A Prudent Proffering of my Personal Pedagogy
Terrance C. '23 is one of ten students who received an associate’s degree as a part of Bennington College’s first Prison Education Initiative graduation on February 4, 2023. This is his reflection essay.
The idea of obtaining my college degree has always been a goal of mine, first planted in my head by my grandfather, who grabbed me by the shoulders at a very young age while on one of our walks and told me to promise him that I would go to college and get my degree as well as get into my own business, so that I would never have to work for anyone. I promised him that I would. It was an incident that I always remembered, simply because he was a man of few words and rarely showed any kind of meaningful affection towards any of his eight grandchildren. And throughout my adulthood, as life got in the way, I plucked away at a few credits here and there, always with the goal in mind of keeping that promise.
It was as an adult, when his end was near, that I began to understand why he was so passionate about me getting my college degree, as he began telling me tales of his life growing up in Alabama. For two days, he lay weak on his sofa while my grandmother sat quietly in her armchair, watching television as she knitted. At the proper times, she prepared our favorite meals, and snacks in between, in order that I would not have a reason to leave his side, filling in the gaps, and correcting my grandfather about incidents that were intended to inform me of who they were, where they came from, and their struggles living under the death grip of Jim Crow; stories about how they survived during the Great Depression, my ancestors, and finally their “escape” to the north while my grandmother carried my father in her belly. He repeated some stories, from lapse of memory or a suppressed rage that he had to release after a lifetime of holding them in. Some, my grandmother, stopped him from telling me. I learned of the horrible events of the structural racism, oppression, and violence in the south and how it continued in New York; the protests for voting and other basic rights and the violent treatment under Governor George Wallace. He was unable to get an education beyond the third grade and struggled as a Black man in this country’s flawed capitalistic society. Because of his limited ability to read, write, and compute, his trust in white businessmen led him to sign a mortgage where he had to pay for his home for double the amount. After my grandparents had passed, I later found out how integral they were in the construction and maintenance of many churches, and were behind many fundraisers for the progress of the Black community.
I reflected on their legacy, and my life and wondered how it is that my father seemed to exhibit none of the greatness of his parents. And their eldest grandson, was lost and detached from a rich history of Black struggle, success, and service. Dealing with my own identity crises, and learning who I was, had to be the first step in fulfilling my promise to my grandfather, that was always in the back of my mind.
I didn’t know how my Prison experience would shape me, or whether I would live through it or die. But “The Promise” invaded my thoughts often, and it was a timely blessing when within the narrowness of my rationalizations, attributed my rejection as another racemized barrier in a bureaucratic system that was determined to hold me back from any type of meaningful advancement, but my wife urged me to try again.
After acceptance into Bennington College PEI program, my self-esteem reached a new high, and after receiving my first stack of brand new books, I knew that it was real. I read and studied them with a gluttonous appetite, having been awakened from an unconscious status, after my mental cognition had been rocked into repose as a result from my oppressive environment and the absence of a significant amount of constructive and meaningful conversation.
I have been at Bennington for a while now, and have learned a wide variety of many things. I have studied Adam Smith’s ideology of Capitalism, Marx’s Communism, European Socialism, Religious ideologies and various socioeconomic theories. It is now a fact that I can’t read a book, watch a movie or the news without dissecting its moral and historical significance, as well as the psychology of the characters. Overall, I now understand and believe that there is no absolute philosophy, ideology, theory or belief fit for everyone, all of the time; my education has endowed me with a wider perspective of thinking. All of my professors were exceptionally knowledgeable in their respective fields…. And they held us to the same standards of performance as their students on the outside. Each one added something in the strengthening of my character, my reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. As a total force, they expanded my rational capacity… instructing me to process each work with focused intent, and to write with a clarification and with meaning that I did not previously possess.
