My perceptions have changed a lot since I started attending college classes through the Prison University Project at San Quentin. I believe that one of the main reasons I came to prison was because of the limitations I set upon myself. As a child I’d heard that I could do anything I wanted to, but I never believed it. If anything was possible, why were we living under the circumstances we were in? I’m not really sure how it happened, but I developed a very fatalistic view of the world. College seemed impractical, at best. The notion of working full-time for minimum wage, and going to college on the side, left no room for me, and I was far too undisciplined to stick to a plan like that. Even if I did find a way to go to college, what would I have in common with the other students? How long would it take before I was exposed as a fraud?
My first classes in college were traumatic, but I worked hard, and somehow managed to finish my first English class with a “A-“. Soon, I started to realize that I could succeed in the classes; all I had to do was put in the work. I attended every class, read every assignment over and over again, and did numerous rewrites on my papers. Soon other students would ask me for my opinion or for help with their assignments. That was when my self-perception began to change.
One semester, I took a communications class, in which every student gave multiple speeches. Again my perceptions were challenged. I’ve always thought of criminals as dumb. That’s how they are always portrayed on television and in the news, but my fellow students were brilliant! They spoke about scuba diving and wind mills and the essence of cool with such insight and eloquence that it blew my mind. My fellow students were much more than just felons, they had real life experience, some of them were well-traveled, and their speeches were well thought out. I realized that, just as I’d unfairly limited myself, I’d also done the same disservice to my fellow students.
College put me in a challenging situation, and I’ve learned that’s o.k. I can rise to the occasion. As for my fellow students, it sounds trite, but I’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover. When we push ourselves, amazing things happen.