From Jail to Yale: Education as Liberation

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

— Derek Bok

By Eward-Yemil Rosario

It was assumed that I would attend college. For as long as I can remember, school was easy for me, almost boring. I could sit at my desk and daydream and still grasp what was going on in class. This was just how things were — my “gift.” I was born with a natural (some would say insatiable) curiosity, I always needed to know why and questioned just about everything. It was taken for granted that I would go on to higher learning just as we take for granted the sunrise now appearing just outside my window.

The fact is that I was a high school drop out for most of my adult life. I quit school at 17, having cut school so much that I was hopelessly behind. I convinced my heartbroken mother to sign me out of school, so that I could get a GED. I never did get that GED until much later in life — in my 30s (while incarcerated).

It’s frightfully ironic, because I have always read and written throughout my life. Though I would cut class, I would always have a book in my back pocket — one of the classics, usually. I could sell you a bag of dope and quote Shakespeare to you at the same time. Yet, I never attended college. I used to tell myself that school was unnecessary — that all I had to do was write and the world would be mine. The problem with this was I never wrote.

So, there I was with no formal education, a writer who didn’t write.

Furthermore, while I could effectively critique academia and the whole sordid mess of theorizing without action, I read everything I could get my hands on. I’m probably one of the most well-read persons you will ever meet in your life. I’m not bragging when I claim that at 16 I was probably better read than most people with postgraduate degrees. Even worse, I would sit in on some my friends’ classes (almost all my friends attended college) and argue with the professors, sometimes mercilessly dismantling their rationales and assumptions. Yet, I never went to school…

The reality was that I was ashamed of the fact that I was a high school dropout. It was as if not going to school left something unfinished in my life — a challenge left unanswered. But I can be a willful mutherfucka at times, so I just left it at that. Soon enough life, as it is wont to do, took over and I got caught up in its dust, never getting my GED, never acknowledging my dream of going to school. In my own blindness, I would often say, “This is too difficult!” or “There is nothing I can do about it now.” When I thought about it, I thought about it terms of obstacles, not possibilities.

I spent a lot of time talking about and planning how I would realize my dream, but as John Lennon once said: “Life is what’s happening while you sit around making plans.” And I think this gets to crux of my point today: when we sit and analyze and plan too much, we make it harder to create change in our lives. This happens at many levels, one being that the time spent thinking about something could be better put to use acting on something.

One day, about 20 years ago, my life changed drastically — my whole world came tumbling down around me and in the midst of that ruin my perspective on life was drastically and forever changed. I’m grateful for that catastrophe today because having experienced total defeat, I came to the important revelation that I didn’t have the answers. At that point, I could have completely given up, but taking my own life was out of the question, so out of the ashes and crumbled stone of my life, I began to put it back together again.

In surrender, I glimpsed the possibility of victory.

About two years after that day, I was working as a bicycle messenger. I hated it. One cold day I was sideswiped by a taxi which left me lying in the middle of a busy intersection on 5th Ave. Luckily except for some bruises, I wasn’t hurt.

I walked away from that bike and the job that day, never to return to it again.

I, as we New Yorkers like to say, “hopped on a train” and without thinking went to a community college near my home, the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). I walked into admissions and blurted out, “How the fuck do I get up in this place?” Startled, a young woman handed me an application form and explained the process.

I was in my middle thirties and, just like that, I enrolled in college. I wish I could say that it was easy from then on, but it wasn’t. At the time I had no steady employment and, because of my criminal record, it was hard getting any kind of work. To this day, I will not eat at a McDonalds because when I most needed a job, those muthafuckas wouldn’t give me a chance. Can you imagine that? I once worked on Wall Street for major financial institutions and I couldn’t even get a job flipping burgers for minimum wage. I tell ya, I had to laugh to stop from crying.

So, I needed some kind of income to help me while I attended school. And I was determined. So what did I do? I swallowed my pride and went on relief — on welfare. Yeah, that’s right. And man, can those people make you feel like shit. But all I knew was that I was going to school, no matter what, so I had a long view and a plan. Each day I just put one foot in front of the other. It was hard, and if I would’ve sat and thought about it, I can tell you I would have never done it.

Oh yeah! I’m leaving some stuff out: I had a lot of help from many people along the way. A part of change is learning when and how to ask for help. Eventually, I would earn an associates degree and along the way, a professor who took an interest in me (she wanted me to become a journalist), helped with a job at BMCC. I went on to attend New York University where I excelled (graduated summa cum laude) and became involved in paid work as a research assistant (education). Finally, I was accepted to graduate studies at Columbia University. But if I hadn’t just walked into that BMCC office that cold, icy day and asked, “How do I get in here?” it would have never happened.

Sometimes we just need to jump and then ask questions later. Sometimes we need to get ourselves out of the way and trust the process that will bring us into a world endowed with greater possibilities.

For me, higher education opened a world that was previously closed to me. I developed relationships that still exist today. I was always amazed when professors would go out of their way to assist me. I believe they saw in me what I couldn’t see and they helped me nurture it.

I went from jail to welfare and foodstamps to higher education and entrance into some of the finest educational establishments in the nation. I would joke sometimes that I went from “jail to Yale.” It brought me in contact with a community of scholars where what I had previously learned was challenged. I still remember those days as some of the most gratifying: I was immersed in intellectual pursuit with peers who challenged me and I learned how I could occupy that important intersection where theory and action meet.

Today I am respected in the field of my endeavor and I have the luxury of earning a living for something that I am passionate about. Most of all, I’ve paid back my society’s generosity in spades. Shit, I work as a change agent to help make our society a better place.

