Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Role Modeling

I had quite a day yesterday. A good friend of mine is an Education Specialist at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women's prison located about an hour and half away from where I live. About a month ago, she emailed and asked me if I'd consider giving the commencement speech at the graduation ceremony for the women who were receiving their GEDs (high school equivalency degrees).

I have to admit, my first thought was, "No way in hell!" :) I could only imagine how grim and depressing a place like that must be, and I had no desire to end up "shanked" or whatever it is that could possibly happen to little blonde 'fraidy cats like me.

But for some reason, I didn't answer my friend's email right away. I decided to think about it before delivering a knee-jerk "No".

I didn't sleep well that night. I kept thinking about what it must be like to be locked up for years and years, away from your family, away from even the most basic of things that you and I take from granted: a soft bed, eating whenever or whatever you want, wearing what you want, going to the bookstore or the mall, using your own bathroom. And even though I knew that the women at Lowell were there for a reason (thought I wasn't really sure I wanted to know what the reasons might be), I couldn't help but think about how often they must hear the word, "No". I also thought about the importance of second chances, of being treated an as individual instead of a statistic, of passing along the message that mistakes can be overcome in small ways as well as in big ones, and the importance of standing up and saying to someone (in this case 150 someones), "Congratulations! You did something worth being proud of. Go out and do it again, and again, and again! You've proven it's possible to rise above your mistakes to become better people!"

And then I thought about the importance of role modeling. Let's face it, the only role models women prisoners are going to have are other women prisoners, and some hardened guards, and some hard-working, overwhelmed teachers (like my friend Sheila). How could they rise above their mistakes if all there were to compare themselves to were people who were as flawed as they were? I guess I'm making it sound complicated, but it's not.

So what I told the women at Lowell Correctional Institute was this: we are ALL role models to someone, whether we're conscious of it or not. Our children, our friends, our family--somebody's watching, and somebody's taking in what we do. We owe it to ourselves and to those we care about to think about our actions, to learn from our mistakes, to do good in the world every chance we get. We never know how it might come back to us, or whether it'll come back to us at all, but no man (or woman) is an island. What we do affects other people, so we should do our best to make it affect them in a good way. (I actually think I said it a lot better than that, but I don't think you'd like to read a ten minute speech here in my blog, would you?)

Anyway, I did my best to practice what I preached, and overcame my racing heart, my sweaty palms and my shaky knees to stand up in front of 150 incarcerated women and say, "Congratulations! You did good! Now go forth and do some more!" I shook hands, handed out GED certificates, signed a few programs, and tried to be a good role model to some people who probably needed one.

(It was probably a good thing that my friend didn't tell me about the 16 yr. old girl in the second row who'd murdered her father until afterward.)

Who are you a role model to? What could you do to become a better one?

No need to answer... just think about it.


Janice Lynn said...

Great post, Terri. And I've always thought you a great role model so go you on going to that prison and giving those women something to strife toward.

Terri said...

Thanks, Janice. :) I'm a big believer in the "onward and upward" principle!

Anna Sugden said...

I'm so proud of you!

You're a great role model and it will have helped those women more than you'll ever know.