January 31, 2016
Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Letter #420: Graduation Celebration
This past Thursday was one of those days I’ll cherish for a long time, a truly special day God gave me out of His unreasonable love and grace.
Because I earned my Associate of Ministry degree in 2013, the prison staff said I could be recognized for it along with the GED graduates. Because I’d performed at every graduation for the past four-and-a-half years, I was given permission to invite my family members to attend the ceremony. I decided to wait until now to take part in the ceremony as a graduate, then prepared a bunch of surprises for the honored guests from my family.
Due to transfers, release dates, and my own move within the prison, the Community Choir was down to just two of us with prior singing experience, two guys who’d sung with us at the last Kairos concert, and three newbies. We practiced Christmas songs for weeks … until the graduation was postponed from the third of December to late January.
Then, with nothing to sing as our performance piece, I began practicing with the choir on songs we could perform after the ceremony. None of my star singers with years of vocal experience would be there, so my family would instead get to see how the Lord has allowed me to learn what to do with average voices. Then, for our special song we’d perform during the ceremony, I wrote a song for my mom. Dr. DelSordi, the prison’s Assistant Principal of Education, planned to give the keynote address, and he asked me to give a 15-minute speech.
I told none of the details to my brothers and parents but just prepared like crazy to get everything ready in time. I even got a couple guys to learn “The Star-Spangled Banner” vocals with me with several unique twists that my brother, Brian, had written into our arrangement years ago, including a crazy ending we usually reserved for more casual settings.
All of us graduates got dressed in blue caps and gowns, with a darker blue denoting the four of us receiving degrees from Harvest Bible University. Sister Peggy filled in for me at the piano to play “Pomp and Circumstance” while we filed into the visiting room. I didn’t see anyone from my family, so I joined Sister Peggy and the choir at the front to prepare for the national anthem, but no signal was given me to begin. Then, the outside door opened, and in walked my awesome parents and my faithful twin, the only one of my brothers who could make it. Everyone stood and cheered for them, a huge honor for me. I cried the whole time and can barely see to write this now. It would be a long day for sure.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” tribute to the my brothers and me made everyone laugh and cheer wildly, an awesome start. Then, I returned to my seat with the graduates while various staff members spoke and gave their congratulations before calling us up one-by-one to pick up an honorary certificate issued by the prison and to shake the hands of the upper management team. The head principal, Ms. Carr, and the warden both said kind words to me before letting go of my certificate, a departure from the choreographed routine. I went back to the keyboard to accompany Sister Peggy as she sang, a real privilege for me to have my family hear me accompany a true vocalist.
Next, Dr. DelSordi spoke. I had an idea that he may mention me in his speech, since recently he’d seemed to enjoy our friendly debates on evolution vs. Creationism, right to life vs. abortion, etc., and he had encouraged me regarding my choice to be open about my committing offense. I had no idea he’d spend over a third of his speech talking about someone he considers a model inmate: me. That humbling experience was followed by Ms. Carr’s very articulate praise of me, way more than anything I could have ever deserved. God opened doors I walked through, and He prepared a way for me; He alone gets the credit.
Well, I finally got my turn to speak, surprising my family, who had already heard quite a bit from me. I was able to turn the tables on the staff, thanking them individually and collectively for the privilege of working for them and for the many kindnesses they have shown me. I got to thank my mom, who was my teacher for my entire childhood, which put into proper perspective the many accolades I’d just received. I spoke about making the most of this prison experience, with plenty of poignant moments punctuated with humor.
Finally, I got to perform, with my band and the choir, the song I had written for my mom. I’d cried so many times practicing it that I was surprised to keep it together, but several staff members wiped tears away, including the warden. I didn’t care what anyone else thought, since I was focused on my beautiful mother, and I walked over and hugged her afterward.
When the ceremony ended, food was served and pictures were taken, and I was given a table to sit at with my family. Well, first I put on a little show for them with my band and a couple of songs with Sister Peggy and the choir. Michael, my mom, and my dad all stood right next to us as we performed, and I even got to play a piano duet with Michael like old times … crazy how effortlessly it came to the both of us, as if it hadn’t been eight years since we last played together.