Up until now, I’ve only really skirted around the core issues of education. In the following installments, I will attempt to get to the essence of education and perhaps even offer some reforms.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization.

6 Comments on “From Jail to Yale: Education as Liberation”

  1. One of the saddest ironies of education is that many of the very brightest students hate school. They may like individual profs/classes, but they hate school. Because all too often, school is not about thinking, it is about memorizing and regurgitating. The list of geniuses who dropped out goes back to Newton and before.

    We need schools that nurture thinkers, rebels, questioners, doers. All the to-do about the woman who is the “Tiger Mom” merely proves this. Many high-achieving children can puke out facts and do well on tests, but do not know how to think creatively. China is asking for our help – our kids may not know when Beijing is, but many of them can come up with a novel way to do things.

    Blah blah – I have a feeling your other posts will comment on these threads. Fascinating writing!!! Thank you.

  2. Thanks Benni. What you say about education is especially true today, what with the race to the bottom and the over-reliance on standardized testing in lieu of real learning.

    I also wanted to show that a society that invests in its people gets back so much more in returns. for example, that welfare — the medicaid, foodstamps, and little money I was given, wheile barely enough for a subsistence, allowed me to become a contributing (and tax-paying) member of society. I can safely say that for each dollar that was invested in me, society has gotten triple (or more) in return.

    I read somewhere that economists list education spending as having one of the highest returns.

    the demonizing of the poor the addicted, the formerly incarcerated, and our youth has created a moral crisis never before seen.

  3. As some one who did play the education game (acquiring two degrees in the process), all I can say is that it’s a sham – yes one can pick up quite a few pieces of information in class (and I was one of those students that enjoyed classes like history and philosophy – like you I often debated the professors in class), one could have just as easily gotten most of those facts from Google or Wikipedia. And the degrees issued by the institution? Unless you intend to work in a highly-specialized field (like medicine or engineering) your degree means nothing in a labor market filled with people who have degrees (especially when real unemployment is over 20% – actual work experience means more than education, which means recent grads are out of luck when looking for that first job in their field of study).

    The assumptions that our society is built on are lies – one won’t simply get ahead in this world by getting an education and working hard. One needs to be “connected” in order to even be considered for a job that doesn’t involve flipping burgers, lifting boxes or assembling parts on a mechanical line (and even those jobs are disappearing quickly!): only an armed revolution can possibly turn things around at this point.

  4. There is much higher education gives back beside contributing to the economy. I once knew a music teacher who surrendered her job with the school system, citing the number of children who really didn’t want to learn music as the omission of joy in her instructions, and spent her time giving voluntary piano, guitar and music lessons to prisoners who expressed an interest. Then there was the Yale graduate who preferred to teach creative writing to field workers and factory laborers and earn a marginal income editing a small town newspaper than get a plush job on Wall Street.

    That’s what it’s all about; the joy higher education can bring you. Your world grows larger, more confident, more astonishing in what it can produce. You want to share that joy with someone who will appreciate it. It’s why those college years are so often charged with the energy of new discoveries, ideas and challenges.

    Our school system has somehow managed to bleed out this simple joy, this delicious enthrallment with exercising the mind, turning it into a grinding ritual, suppressing creative aspiration. My home state has the highest percentage per capital of home-schooled children. These home-schooled kids are quickly becoming preferred by local businesses. When college entrance level home-schooled children took their equivalency exams for enrollment, they consistently scored two years ahead in academic courses than their public school educated friends. When the parents play a vital role in the education of their children, presenting them the thrills of the sciences, the complexity of mathematics, the harmony of music and the arts, the children naturally absorb these fundamentals of higher education. It’s no longer a dreary task, but a joy.

  5. Education is a tool, a form of medicine, if you will. As with any tool, it can be used in good ways and in dysfunctional ways. I come from a population where “playing the education game” is a luxury we often cannot afford. For many people from my community, education is the road out of a life of poverty and ignorance. Whatever one might say about education, the fact remains the higher up the ladder of the educational rung you climb, the higher your income earnings potential rises. There is a direct link between education and earnings.

    Period.

    I didn’t go to school to ear more money or for purely material considerations. That I earn good money today is a consequence of a series of decisions that weren’t based on economics alone. I went to school in order to be in the process of education. I wanted to be with other people who were learning, exploring, challenging, thinking, etc. And I found all of this in school.

    Too many people dismiss education as a sham because they didn’t use it correctly or used it irresponsibly. If you think education is a sham or too much of a hassle, try living with no HS diploma or GED.

  6. @ Eddie,

    If you told me this some years back I would have agreed with you – that all one has to do to succeed is make all the proper moves and work hard. Well, I did that: I went to school, I got some good grades (B average), I took my councilor’s and professors’ advice on building a resume’ and took a couple internships to get some experience. And what was my reward? Shit!

    When the bottom fell out of the economy (I don’t care what anyone says, this “recession” persists even today and I don’t believe that it’s an accident either…), no company in my field will hire anyone (not even entry level positions) unless one has connections within the company. I can’t even get a job as a fucking office monkey unless I have 3-5 years previous experience (applicants with at least one year of management experience prefered – which puts most recent grads out of the running)! In a labor market with a real unemployment level exceeding 20% the only “legit” jobs readily availible are the aforementioned manual labor positions (and as I said before, those are dying off too) – anyone who does already have extensive employment experience or social connections within a profitable corporation is hobbled from the start of his search for work.

    This is a dying country Eddie and it doesn’t really matter what kind of education you have today – the odds are still very much stacked against the average person. In the end, I found that the only way to win a rigged game is to quit: I now acquire my income through means society does not consider “legit” and (along with a few associates) am in the process of preparing to take over whatever I can when all hell finally breaks loose.

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