Friday, November 11, 2011

Dreams Deferred

This post is written by a man currently serving a fifteen year sentence at a correctional facility in Virginia. He is a lawyer, and a believer. He found the Lord in prison and now he is a mentor. This post is about one young man he is a friend to and how he helped him keep on dreaming.

I had a conversation with my bunkmate the other night that got me thinking.  I must confess I didn’t like IG very much when he moved into the bottom bunk.  He was extremely cluttered – to the point of being sloppy.  He also brought a lot of “irons in the fire” with him.  He ran a few hustles:  parlay sheets, poker games.  On more than one occasion I lost my cool with him.  On more than one occasion Big S had to tell him to “tighten up”. 

But gradually over the past six months, we’ve developed a friendship.  He’s a very bright, polite kid:  just 24, already locked up seven years.  And, when I’d snap, he’d very quietly just, well, take it.  “My mom told me to be respectful of my elders” he told me one time.  That’s something you don’t hear very often in here.
IG has changed a lot.  He’s much neater and better organized than he was (though still not up to the standards either Big S or I maintain) and he’s become a voracious reader.  Almost every afternoon we have a conversation.  He’ll read something in the paper or come across an author he’d not read before and he’ll want to discuss it.

Tim Allen
He’s a young, bright, black man trying to grow up and learn and ultimately make something of himself.  And to do that in this environment is a statement about his character.
The other night I was reading the newest issue of “Esquire” and there was a brief interview with comedian and actor Tim Allen.  IG saw me reading the piece and asked me about him.  I’m not sure why, but I read him the part where Allen refers to his first night in jail and the resulting three years he spent in California’s DOC for cocaine possession conviction.

“He went to prison?  How old was he?”  IG asked me.  I told him he was in his twenties and explained how he started honing his comic skills in prison as a means of passing time and protecting himself.  IG grew quiet.  “Larry, can I tell you something real personal?” he asked.  “Sure,” I replied.  “When I was in high school I did a couple of plays.  I wanted to be an actor.  That was my dream.  Then I got locked up.  I won’t ever be an actor.”
“Why not?” I asked.  “Why can’t you be an actor?  Why does your conviction have to define your future?  Why can’t you dream?”

Nothing is more destructive, nothing more harmful, than giving up your dreams.  I know from personal experience.  I also know a prison sentence doesn’t have to be the end.  It can be a beginning. 
One of the biggest hurdles I face dealing with the guys in this college program is overcoming their belief that no one will give them a chance as a felon.  Unfortunately, the evidence supports their view.  Virginia may lead the nation in discriminatory practices toward convicted felons after release.

And still there is hope.  For a long time I agonized over my future.  Perhaps it was the words I read in a letter from my ex:  “You’re a convicted felon.  You have a huge restitution order against you.  You have no home, no money, no future.  You’re not much of a catch.”  For more nights than I wish to recall I lay awake wondering what would become of me.  I’d be homeless, I thought, living under a highway overpass, alone, unloved, with nothing.
And then something happened.  And I remembered my dreams, dreams I put aside for years.  And, I realized, I could come back.

Guys in here think I’m a hopeless optimist.  Maybe I am.  It doesn’t mean I’m not scared or there aren’t days (and nights) that I don’t cry out “God, what will become of me?”  And a day doesn’t go by than I’m not lonely and loneliness is as bad as hopelessness.  I told IG I decided I would endure, I would persevere.  And as the words came out of my mouth I realized I was talking to IG about faith.
IG and I made a plan.  We’re writing to some colleges to get information about theatre degrees and looking for someone willing to mentor him.  I realized dreams don’t have to die.  No matter these men’s circumstances they still can follow their dreams. 

The African-American poet Langston Hughes said it best,
“What happens to a dream deferred?
does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?”

No one should have their dreams dry up.

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