I can’t seem to remember much about my high school graduation. I don’t believe I was all that impressed with the accomplishment. I should’ve been. What I do recall is that it was outside in the sun, right out on the football field. Nothing like graduation in prison.
The largest classroom had been cleaned out and rearranged with an improvised dais for visiting dignitaries and rows of chairs facing them for the graduating class of nearly fifty. We were arranged in our caps and gowns, looking nervous and excited like every other group of soon to be graduates in history. The cramped, dimly-lit room and razor wire topped fences just outside the window were only a couple items that set us apart. The warden of the penitentiary provided opening remarks, followed by the prison’s college coordinator Ted Wilson. He was a tall, red-faced, gregarious guy with a big smile and wire-framed glasses. He actually cared about inmates and would bend over backwards to help if he could. Everybody liked him. After speaking he introduced the president of the college where we had earned our associate’s degrees or vocational course completion certificates. It was during this transition that I noticed the set of car keys with the remote unlock fob attached sitting on the table in front of the podium from where they were delivering their remarks.
Best Of Intentions
For the better part of an hour the president of the college spoke, much of it echoing what had already been said. He was proud of us for setting a goal, striving for and achieving that goal. He commended us on our accomplishment, encouraged a positive attitude, and told us we could achieve anything—that we were not failures. Not useless criminals as the world would like to pigeonhole us. It was obvious that he cared, was sincere, and nothing but the best of intentions. Looking around the room I saw guys who weren’t going home for decades and others who would live the rest of their days behind prison walls. I couldn’t help thinking that some of his sentiments rang hollow.
With graduating inmates ready and inspirational words spoken, we were called up one at a time. Several teachers, counselors, the warden, and Ted Wilson stood shoulder to shoulder and we shook their hands until we got to the president of the college who smiled and shook our hands as he handed us our degree or certificate. Since “Hastings” is right there at the front of the alphabet I was the first to shake my way down the line, smile for the nonexistent photo-op, and say thank you. Everyone smiled back their congratulations and the heady musk of sincerity was in the air. I took my seat again, clapped at the appropriate times, and it all seemed so normal, ordinary. After the fifth man had exited the stage, Ted Wilson spotted the car keys and his eyes bugged out behind his spectacles.
Ted Wilson sprang into action, pushing in behind the other assembled hand-shakers and making his way to the president of the college. He whispered in his ear and the president tried (and failed) not to make it too apparent that he was directing his attention to the keys. After a moment of mental deliberation the president whispered back, projecting a mile-wide smile when he was done, and Ted Wilson seemed suitably chastened as he slinked back to his place in line.
Their dilemma was an obvious one. They couldn’t just take the keys off the table without interrupting the proceedings and bringing attention to them. It would’ve had the effect of destroying all the well-wishes and pleasant platitudes we had been getting fed up to that point. Reverting to fear and mistrust was probably not what they intended, but that was the reality. The rest of the ceremony consisted of both men smiling, shaking hands, attempting to appear like business as usual, but neither of them went very long without eyeballing the keys to make sure they were still there. The president fell into a rhythm. Smile, smile, look, handshake/pose with certificate, look, smile. Repeat. Once I recognized this it became impossible not to notice, and difficult not to laugh. Between the president and Ted Wilson the keys never went a second or two without eyes on them.
Once everyone had received their handshake and written proof that they had completed something, we all stood and contributed to the ovation before filing out. The president wasted no time in swiping the keys into his pocket before anyone could pass by the podium. To his credit, he tried very hard (and failed very badly) to look nonchalant. The newly graduated shuffled into the classroom across the hall where we stripped out of our caps and gowns and returned them to their plastic bags. When all caps, gowns, and tassels were accounted for, we went back to find the room had been transformed. There was now a buffet table serving small cups of juice and Jell-O cake made special just for us by the culinary geniuses in the chow hall. Given the fuss everyone was making you would’ve thought it was a five-course gourmet feast.
I spoke with a few other guys who had also noticed the interplay between the president and Ted Wilson over the keys, and we all shared a chuckle. “What? Were we going to snag them and head out for a joyride?”
It didn’t ruin or mar the occasion for me, but it provided some perspective. I had to realize that the distrust they displayed was something I’d probably have to face the rest of my life when people find out I’ve been in prison. I found a cozy corner to enjoy my cake and ponder my predicament.
I saw myself at a crossroads of sorts. It had been exactly ten years almost to the day since I’d received my high school diploma. It had taken me a decade to earn a two-year associates degree, but I was proud of my accomplishment, and had done it for no one but myself. I had ten years remaining on my sentence, and I had no idea what came next. On that sunny football field I never could’ve imagined a future with love, professional success, marriage, drug addiction, prison, divorce. I figured it to be pointless at best, if not psychologically devastating, to contemplate the potential endless monotony, pointless banalities, and gritty realities of prison that could serve to turn me jaded or grind me to an unfeeling nub of a person. So I didn’t worry about all the tomorrows ahead. I ate my soggy, bland cherry Jell-O cake and did my best to appreciate the moment.