The Long Road Home

The Long Road Home

“The court orders that the defendant shall serve a sentence of 40 years in state prison.”

I stood frozen in place, unable to fully comprehend the meaning of those two words. Forty years. All my hopes and dreams, any chance for the kind of future I had planned—a decent salary, a nice house, a wife and kids—had just been obliterated by those two words. Forty years.  I was only 26 years old. If my lawyer was correct, and I only served 20 of those 40 years, I would still be 46 years old by the time I returned home.

An officer pulled my arms behind my back to cuff my hands, rousing me from my stupor.  As harsh as the sound of the judge’s words had been, I suddenly heard something that caused me even greater distress: the anguished sobs of my mother. Even if I did survive prison, how would I ever be able to live with the pain and disgrace I had caused my parents? As the bailiffs escorted me out of the courtroom, I caught my father’s eye as he led my mother away, holding her up with his sturdy embrace. Dad had never been one to show emotion, epitomizing the patriarchal strength of fatherhood my entire life. But this time, he could not hide his pain. It rolled down his mahogany brown jaw, disappearing into the collar of his white, starched shirt.

The sight triggered a memory. I suddenly saw my mother, leaning over an iron board, steam billowing into her face as she pressed hard on one of my father’s dress shirts. It was a sight I had seen often growing up. My mom was a “stay-at-home-mom” long before anyone had ever heard that phrase. She spent her life doing the only thing she had ever been taught to do: taking care of others. As a housewife and mother, she performed her mundane duties of cooking and cleaning with extraordinary love and tireless enthusiasm. She was a soft place to land when life left me or one of my other three siblings battered and bruised.

My father, who worked as a police officer, assumed his role as disciplinarian with equal gusto. His standards for appropriate behavior never wavered, but his punishments were always fair. Both my parents had done everything they could to raise their youngest son to be happy and successful. They strictly adhered to every principle found in the Bible, whose teachings they tried to pass on to me. They had provided a clear example of how to not only survive, but also thrive in a society that did not always make it easy for people of color. But no matter how inhospitable the outside world might be, inside my home, there was more than enough loving support to make up for it. Even after I was grown, my parents never hesitated to lend a hand in times of trouble. Knowing I was the cause of so much heartache made my predicament almost unbearable.  But pain wasn’t the only reaction I saw in their eyes that day. They were also clearly bewildered, asking themselves what any parent would under the circumstances, “Why?”

As I exited the courtroom, I was asking myself the same question. I began to recall other childhood memories, searching for answers. Maybe if I looked back far enough I would be able to pinpoint precisely when and where my life’s journey had veered in this direction, toward this nightmare. If I had it to do over, what one decision would I reverse to avoid this unthinkable journey’s end? The most obvious regret I had was the decision that had brought me to court this day. Ironically, it had been a perfectly innocent,  inconsequential decision. I agreed to take a ride with my cousin.

My cousin and I both enjoyed getting high on occasion, but that day when I saw the blue lights in the rear view, I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive. I had been clean and sober since my release from prison 90 days before. When a search by the state patrolman uncovered crack cocaine, my calm demeanor evaporated. Fortunately, my cousin was quick to take responsibility for the illegal substance, and I was equally quick to assure the officer I had no idea my cousin had drugs on her. To my great relief, he informed me that he was only going to charge my cousin, but I would have to appear in court at her trial. I agreed without hesitation. Although my only crime that day had been to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was rattled. I decided it was time to leave that entire lifestyle behind. I would return to the safe haven I had known as a child and a lifestyle I had been so quick to abandon as a teenager.

Until high school, my life had unfolded according to plan. My parents worked hard to give their children everything they needed. We attended church regularly, worked hard, played hard, and laughed a lot. Because it was the only life I had ever known, I did not realize how unbelievably blessed I was. Upon entering high school, however, I soon realized that not everyone  lived as we did. I could not help but be  curious about my fellow teenagers who had little regard for authority and saw rules as optional. And since those enticing me to join them were clearly ranked among that elite group known as the “in-crowd,” my decision was an easy one. I found myself skipping class to engage in activities far more pleasurable than solving for x and y. As a result, my grades soon deteriorated from the A’s and B’s I had made all through elementary school to mostly C’s and F’s. Since I wasn’t attending class anyway, I decided to quit school.

