By Indira Grace
I have the best job in the world.
No, I really do. I get to watch guys better themselves. I get to cheer them on as they take huge steps into the world of education, knowledge, intellect, and ultimately, better jobs and hopefully—financial equality and security. I get to stand beside them in awe as they read and debate the importance of major documents in history, famous speeches and great works of literature. I get to sit alongside them as they push through the frustration, only to master difficult algebraic formulas and slope-intersects.
Yep, I teach. But I don’t just teach—I teach adult men who are incarcerated, helping them earn their GED. And while I have many favorite parts of my job, one of my favorites is when they graduate and I get to meet their families and watch the pride they have for their loved one, who has just accomplished something so important. Or, at least it was, until our last graduation.
Joey is a kid; barely 20. He was indoctrinated into the gang life by his older, and now deceased brother at eight years old. I met him when he was 19, fairly new to the prison system, for a gang-related crime that got him 19 years. He looks young, much younger than he actually is, and he looks innocent; like really innocent, and sweet.
He has deep brown eyes, long eye lashes and a little kid smile. He is, in my middle-aged mind, an “adorable kiddo.” I got to know him pretty well when he took my class. I found out that he didn’t want to be in the gang, but his particular gang doesn’t let people out; your only out is death. His faith is so strong; his love of God is deep. He really wanted to be active in church, maybe even be a priest, but that dream is long gone, due to his crime.
More than once, he sat in the chair, across from my desk and cried about the choices he made for his life—at eight years old. So my bleeding heart bled more and more, with each day he cried with me.
When he passed his GED, he invited his mother to come to his graduation. He had told her about me and how much he appreciated me listening, encouraging and celebrating him, each step of the way. She wanted to meet me. On the day of the graduation, Joey came in looking nervous, but happy. He joined the others at the cap and gown table getting his picture and then sitting close to the visitor door, awaiting the arrival of his mother.
Sometime later, a small woman walked in and Joey quickly jumped up and hugged her, hard. She began to sob in his arms and he stroked her hair, choking back his own tears, trying to comfort her. Eventually, they sat down and we started the ceremony. When I looked up, I saw them sitting, arms entwined, his head on her shoulder and her cheek on his head. In that moment, he looked like exactly what I always saw—a sweet little boy whose mother loved him deeply.
My heart hurt for both of them.
The entire mornings’ activities last about 90 minutes. In that time, as I took care of all of my duties, scanning the room continuously to make sure everything was running smoothly, my eyes would fix on them. They never unlocked arms. She would whisper into his ear and he would respond. He would introduce her to his friends and his friends would introduce him to their families. They even walked arm and arm to the refreshment table, never letting go.
Slowly, the inmates whose families did not come to graduation, began to filter back behind the wall. Family members started to make their way out, offering long hugs and words of encouragement. My eyes fixed on Joey and his mom. I could see that she was ignoring the departures. I imagined that she was thinking that if she acknowledged them, she would have to say goodbye to her son, her baby.
I know that basic feeling; ignoring a situation because you don’t want to have to face it. I’m great at that.
Her tears began to fall, again. I could see them hit her chest and her shoes. They were like huge raindrops and the downpour was significant. Her chest began to heave and Joey grabbed his mother and held him to her. After several minutes, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back, explaining that she had to let go. I heard her gasp, saw her clutch her heart and she nodded. My stomach fell to the ground and a wave of nausea swept over me.
She had to leave her baby behind, in this terrible place; in a place where he could be preyed upon, where he could be beat up—even killed—and there was nothing she could to do to keep him safe.
Her baby, whom she had given birth to, who was a part of her heart, an actual piece of her heart. I could see her devastation through her strength, as she gathered herself up and started to walk to the door. She kept looking back at her son, who kept watching her too. She sobbed but kept her head up and eventually she lost eye contact with him.
As she walked away, my heart broke over and over for her.
All I could think was, that if I were her, I would be sobbing and screaming, “He’s just a baby! He’s my baby! Just let me take him home with me. I promise he won’t do it again! He needs me! My baby needs me!” Trust me, I get that he did bad things to get locked up. I am a bleeding heart but I do understand the need for public safety, more so because I do work where I work and I do see some pretty scary guys. But as a woman, I can also feel her pain. This is her baby boy, her only surviving son and she had no choice but to leave him behind.
With the wolves.
How impotent, how weak, how disempowered, how helpless and hopeless she must feel and how that feeling must make her feel like throwing up. I know it did me. Yet she walked out stoic and head held high. And there was nothing any of us could do about her pain; it is hers to deal with.
When I took this job, I had great visions of families joyfully embracing their loved ones, as they graduated; ending struggles to find gainful employment, shattering the illusions of ignorance and stupidity, taking that huge leap closer to educational and economic opportunity. I had no idea I would feel the pain of a mother, a lover, a sibling, a grandparent, nor a child, when they left their loved one behind. I never saw my vision completely through.
I still love my job though. I just eat a lighter breakfast and pack more tissue for graduation day. And I prepare for the bad, with the good.
Indira Grace has worked as a spiritual advisor and educator, Reiki healer, Master and teacher, massage therapist, yoga instructor, and GED instructor in a maximum security prison for more than 15 years. She has earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education and her Master’s Degree in Teaching. She has been a practicing Buddhist for about 20 years, often incorporating various aspects of the practice into her education programs. She joyfully lives with her 2 dogs.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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