As if all those blessings weren’t enough, my family got to stay at my graduation a full hour-and-a-half longer than they had been able to at any other graduation I’d performed at before, due to some issues with visitation. They talked with staff, met my friends, and made a huge impact on everyone. I couldn’t believe the freedom I had to spend so much time with them, letting them see a bit of my world here. What an incredible blessing from God, a day I’ll never forget.
Live: Then, Now, Forever
We are all products of others’ investments in our lives: mentors, parents, teachers. This latest educational accomplishment, your GED, has much to do with your excellent teachers and tutors who cared about each one of you. My teacher, from preschool until the day she enrolled me in college at age fifteen, was my mom. My educational accomplishments were because of her. My musical accomplishments were because of her, too, thanks to daily spankings she gave me when I wasn’t practicing properly.
Well, what happens next is up to you. You’ve been given yet another great opportunity. You’ve already decided to be SNY, to get your education finished. Now what? Will you learn an instrument? Enroll in a vocational class?
To truly succeed, you must do three things: Live above your past, live at your best today, and live for a better tomorrow.
Live Above Your Past
Count of Monte Cristo* “Do your worst.” Tell this to your past.
- Nobody’s perfect—get over yourself. We all lose sometimes.
Nellie Hershey Smith: “The next best thing to winning is losing! At least you’ve been in the race.”
- Being ashamed vs. afraid of the past—Proverbs 28:13, Solomon: “People who conceal their evil deeds will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will find mercy.”
- Grow from the past—not everything was bad, right? Everything I needed to survive in prison, my parents taught me: Do everything cheerfully. Don’t tattle. Do your best work.
Even the tough stuff, the bad stuff, makes your stronger, building your character. Diamonds and pearls are made through adversity, and gold is not easily obtained.
*In the movie, the Count tells of a time when his son looked danger in the face and bravely said, “Do your worst; then I’ll do mine.” You can’t change the circumstances you find yourself in because of your past, so you might as well face it head-on and tell your past: “Do your worst,” … and then go out and conquer it.
Live at Your Best Today
Dale Carnegie: “All of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon—instead of enjoying the roses blooming outside our windows today.”
- Get to know and develop yourself
– Live to develop you at your best. Who are you, and what big thing are you going to contribute to the world? What can you do to prepare for that now?
– I like business; therefore I studied the Coastline Business book, though I didn’t make the class.
– I then started a business class on Compound 2, developed the curriculum for it, and taught it for four semesters. Guys from that class have taken the business plans they developed and started successful businesses after prison.
– I subscribe to five business magazines. I’ve reached out to friends who own businesses and done consulting work for them, to stay current.
- Get to know and develop others
– You’re not an island. Reach out. Because I enjoy music, I tutor others in music and encourage others to tutor, once they’ve learned (Donald Walker). Your best investment is people.
- Choose delusional hope or practical hope
– A Tale of Two Cellies: Lorenzo and Mel
Pacer and runner, both serving life sentences. Lorenzo never left the cell, was always pacing, and was always saying, “I’m about to get out …” Mel was always out, encouraging, running half-marathons, saying, “I’m here for as long as God wants me here to spread peace and joy.”
– Solomon: “Lazy people want much but get little but those who work hard will prosper.”
Live for a Better Tomorrow
Will Durant: “The future never just happened. It was created.”
- Live beyond these walls
– What people should you build relationships with? What passions should you explore? What priorities should you keep today to prepare for a great life after prison?
– I want to have an impact after prison, so I stay in touch, writing more than thirty letters per month.
– I write a weekly email that is read by more than two hundred people; I sent more than two hundred Christmas cards.
– I keep in touch with inmates I’ve met—sent more than fifty cards to former inmates and their families.
- Live beyond this life
– Begin today to be the man you hope to be remembered for. It won’t be easy, but a life of dominoes, Xbox, and TV won’t get you to many of your biggest goals.
– Set goals and keep them. You’re already on your way educationally, so stick with it.
– Don’t be the guy who has to use prison as an excuse someday: “Well, I went to prison … ”
– Instead, when someone wonders why you’re so great at math, guitar, or creative writing, you’ll be able to credit your prison time with making you who you wanted to be.
It’s your future. Go and create it.