although I want to graduate soon, I take a class each semester. When I first started along this journey, I wanted to quickly take every class I possibly could at one time so I could hurry up and finish. That way doesn’t work for me. I’ve learned to move at my own pace and enjoy and absorb what is being taught in each class. That works for me.

I may not be the best student academically, but I am here to learn all that I can and earn my degree. I want a better life for the world, my family, and myself.

What do you think?

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