When Panther Lake Elementary in Federal Way, Washington, opened its doors to six mentors bringing positive messages for the fourth- and fifth-graders, five of them spoke to the students in the classroom. I was the only one who participated by phone—from prison, where I’m serving a 63-year sentence.
Why would a convicted felon be offered as a role model to these children? It’s a fair question.
One answer might be that I could provide a version of Scared Straight, the Oscar-winning 1970s documentary that, as the title suggests, tried to motivate young people to avoid a life of crime through stories about horrors of life in prison. I know perfectly well how horrible prison life can be, and perhaps in some cases that strategy works.
However, my role that day was not to frighten but inspire, as all the other mentors would do. My message was simple: I wanted these energetic students to know that they were created to be great and to do great things. Their lives are valuable and of great significance, and nothing could change that. Hold onto that, and life will amaze you. A person can learn that in many places. I learned it while incarcerated.
I believe every child needs to know that, but I especially wanted these kids to hear it because of their social circumstances. Some are being raised without two parents present, sometimes because a mother or father is in prison, and many live in communities awash in drugs. These social challenges alone can diminish children’s sense of their value and divert them from pursuing a successful life driven by purpose. I know, because I faced those adversities as a child.
For that reason, I wasn’t convinced that trying to instill fear about life in prison was enough, because that doesn’t touch the root problems that so many of these kids confront. I wanted to offer a message of hope and purpose, which I believed could help them triumph over the negative experiences that lead so many at-risk kids to prison.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how the day unfolded.
The mentor meeting was scheduled for 12:45 p.m. I was sitting on the prison phone waiting for my collect call to be accepted by my longtime friend Anthony Curtis, founder of the Black Equality Coalition, which organized the event. When he answered, we greeted one another with tremendous love and respect; things were starting on a positive note. Before we got too deep into our conversation, he informed me that he was walking into the school and needed to find an open classroom for the session.
The moment he stepped into Panther Lake Elementary, I could hear the vibrant voices of school kids. “Hey Anthony! Anthony! I saw you the other day,” one of the kids yelled. Anthony responded playfully: “What’s up little man! If you saw me, how come you didn’t say hi?” My heart fluttered listening to the kids talking and laughing in the background. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like to receive positive attention from a mentor that looked and dressed like me, something Anthony and I rarely experienced when we were young.
As I sat on the phone listening from the prison, I could hear Anthony moving through the school hallways, greeting and being greeted by numerous children. Anthony asked me to hold tight while he spoke to staff about finding a classroom. A teacher led him into a room that was unoccupied, and Anthony said, “OK, we should be good to go. I just have to find a way to get the students here.” Before I could respond, he had already begun delegating responsibility to one of the kids. “Excuse me, can you do me a favor and rally up all the fourth- and fifth-graders, please?” The girl asked, “You want me to get all the fourth- and fifth-graders and bring them here?” Anthony confirmed and the student’s voice, full of excitement, faded into the background as she ran off to accomplish the task.
Anthony then told me that five other mentors would be speaking, and I could choose my place in the order. I asked to speak last, to buy me some time to figure out how to best engage the kids. As we were agreeing on the lineup, another wave of student voices came through as the kids flooded into the classroom. Although I was on a prison phone, I could feel the energy flowing between the students and mentors. After being incarcerated for 14 years, such an experience was incredibly heartwarming.
I was grateful that Anthony had made this mentoring opportunity possible, one of the many ways he has built bridges for community leaders to directly engage with at-risk kids. The primary focus of the Black Equality Coalition is to uplift underserved and underprivileged communities of color. While no one is excluded from programs, the BEC aims to level the opportunities and resources for African-American families and communities that are most impacted by crime, poverty, health problems, and educational disparities.
When it came to mentoring the kids at Panther Lake, Anthony believed my experience was essential to the message he needed them to hear—they didn’t have to use their negative experiences as an excuse to make bad choices. He believed the message would be most effective coming from someone who’s living it in prison.
