Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Alumnus #103468

Brian Smith
Future Alumni Essay Contest - 2016 Winner

Alumni is the plural of the Latin noun Alumnus (foster son, pupil) which is derived from the Latin verb Alere (to nourish).  In the ancient Roman legal system Alumnus was used to describe a child placed under the care of foster parents, wherein the child might be showered with love, simply treated as a servant or both.  Noted Yale alumni John Boswell held that in even earlier ancient times it referred to ‘exposed children’ taken in by foster parents; think Moses, Paris, Oedipus or Romulus & Remus.  These days and according to Merriam-Webster we get one commonly used definition and one perhaps not so common:

Alumnus
1: a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school, college, or university.
2: a person who is a former member, employee, contributor, or inmate.

The first definition is familiar to me, but not the second. I also didn’t know of the word’s etymology until doing research for this essay.  The revelation of this new information and its relevance to my life is why I chose it for the opening paragraph; ditto as to my choice for the title.

I’ve been on my own since I was thirteen and without going into too much detail, in the year 2000 I was freed after 20 years of wrongful imprisonment.  I was the first person in South Carolina to be freed by the Innocence Project and the number in the above title was my prison number – 103468.  Since there’s not enough room in this brief piece of work to cover all the obstacles I overcame to get the education I have (20 years of intense personal study as a captive audience and an Associates Degree in Food & Beverage Management from Johnson and Wales University) the obstacle I’d like to focus on is the more recent one of addiction.

On March 29, 2015 I checked myself into Morris Village, a state-operated drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility.  It was on that day that I had my last alcoholic drink, my last cigarette, my last pain pill, my last joint.  It had become painfully apparent during the previous few years of my freedom that I had some deeply held resentments associated with my lengthy prison sojourn, which I was mistakenly trying to deal with by self medicating.  For a long time I had been a functional alcoholic and when I finally hit my bottom and received the gift of desperation, I chose living over dying.  I knew I had to stay busy and I wanted to go back to school, but didn’t have the money for such lofty fantasy.  That’s when I found out about the Charleston Clemente Course in the Humanities, offered by Trident Technical College.

After completing the two courses offered by the Clemente program, I scraped together the money to take a sociology course here at TTC.  This semester I’m taking a creative writing course, again managing to find the funds.  I can envision my taking at least one college class per semester for the rest of my life and the pertinent, personal value of TTC’s offerings can be summed up with three words: quality, variety and affordability.  I’ve stayed involved in the Clemente program by helping build the set and acting in the Clemente Players “Madam No-No Meets the USO-OH” this past spring, and working with Dr. Kohli to start up a Clemente prison initiative.  By far, I’ve benefited the most from my investment in TTC’s educational opportunities, but by righting my ship I’ve gone from being a liability to an asset for my family, friends and community.

Words cannot describe the importance an education holds in…everything!  Again, I find the subject matter too vast for this medium, so I’ll focus on a recent observation – critical thinking.  I’ve always had a curious bent, forever asking why, so I was a critical thinker before even knowing of the concept.  True critical thinking, however, is more than just asking ‘why’ - though that is a good start.  I think the biggest stumbling block for most is the aspect of being open minded and accepting of answers you didn’t anticipate, i.e. you aren’t always right!

For example, while working with Dr. Kohli on the Clemente prison initiative, I revisited one of my old epiphanies about prisoner rehabilitation.  I firmly believe that giving prisoners basic civics instruction married with critical thinking will go a long way in making them better citizens.  Whether it is local, state or federal, to the average convict all government is ‘the man’ and the man has always been out to get them.  Perhaps if they have a better understanding of the how and whys of government, and how it can be changed, maybe they’ll have that coveted “Ah ha!” moment.  Maybe…

In a nutshell, a good education usually makes a better person.  Period.  Most of our social ills are directly related to ignorance and since education is the antithesis of ignorance, I prescribe heavy doses of knowledge for the masses.  I believe most people are inherently good and given the opportunity to make the right choices will do so.  It’s hard to make those right choices, however, if you’re living in the dark and relying on simple survival instincts.  According to Juvenal, “No one ever became extremely wicked suddenly.”  While I believe that most people are inherently good, there are some very wicked individuals slithering around.  I know this because I’ve had the misfortune to meet a few of the ones we’ve caged, and some of them were fairly educated.

Finally, education is no panacea, but it’s the closest thing we have to one.  At 48 I decided to reinvent myself and this makeover started with a new set of goals, one of them being to use my experiences to encourage and inspire others.  A good education is a good start, and though already a prison alumni, what I really look forward to being is a future Trident Technical College alumnus!

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