by Joe Weaster
Former CG Student, Current CG Advocate
I recently sat down on a cold day, alone in my office, and pulled out the journal that I kept while incarcerated in the Texas penal system. I started just a few months after my conviction and continued until I found something that allowed me a new direction and positive goal. I cannot talk about other people’s experiences but my attitude after entry into prison was one of defeatism, rage and hopelessness. The world had just ceased to exist and I was less than nothing in it.
As I read page after page filled with my negative thoughts, poems of death, passages barren of hope or faith, I saw a person left with no dreams for the future. Maybe this is the reason that this journal has sat collecting dust on a shelf in the corner of my office. I have not been strong enough to face the past. I want to believe that I am no longer that person, but I can’t, because every page, every work that was written was exactly who I was at that moment.
The grace of hope is that you are not bound to remain just one thing. Hope lets you become whatever your imagination and dreams allow. Your own thoughts can begin one of the most beautiful journeys you will ever experience. You will become free to move anywhere you wish, to become anyone you desire, to grow beyond the past of who you were. You are the change, if you want it.
The reason I stopped writing in my journal was that I found another more interesting and challenging way to channel my thinking – College Guild. I had seen a guy in the dayroom working on what looked like a writing project. He had legal pads, pens and pencils and a dictionary all spread out over an entire table. This fascinated me. What was so interesting that it would allow one person to utilize an entire table in the dayroom? So I walked over and asked him what he was working on.
“Greek Mythology,” he said.
“Is that through the college?” I asked.
“No” he replied, “it’s through College Guild”.
Now I was really intrigued. I had been wanting something to do that was not through the TDC educations system, so I wrote College Guild. A couple of weeks went by and a letter arrived. I opened it only to find to my regret that there was at least a one year waiting list. Still determined, I asked the guy if, when he was through with his lessons, I could borrow them so that I could work on them too. He agreed. From that moment on my journal entries ceased and I began to replace it with page upon page of hope, something I had lost over the past three and a half years.
After what seemed like an eternity, College Guild mailed me a letter, telling me an opening had become available and asked which courses I would care to choose. For the next year and a half, until my release, I was consumed with my writing. College Guild opened a door I thought had been long closed to me, the freedom to travel beyond the bars and concrete walls. I was free to go wherever my mind wanted. I completed three courses while in prison. Without College Guild, that year and a half would have been shear madness. I learned, I thought, I dreamed but mostly I regained my future.
I sent College Guild a note when I was released, thanking them for the gift of hope, and I made a small donation because that was all I could afford to give back. Two years later I received a letter asking me to speak with the Board of Directors. They were holding a strategic planning meeting and wanted to hear from a former student. They wanted my thoughts about what I found to be most helpful. At first I was surprised that I would be asked, then flattered, then I felt a duty. I prepared for the conference call with the members of the strategic planning meeting by asking myself what I had gained from my experience with College Guild.
When you immerse yourself into the courses, you come away with so much more than just written words and thoughts. Things like self-esteem, optimism, validation as a person, respect (both for yourself and others around you), faith, and direction all seem to come to you as a package when you complete a course.
I don’t know if much of what I said to the board was of help, but I know how much College Guild meant to me when I needed their help. I still have all my course work and from time to time I go through it, and it lifts my spirits every time. I left prison a better person because of the readers who made me believe in myself and the Board of Directors who fought so long and hard to give the forgotten incarcerated population a bright glimpse of a hopeful future.
There’s no better way to explain it then to simply say: Thank You!