"Prison gave me a sense of urgency."


My soul looks back and wonders how I got over. How I stumbled past classrooms that couldn’t hold my attention into jail cells that couldn’t hold my hunger for knowledge. I’ve come to realize that a thousand baby steps led me to prison, steps that aren’t always definable, aren’t always recognizable. But the steps that took me away from the classroom are clear. I remember my eleventh grade AP US History teacher catching me with a blunt burning between my fingers. From the window Mr. Scott watched smoke defy the gravity I thought held me down. Even then, as a smart mouthed eleventh grader I’d read more books than I could number. Books ranging from Chinua Achebe to James Baldwin to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Mosley; yet, those books didn’t translate into a passion for school. My teachers never knew about my reading habits and never did much to support them.
I can’t name more than four books I read in middle school and high school as a part of a school curriculum. I never had to do summer readings, and never had to walk into a classroom and actually think critically about how something Shakespeare wrote years ago echoed in the happenings of the world around me. Prison gave me a sense of urgency. The nonsense that I’d spent hours talking about on street corners was no longer as important and I found myself with a real need to communicate, to understand what was written in the books I’d been reading for years. It wasn’t that I suddenly yearned to be intelligent. I’d been educating myself since the days of reading about Earl the Pearl Monroe and Walt Frazier taught me what it meant to be a point guard. The problem was the schools I’d attended never emphasized the importance of reading. There are no memories of classrooms of kids all discussing what James Baldwin meant when he wrote Notes of a Native Son or what was behind Ellison’s Invisible Man. I began to pursue these questions for myself in prison, I began to pursue these questions with men around me who thought it important to fill the air with discussion on the meanings of metaphors. But more than this, in prison my view of the world expanded as I read writers from other nations, other countries. Suddenly I could concentrate in a cell where the noise of a hundred men intruded on every word written. Yet it’s not prison that was the learning environment that paved my way to academic success, to full tuition scholarships to Prince George’s Community College and the University of Maryland for my undergraduate study and Warren Wilson College for my graduate work. No, the unique learning environment I found myself in existed between the pages of countless books and the banging back and forth of voices that thought there was importance in challenging what a word written made you believe. While school had long been an exercise in the rote ‘ I made my own curriculum based on creating connections between the worlds of Ellison, Wright, Shakespeare, Hayden and every fantasy novel, romance novel and comic book that kept me turning the pages. I took those threads and connected them to the life around me by bringing them up in conversation, by recommending the books. I did for myself what a classroom never did. I made my education revolve around the literature of men trying to explain the world they lived in to themselves.