“If you plan on living in this house,” my father told me, “you will return to school and get a job.”

“All our other kids graduated from high school and so will you!” My mom insisted.

It was important to them, so it was important to me. I got a job at Thriftown, an old grocery store in our neighborhood, and returned to school, taking classes during the day and at night as well. By focusing on work and school instead of socializing, I managed to graduate with my class on time, in 1997. My entire family was present and let me know how proud—and relieved—they were to see me graduate.

Shortly after graduation, my parents moved to Cartersville, and I moved with them. I got a job at Blockbuster, and with the pressure of graduating gone, I went back to spending all my leisure time with my friends. It never occurred to me to pursue a college education. Education wasn’t a priority for  me or my parents back then. They would have been happy just to see me settle down, get a good job, get married and raise a family as they had done. I shared those sentiments but considered all those plans long-term goals. For now, I just wanted to be that guy, the one that gets invited to all the parties, who is always seen with the prettiest girls, breezing through life going from one good time to the next. But it’s hard to be “cool” when you live with your parents. It wasn’t long until my friends began harassing me about getting my own place. And since my earnings from Blockbuster would not be enough to cover rent and my other extracurricular activities, I started selling drugs to my friends. “They are all going to buy narcotics anyway,” I reasoned,  “so they might as well get them from me.”

Thinking back on that time, I always knew I would get caught. However, as a first offender, just past my eighteenth birthday, I never expected to receive such a harsh sentence: one year in the Georgia Department of Corrections. I spent 90 days in the county jail, 90 days in the state prison, and the other six months in an offender boot camp, a highly-structured program with a military regimen.

When I finally returned home, I was a different person, slightly older, but extremely wiser, and I had no intention of ever getting caught again. I was deeply moved to see my parents again, but my joy was tinged with a new emotion: bitterness. I felt like the system had unfairly extracted more time from my life than they deserved. I had witnessed others in my same predicament get nothing more than probation. I seethed with rage whenever I thought about it.

Soon after my release, I met a girl and we moved in together. I found comfort in her arms but soon found that love and sex weren’t enough to ease the pain of the past year or the pangs of resentment it had produced. Together, we escaped into the surreal world of using and selling drugs. It’s easy money and an easier escape. Just as before, I knew I would get caught. It’s like an unwritten agreement you make with yourself, a stipulation you sign off on. As my father used to say, “You can’t pick up one end of the stick, without picking up the other.” But getting caught was supposed to lie far ahead, in the distance future. Instead I was back in jail within six months.

I was pleasantly surprised by my girlfriend, who stuck by me the entire time. She wrote me frequently and was waiting for me when I was released six months later. But the joy of our reunion did not last. We were both out of work, and love, no matter how genuine, does not pay the rent. So I went back to what I knew, with the same results. This time when I got caught I was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. It was finally crystal clear to me that life, God, and the Georgia Department of Corrections were sending me a message. This time, I was ready to listen. I resolved that when I was released, I would not go back to drugs, using or selling them. I was ready to try a new way of life.

My resolve remained strong during the next 24 months, and upon my release I was determined to become the man my parents had raised me to be. A short 90 days later, my path intersected with law enforcement yet again. Only this time, I had not broken any laws, and I was released without being charged. I realized, however, that just refraining from using drugs was not enough. I had to also stay away from anyone and everyone who had anything to do with drugs. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I made the call my mom and dad had been praying for.

“If your offer to come home still stands, I would like to take you up on it.”

Like the prodigal son whose celebrated return is well-known, I was welcomed with open arms and the South’s equivalent of the fatted calf: fried chicken and collard greens. The security, warmth and love of home and family enveloped me like a blanket, and I felt hopeful and at peace for the first time in years.

My brother helped me get a job at Wal-Mart, and in just three years, I advanced from a cashier position to a department supervisor. I was scheduled to begin their manager training program soon. If I continued to work hard, I would be an assistant manager by next year. Finally, my life was headed in the right direction and things were going even better than I had ever expected—right up until the day of my court appearance.

