My problems seemed so all-encompassing and insurmountable that it never occurred to me I walked away from the solution in my sophomore year. How could an education be the answer? School officials determine the subjects, and besides – what the hell do graphs and ancient Mesopotamia have to do with getting Angela and Teresa to go out with me? Why should I care what Bill Clinton does or about distant stars in the Milky Way when a high score in Mortal Kombat awaited me at the 7-11?
Not until prison did I realize the subject wasn’t the point so much as following through with the work and completing the task. The ideas of success and achieving worthwhile goals were as alien as envisioning a future, though. It is why I never managed to get a license, own a car or apartment, or maintain a job. Losing these and other freedoms has shown me how easy it could have been to live a simple life, but it also awakened in me a desire to learn.
Luck and divine intervention pushed me into the arms of a sponsor willing to invest in how I spent my time on death row. He offered the chance to enroll in a college correspondence course and, having nothing better to do, I accepted. I was seven years removed from a GED and at the time the decision seemed inconsequential, but looking back I now realize it was my unwillingness to learn that mattered. Without that, no change in my life would ever have occurred. Striving and self-confidence wouldn’t have permeated my thoughts any more than reconciling the past, present and future.
I demonstrated my gratitude and desire to improve with good grades. It may be a small thing, getting a good grade in school, but it measures interest, aptitude and comprehension. In any subject a good grade reflects the student’s intent to reach the end game and win. At least they do for me. I lost at the game of life and failed in most things because I ignored obvious lessons at home and in school. Good grades, now that I had a second chance become symbolic of my will to change from the person I used to be.
Good things never came easily.
Just because I wanted to change does not mean other people were willing to help. I was very fortunate to have stumbled into one person willing to believe in me while I serve my death sentence. There were no rehabilitative programs or access to state-financed education, not since Clinton eliminated Pell grants for lifers in the mid-90s. Certainly not for anyone in my position.
So I began taking college correspondence courses, loving material on various aspects of psychology, philosophy, and English. The exams were the only thing that scared me, but once I developed a method of preparation – something I never had in junior high or high school – they were no longer as frightening. The trouble came from other sources, people who seemed determined to disrupt the steady flow of what I came to know as “my studies”.
At first they were small things; delayed or lost lessons, lost exams I had to retake, misplaced books that needed to be tracked to the mailroom, rescheduled exams and interrupted exams. Then two major events occurred that really tested my level of dedication to pursing an education in the face of opposition.
The mere idea of psychology in law fascinated me as soon as I saw it offered in the university course catalog. Not only was capital punishment a topic of discussion, so too were some basics as forensic psychology, mental health defenses, criminal profiling, the fallibility of witness testimony, confessions, lie detector tests, and other related subjects. Finally, a course that spoke to my experience and dealt in topics related to my confinement. IT might not give me every answer I sought, but the information would improve my comprehension of psychology, the law and how they’ve converged with my life.
At this point in my pursuit of an associate’s degree – six courses from the required twenty – I knew this was about more than something to keep me busy. I enjoy the field of psychology for its common sense explanations of complex human behavior and how every time I finished studying another textbook it made me feel intelligent. School never provided that sense of rightness, but it wasn’t like I took an interest in listening either.
Four weeks after I mailed the first Psychology in Law lesson it was returned to me. By now this was a common routine in which I was used to seeing As and Bs on my work. The days of shoddy, lackluster performances were over. It didn’t surprise my parents that the trend of good grades continued throughout all of the courses, and it pleased my sponsor enough that he continues to fund my education. When I unfolded the lesson it took a moment to register what I saw, then queasiness curdled my stomach.
An ugly red F marred the corner of the top page. Below it a single sentence: “You’ll have to do more than write a few words to get by in this course.”
The roller coaster dropped as I scanned every page, looking for any indication of mistakes. There were no other marks or comments. I read the course syllabus again. My essays were the required length and contained the appropriate responses. This had to be wrong. Some student aide must be screwing with me. It couldn’t be the professor. It took a few hours before I was calm enough to write my professor and ask him to explain the grade. I also mailed the second lesson, trying to maintain my schedule.
A month passed before the graded lessons were returned. I expected vindication, my work was worthy of no less than a B. I came to know the value of my effort since beginning these correspondence courses. It took a few years, but my ability to achieve the goals that involve understanding new subjects was certain in my mind. I did not and do not doubt it. I pulled out the first lesson and saw the grade remained unchanged so I dropped it on the floor and looked at the other one.
My hands didn’t grow clammy and there was no roller coaster. Instead, bitterness stung the back of my throat and twisted my lips. Another road block. I clenched my jaw until I could grab my pillow, pressed it to my face, and screamed in rage. The second F mocked any thoughts of control. No other marks or comments marred the second lesson, which contained a lengthy pro and con essay on capital punishment. Only the professor’s signature.
The second F represented half of my lesson grade since there were only four in the course. Even if I did well on the mid-term (which was unlikely at this point) I would probably fail the course and waste nearly $800 of my sponsor’s money. It felt like a violation of trust I earned through a lot of work. Not that he would be unforgiving – my GPA was a 3.6 – only that I loathed the idea this failure represented an old way of life. One I’ve struggled to leave behind, but couldn’t seem to overcome.
Maybe I used to be a person who quite school because it was too hard. Maybe I ran away from my problems again and again until they finally buried me. Perhaps I was a delinquent kid who ignored a lot of good advice. Had I still been any of those things the grades on the Psychology in Law lessons would be signs to give up because trying is a ridiculous idea on death row. I would never have been confident in my ability to succeed in anything, or fight back against the opposition.
The professor couldn’t support his grades with any reasonable argument, and I wrote as much to my academic advisor, asking him how to initiate the grade appeal process. His response was not to get my hopes up because my professor was the chair of the psychology department. It was not a reassuring moment.
The appeal took the form of a two-page letter to the dean of the university and explained my position along with the two incorrectly graded lessons. Normally, the appeal would not go to the dean, but the CPI director ignored my appeal because of the professor’s status. Plus, I was just an inmate, who was I to question a tenured department chair?
I continued studying and took the mid-term exam. Within a month, lessons three and four were mailed and I received a shaky but passing grade on the mid-term. Two weeks later lessons three and four were returned, the fast turn-around was a surprise. I feared looking at them since there had been no answer about the appeal. Unfolding both sheaves of paper I snorted. They were As. No other marks or comments. The essays I submitted in these lessons were of the same length and quality as the first two. There was never an explanation from my academic advisor or the dean.
I passed the Psychology in Law course, but it wasn’t the last obstacle. On my final course of the associate’s degree I faced a similar issue with a grade appeal. This time it involved an exam. I was given a failing grade on a course credit exam (no lessons, just a test). It was a business law elective this time, and there were plenty of comments from the professor. Since I had failed by only one percentage point I asked the professor to review the exam in the event he missed something. The exam itself had been multiple choice, definition, essay and short answer questions, covering 26 of 54 chapters in the text. It was not easy to prepare for, even less so when the exam did not meet the description in the course syllabus. I was disgusted and angry over the 59, but I had nothing to lose in asking for a review. Not when that one point would cost me another year before I could graduate.
Like the psychology course I won the appeal for the Business Law grade and graduated when I was supposed to. As exhausting as both experiences were they showed me I had to believe in my ability to learn and strive the reach the hardest, most contested goals – even the improbable ones. The professors may have thought to make me quit, or maybe they played a deeper game, but neither mattered any more than my incarceration or death sentence. I know now that good things in life don’t fall into your lap, trying is essential to triumph.