From Jail to Yale: Education as Liberation
— 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.
Edward-Yemil Rosario: 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