During the jury trial for my cousin’s possession charge, she did something I had not even considered as a possibility: she changed her story. She lied and said the drugs belonged to me. I was completely unprepared for this turn of events. Apparently, she had already struck a deal with the district attorney, who preferred to put away someone like me, with a criminal past. I couldn’t believe my ears. Not then, and not when the judge sentenced me to forty years in the state penitentiary.

During the next few weeks and months, when I had no idea how long I would be in prison, I began to pray—a lot. I studied my Bible. I wrote to my family. They wrote to me. I asked God to show me how to forgive my cousin, who had so cruelly sacrificed my freedom for her own. And I took responsibility for the role I had played in my own downfall. And I found something in prison that neither drugs, sex, nor alcohol had been able to provide: inner peace.

The world behind prison bars is unlike anything in free society. It is a violent, loud, and unstable game of survival that follows a different set of rules. Any sign of weakness attracts aggressors the way pheromones attract predators in the jungle. I learned quickly how to stay away from trouble and with God’s help, I was able to serve my time without being involved in any serious confrontations. Then in 2011, after being imprisoned for five years, I was released.

I barely had time to acclimate myself to being home again before my parents had me in the car and were driving me straight to Georgia Highlands College. I was released from prison on December 10. One month later, on January 10, I was sitting in a college classroom for the first time in my life. In prison I had been surrounded by thugs, criminals and homicidal maniacs, but I had never been more terrified than I was on my first day of school. It had been a long time since I had sat in a classroom. I doubted whether I had retained anything of value from high school. I was still struggling to feel comfortable around friends and family, must less a bunch of educated strangers. What should I say to them? Was I dressed all right? What would they think of me if they knew about my past? It didn’t help that my brother was extremely well known on campus, by teachers and students alike. One teacher, who immediately recognized me because of our similar appearance, exclaimed, “You must be Alex’s brother! Well, you certainly have some big shoes to fill!” Alex was known not only for his academic success but also because of his charismatic personality.

Since the last thing I needed was any more pressure, I decided to forget about trying to impress or explain myself to anyone, and just focus on completing my assignments. Trying to be successful in college was challenging enough. I wrote my first college paper, a narrative essay. My teacher handed it back to me and said, “The content is good, but you did not adhere to the guidelines for the assignment.” She asked me to re-write it. I went to the tutorial center and with their help, was able to figure out what I had done wrong. I turned the paper in for the second time. This time when it was returned, my teacher smiled and said, “Good job!”

I looked at my paper. I had made an 89. I was overjoyed. The first college paper I had ever written, and I had almost gotten an A! That first success gave me the confidence to keep going. There was no sense in assuming I would fail until I at least tried. I decided that while I was in college, this would be my new policy, to fear nothing until I had at least tried to do it. As the assignments began piling up, I considered dropping some classes. But again, I realized I was allowing my fear of failure to get the best of me. I persevered and made it through my first semester of college successfully. The only hurdle I had been unable to overcome was remedial math. But I passed that on my second attempt and then passed algebra the following semester!

Once I gained confidence in my ability to do college work, I started taking advantage of the other opportunities for growth at Georgia Highlands College. I began participating in Brother 2 Brother (B2B), an organization for African-American males, of which my brother was president. Because he was president, I was expected to join immediately, but I had reservations. I wanted to know more about the organization and why it was necessary. I wanted to stand out on campus for my accomplishments and not be set apart by my race. But it only took one meeting to realize, this was a good thing—a very good thing.

Their message was one of support and empowerment. In that organization, I learned the dismal truth about African-American males and college completion rates. We fall below every other group in America, including Caucasian males and females, Latino males and females, and African-American females. B2B sees this as a challenge that can be overcome, one student at a time. As I continued to experience academic success at GHC, I decided to make it my mission to help others do the same. I know if I can keep just one student from dropping out, then all my efforts are worthwhile.