When the meeting began, the session’s facilitator L’Taai Matthews, coordinator of BEC, asked the students about some of the things they enjoyed doing. One by one, the kids energetically announced various activities they loved to do. Laughter soon turned into critical thinking as she urged the students to visualize how they could turn these activities into careers. At the end of the exercise, a round of applause erupted; it seemed the students were enjoying the experience.
When Antowain Fellows, also known as “Cut Game,” a barber/instructor and small-business consultant, took the floor, I heard one of the kids ask him if he played basketball. “No, my sport is cutting hair,” he said. Antowain continued: “I used to work in my mom’s restaurant business. I was her best employee. The only problem is that I kept eating my own supply, so that didn’t work out for me.” The kids broke out in laughter, and I couldn’t help but follow suit. Antowain showed these kids that they could do whatever they put their minds to if they were willing to work hard.
Health/wellness instructor Melvin Jones came next, talking about the importance of healthy eating habits, encouraging the kids to think about what they put in their bodies. He emphasized that good choices lead to good outcomes. The other mentors—Sheila Cherese, Anthony Delgado, and Rose Donaldson-Kirby—also offered the students insights and support.
As the last in-person mentor began wrapping up, Anthony informed me that I was next and that he would place me on speaker phone, but he insisted I call back to allow the kids to hear the prison phone’s automated message.
As I dialed, Anthony asked the students to raise their hand if they knew someone in prison. To my dismay, I was told the majority of the students acknowledged having a dad, a mom, a brother, an uncle, or cousin who was currently or formally incarcerated. The number of kids touched by the carceral system was heartbreaking.
When the phone connected, I could hear Anthony instruct the kids to huddle around the speaker so they could hear me. As the students settled in, I began introducing myself. I understood that these kids had already heard about career choices, pursuing their goals, and eating healthy foods. I figured there was no better way to top off the mentoring session than to encourage them to know their worth.
After the kids and I were introduced, I began explaining what it was like to be in prison. I spoke about the type of work prisoners are forced to do, and how we are paid pennies for our labor. Before I moved on, I asked the kids what their favorite shoes were. In unison, they yelled, “Jordans!” I then asked them to tell me the cost of a pair of Jordans and nearly fell off my steel stool when I heard a kid yell, “$400.” In order to emphasize my point about how prisoners are treated, I asked them to calculate the number of hours I needed to work for a pair of Jordans at my prison wage of 42 cents an hour. One kid yelled, “700?” I told him it would take me 1,000 hours of work to buy a pair. The room fell silent and I could hear some of the kids gasp.
After painting a vivid picture of what it was like to be incarcerated, I spoke to them about the various things I’ve been able to accomplish even while locked up (pursuing an education, writing, ministry), emphasizing that my road toward success began with understanding my value and who I was created to be as a person.
Before I closed, I reminded these kids that in spite of what life throws at them, they must be confident that they were created to be great and to do great things. I encouraged them not to accept anything less than this truth. As long as they maintained a healthy perspective about who they are, they can be successful.
When I finished there was time for questions from students. Kamal raised his hand, and I was impressed with the courtesy he displayed. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “If you don’t mind, can I ask you how you ended up in prison?” I paused for a moment trying to determine the most appropriate way to reply. I simply told him that I’d been in prison for 14 years and that the primary reason I’m locked up is because I never had anyone speak to me about the things we mentors were telling them. Out of respect for the school and parents, I was careful about disclosing too much information about my criminal charges; I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries. I encouraged Kamal to hold on tightly to what he’d heard during our meeting. When I heard his little voice say, “Yes sir,” I knew this conversation was meant to be.
I know that the physical, emotional, and mental adversities some kids face can lead to dangerous and destructive lifestyles as they grow up. But when community members take the time to love, listen, and speak life into our children, we offer them an alternative to the troubles and tragedies they live with. These simple acts show our kids that they are valued, are worthy of our time and energy.
Anthony Curtis and the other members of the Black Equality Coalition are eager to invest in these students’ lives. I’m grateful for their trust in me so that I could be part of that.
Image credit: “hello” by Roland Barrera via Wikimedia