GED by Raheem Smithson

A JSTOR Second Chance Essay about self-teaching, determination to be better, the power of strong support systems, and, in its own way, a mother's love.

GED by Raheem Smithson

I been in prison for 15 years now and I'm not the same person I was when I first come in here. Second chance is something I think about all the time. I got my GED 11 years into my sentence, but it wasn't easy for me. The classes was full, and when I got moved to a new prison, I had to start the waitlist all over again.

One of the old guys had a GED book and I couldn't read it. My moms sent me books when my nephew didn't use them anymore. The officers made fun when I got Dr. Seuss and the Bear books with the hygiene she sent me and I told them I was tracing on them for drawing so they let up on me. It got more easy as time went and then I could read the ya books at the library. People sent me letters that I could read myself and I don't have to pay the guys to read them to me when the library lady showed me how looking up words in a dictionary works. She gave me the old dictionary to use on the block when she got the new one for inmate use. She never said so but I know they put me in GED because she told them to let me in.

All them years, I was cleaning the unit and mopping floors. I am not afraid of hard work, but I started to learn more and more. The prison, they only want people to work. They don't care about us getting better, they just want us to do the jobs they tell us to. The good jobs, they go to the people the officers like, and they don't see the rest of us as no more than a floor mopper, even if I know I can do more.

I wonder if the rest of the world is gonna see me like that too. When I get out of this jail, will they just see an old criminal, or will they see someone capable of doing more? I'm scared no one gonna see how much education has changed me. On the outside, I look the same as I did when I come in here, but on the inside, I feel different.

A second chance means everything to me. It's my chance to show the world I'm not just a criminal, I'm a person who learned from mistakes and grew. The library lady left before I got my GED. I sent a copy home to my moms so it will be safe but I also hoped she could find the lady in the library to show it to her. I also hoped that I could work in the library with my GED because that is what enables you to work there. The library has more books than the schoolroom does and it is the only place that has something I want to do now, which is read about World War 2. I write better now and I can do more than just mop floors. I need a chance to prove it.

I dream of the day when I walk out of here, not as an old criminal, but as a man who has been given a second chance to make things right. I'm not the same person I was when I first come in here. I changed, and I just hope the world will see that even if this place can't.

Education gave me hope for a better life, and I know I can make a difference if I just given the chance. Still scared but also hopeful. I hope that when I walk out there, someone will see me for the person I am now, not the person I was when I first come in here. I hope that the world will give me a second chance.

Editor's Note:

I liked Raheem's essay because it illustrates common barriers to achieving even a basic education inside many prisons - and the frustration with incessant mopping is ubiquitous in the submissions (I borrowed the mop bucket image from Billy Bragg's comic strip). I loved Raheem's essay because of the patchwork of people who ensured we received it. I spoke with Myrtle, Raheem's mother, since her number was listed on the submission and my emails went unanswered.

Myrtle explained that Raheem is in a "difficult prison" in Alabama and they both fear for his safety (Raheem is the name of her favorite brother). To protect against retaliation, he cut his essay into five pieces, numbered them, then mailed them in different envelopes. She was instructed to tape them together in the correct order and send the reassembled essay to us...but she was missing two envelopes while the deadline loomed. Raheem spent every phone call home during the next month dictating the missing parts while Myrtly transcribed. Once Raheem was satisfied, Myrtle took the pieces to a friend whose daughter "knew the internet" and watched her type it to ensure it the message was sent. This process explains why some of the essay is more conversational - Raheem was recreating the essay from memory over the phone, and did not have the ability to edit it. Myrtle said she would mail the originals, but I haven't seen them yet - though I would very much like to touch them myself.

For reference, ya books refers to young adult reading materials, and Myrtle confirmed that "sending hygiene" refers to the soaps, lotions, haircare, and personal items the prison doesn't supply. "Tracing on the books" refers to learning to draw by copying an image. It is common for people in prisons to make greeting cards as a hustle to earn money. Since many of the cards are sent home to family members, it is common to trace cartoon characters for the cards intended for children.

I asked Myrtle about Dr. Seuss and the Bears, and I believe Raheem is mentioning The Berenstain Bears children's book series. Myrtle wasn't sure. This is where she admitted that she can't really read, but she knows letters. When Raheem was dictating, he had to tell her letters and where to put the spaces.

Artist Credit: Billy Bragg