In 2012, after my brother completed his coursework at GHC, I was elected president of B2B on the Cartersville campus.  I am proud to say, one of the initiatives I have promoted is our outreach and support of the other organizations on campus. And I don’t mind asking for their help when we need it either. Recently, I asked the president of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), the honors society at GHC, to give us a lesson on how to study. I want our goal to be more than just to stay in college. I believe with each other’s help, we can excel at whatever we do. I stress to all the B2B members at GHC, that they don’t have to stop at an associate’s degree. They can get a bachelor’s, then a master’s degree. I tell they can be a professor one day if that’s what they want to do. I say this with conviction because I know if I can succeed in college, anyone can.

During the spring of 2012, I was privileged to join a team of GHC students and B2B members in attending the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB) National Conference in Indianapolis. There are over 260 SAAB and B2B chapters in colleges around the country, and many of these chapters had students at the conference. The whole experience was so uplifting, especially seeing all those people standing together for one purpose, united in one common goal. Having experienced so much of the bad things in life, it made me feel like I could now have all the good things in life. Then I had the honor of meeting former Atlanta mayor, diplomat, and civil rights activist Andrew Young. He told us, “Never use your race as an excuse why you can’t accomplish something. Use it as a reason why you can accomplish something.” Just when I thought I couldn’t feel any more motivated and inspired, they announced the Chapter of the Year: Georgia Highlands College!

Before I came to GHC, the only states I had visited were Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida. Now here I was in Indianapolis, staying at a beautiful hotel, meeting a famous civil rights activist: it was all so amazing and surreal. Every time I reached toward a door, it seemed to swing open effortlessly. The next door that opened for me was truly miraculous and allowed me to study abroad in Costa Rica.

I describe it as miraculous because I was still on probation and traveling outside of the U.S. was strictly forbidden. But my newfound philosophy of never fearing what I haven’t attempted, meant I had to at least give it a try. I petitioned the parole board for permission, who contacted my parole officer. He was extremely supportive and helpful and so the board granted my request. Then Randy Green, a criminal justice professor at GHC, and the former regional director of the Georgia Department of Pardon and Parole helped me get my passport.

As the first person in my family to ever travel outside of the United States, I felt humbled and grateful as I stepped onto foreign soil. And what beautiful soil it was. With the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Costa Rica has hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches with big stones sticking up out of clear blue water, giant mountain peaks that go up 10,000 feet, so high I could feel the clouds on my face as they dissipated. A usually talkative person, I fell silent frequently and others began to worry about me. “Why are you so quiet?” I was asked. But in my mind, I was having a conversation with God, thanking him for creating so much beauty and for allowing me the opportunity to experience it. These were the kinds of scenes I had seen in pictures, but never expected to see firsthand.

That trip also opened my mind to possibilities I never dreamed of before. I had spent my entire life in Georgia. I expected to graduate from college in Georgia, probably settle down, get married, and one day retire in Georgia. But in Costa Rica, I met students from all over the world who were studying and interning there. I realized there was no reason to limit myself. There is a world of opportunities that most people never consider. But now, my eyes have been opened and I plan on traveling abroad again soon.

In a few days, I will be starting my sophomore year at Georgia Highlands. I will soon complete my associate’s degree in Computer Information Systems. My current GPA is 3.3. I am still the active president of Brother 2 Brother. I am also an active member of Green Highlands. I volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club of Bartow County and other civic organizations. I am a work study student for the Humanities Department. I also am a member of the Christ Temple church in Rome, Georgia, where I work with Reverend Jewell’s Brothers Keepers Club, for children ranging in age from five to sixteen. And I am the proud father of a 17-month-old boy.

I list these accomplishments not to boast about what I have achieved but because I know that there are those out there, who don’t believe this kind of success is possible for them. Maybe they don’t believe in themselves or maybe they don’t believe in anything at all. If I had the opportunity, I would tell them that no one felt further removed from a life of success and happiness than I did when I heard that judge sentence me to forty years in prison. Yet, here I stand, and I have never been happier or more optimistic about my future. And while I know not everyone is as lucky as I was to have the family support that I did, I know there are people out there, like me, who can think of no greater purpose in life than to give someone else a hand up. Like my tell my fellow B2B members every day, “Never fear what you haven’t tried.”

-As told to Connie Watjen, Faculty Writer