I'd never heard the words this is my purpose before, in my head or out loud, until I read about the Words Without Walls program over two years ago. It's the reason I applied to Chatham and it's one of the biggest reasons that I saw my degree through. I knew this was a place that I could contribute some small thing to, but I didn't go in not knowing what to expect.
Being in jail is a familiar feeling to me. I've spent the past six years of my life visiting my best friends from high school in jails, prisons, rehabs, psych hospitals, and half-way houses. I've picked friends up from police stations and witnessed relapse after relapse because, to loosely quote a friend of mine, "it's hard for people to get right without support, but it's hard to get support when you ain't right."
When I was a teenager I fell in love with punk rock. And punks are a complicated people. There were parties, fights, and deals happening constantly, booze and drugs abound. Almost everyone I knew in high school was on something. Xanax, Oxy, Codeine, Adderall, Ecstasy, Acid, Mushrooms, Heroine, Meth, Crack, DMT and every OTC med you can think of, I've watched someone take; I watched my friend snort research chemicals he ordered from Japan off the internet. I stayed away from the drugs and dealing largely because of a congenital heart issue that I had surgery for when I was 15, but I was part of the life and I've been an unwitting accomplice on more than one occasion because of it. Most people just say to cut my loses and move on, but the one thing I learned from all that I witnessed in my youth is: most of the people in using drugs aren't bad people, they're just sad and messed up.
I'm not making excuses for negative behavior; a crime is a crime--I'm not here to change anyone's politics, but most of the criminals I know need help and support, not time wasting in a box. Addicts need help. Ex-cons need help. Lower income communities that are deemed "bad-neighborhoods" that are riddled with gangs and food deserts need help. Everybody needs help. It doesn't make someone a bad person to need more help, more guidance. During the few weeks that I've had the privilege of working with Words Without Walls, I heard stories that I've heard a dozen times before: violence, abuse, suicides, overdoses, drugs, homelessness and torn families. People are complicated and make mistakes, but those mistakes shouldn't stop a person from growing and having a future. When I show up to Allegheny County Jail at 8 am on a Friday, I'm tired, groggy, and usually hungry, but as soon as class starts and the stories start to come out my mind can focus. I think of my friends locked-up back home and know that even though it's just a three hour class once a week that these classes make a difference. The guys (and girls in the other classes) have the stage. They have a voice and an audience that understands them; and even if the audience doesn't understand them, at least there is someone to listen. It's a chance for catharsis and growth. And when the class is writing, and only the hum of the HVAC unit is audible, I can almost hear: This is my purpose.
Tim Connor, teacher