The courses were challenging and tough, and I have stayed up late many nights writing under the dim lights, after all of the noise around me died down, trying to meet deadlines and produce quality papers. I was thrown into classrooms with Black, Brown, and White… Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Sometimes we got into heated disagreements and debates, but we always… always kept them respectful. The professors were like therapists sometimes, intervening to deprogram us of conspiracy theories, disinformation, falsehoods, and cherry-picking of the facts. They were always pushing up away from secondhand answers, even those that they believed themselves, but always referred us to other sources. And I don’t think that I ever found any unsatisfactory answers after searching for them on my own.
For the students in the program it became routine for us to randomly discuss books that we were studying whenever we bumped into each other. Some friendships were made for sure. And the fact is that we were all the more humbled in a strange way, and I recognized the changes in my moral compass that broke down the invisible walls of division that is a normal part of incarceration. Because of my education, it prepared me to have a voice in those difficult conversations in my home and those affecting my community. It is much more beneficial for me and everyone I’m involved with—work with, and live with, to harness a rational mind than a purely emotional and impulsive one. Whenever I think that I’m right, there’s always another angle to my truth that I may be unaware of and to have respect. A reminder that there are always at least two points of view. To believe that all of our stories are written and defined by one sovereign authority, is really what keeps us divided. I now think about life like our planet; history and humanity are constantly revolving and evolving, and as a man, I realize now that I must do the same.
But more than accumulating facts, the most important lesson that I latently picked up from every professor is that regardless of how much I learned, the more I realize what I didn’t understand. And it always reminds me of something that Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said: "The more our knowledge increases, so does the circumference of our ignorance." And while doing my thesis with Professor Bond, I came to understand that the gist of my knowledge is all about the constant questioning; questioning as a ritual, questioning as an exploration, rather than just searching for certainty. Once I start to believe that all is known, there’s always other questions to be answered, new perspectives to consider, voices to be heard… voices like my grandparents’.
Professors Annabel Davis-Goff and David Bond have played integral roles in guiding my pedagogical pathways. They have contributed greatly in the expansion of thinking critically about everything that I read and write. They have judiciously assisted in focusing my attention on the rules of writing while pushing me in expanding my imagination as a means of self-expression. They have shown me that there are avenues, through the written word, to become scholarly polemicist without sounding pedantic, as a goal to always strive for. They have brought me out of my psychological shell and patiently continued to nudge me toward gaining self-confidence in a voice that society had muffled. My uncomfortability in this process was apparent as I continued to struggle with finding consistency in balancing the right words with the right tone in leaving an unforgettable impression.
I often hear the phrase that “knowledge is power.” Most people automatically assume that power and wealth are the highest values and rewards, especially for those who are smart. They justify power and wealth in terms of knowledge and ability. But as I look around me at those in power, making decisions for millions of people, and I realize that wisdom is most truly absent in our politicians and titans of corporate America. Stupid people leading the country and big banks going broke. What true knowledge is doing for me as a man, is giving me an understanding of myself and other men, and shows human meaning in our civilization, which has personally given me a sense of freedom and real empathy. Of course, knowledge doesn’t automatically make us wise and caring. It has been propagandized by both moral and evil minds. But in today’s world it seems that the chase of knowledge (a degree) is for the sole purpose of material wealth and prosperity…for getting trinkets. I’m sure that this is partly what my grandfather wanted for me, based on the hardships he experienced. But on a higher level, I’m also sure that he wanted me to educate myself to speak truth to power and to find my little pocket and become a voice of change for the millions that have been muffled. Those stories that he reluctantly told me, was his way of leaving me a reminder to carry on a legacy that had been detached from, and that an education was the avenue to rationally propagandize the truth for the voiceless, in striving towards the American creed that so many groups are disinherited from on a daily basis. The mind is a terrible thing to waste…a remarkable instrument and adept at many things, especially self-delusion. I was in that vortex, and working my way out. Which is why my education is so cherished as the tool that is continually altering the trajectory of my life.
For more about the Prison Education initiative, videos about graduation, and of interviews with participants, including Terrance C., please visit the Bennington College Prison Education Initiative page.