Posted by: krusty505 | June 10, 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

Yesterday was graduation day, and let me tell you, it was a doozy! There was laughter, there was cheer, there were tears, but mostly there was a lot of love and respect communicated from the strangest places. As you may already know from my previous posts or just from talking to me, we have two campuses, one in the jail and one on the “outs”; thus, we had two graduations. One of our founders, Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino was the keynote speaker at the graduation on the outs, and he said a few words about the man we named the school after, Gordon Bernell. I thought it would be appropriate to share those with you before delving into some of the inmates’ own words, which were incredibly powerful.

Gordon Bernell was, “a former minister, counselor and director of community programs at the old downtown jail; he was largely wheelchair-bound when I first got to know him. But that didn’t slow him down in the least…He knew all of us make mistakes, and there are no unforgivable crimes if there is repentance. He knew the human spirit can be cultivated to beauty and greatness or be beaten down into anger and malice. He knew the path to changing lives begins with education and that there are many pathways to education; it is not a one-size-fits-all pattern. Most important of all, he knew you must never give up on a man or woman no matter how desperate their situation because caring does produce miracles when least expected.” What a wise soul Gordon Bernell was.

My counter part and work bff at the jail started the day by cooking the graduates (12 in all) a “country breakfast”: blueberry pancakes, FRESH fruit, fried -not scrambled- eggs, bacon, sausage, pigs in a blanket, monkey bread, chocolate chip muffins, tortillas, cheese, green chile, and homemade guacamole (Natalie made this for them). It was a real feast, and I can’t even begin to describe what these guys are used to eating, suffice to say that later in the day, I went into the rec yard, and one of the guy’s sandwich bread had literally distended into a string of white globular mass that looked like some freakish form of albino intestines, which must have gone well with his spicy baloney. Yuck!

Next, the families came to visit. Now, you have to understand that the normal protocol for visits is for them to be done via video. In fact, the guys don’t even have to leave the pod for a visit. They just sit in front of a video monitor, pick up a phone and have their visit, so for the jail administration to allow visitors back into the bowels of the jail and to actually enter the security of the pods is borderline insanely generous. Let me say, when those family members walked into our classroom, some of them having not seen their loved ones face-to-face for over two years, the tears started rolling, and not just from them. I was crying, my coworker was crying, our case worker (a hardened seasoned veteran of the jail) was crying. There was hardly a dry eye.

Afterward, we had the ceremony in the pod. Our captain (the head correctional officer for our unit) allowed every inmate in the pod to have a chair, which was amazingly gracious, and every captain from the jail was in attendance including the new master chief (essentially the warden). In fact, the master chief delivered the commencement address. Our staff psychologist gave a rousing and inspiring keynote address about second chances and opportunities gained and lost, and then we handed out diplomas. Each graduate was allowed an opportunity to say a few words. That’s when things got really teary.

One of our students, Pitbull or Mighty Whitey, who struggles with serious anger issues (he is one of our only students who I have personally felt unsafe with from time to time), had this to say, “For me, this program has been a real blessing. I’ve done a lot of changing during my time here. Anyone who knows me or has met me can see that change. It took making a lot of mistakes, struggling with a good bit of anger, and dropping some tears in some hard spots. It was hard and a bit frustrating at times, but the hard work was worth it.” Then, he broke down, started really weeping openly and finished with, “Just for a minute I want to keep it real. The God given rewards we can earn ourselves have been straight dropped in my lap. My mom is proud of me, my daughter will smile at me, my brother is safe (he just got put in the pod with him yesterday!), and I believe I’m really going to be ‘O.K.’.” I found out later that this guy did ‘work’ for “some real heavy hitters in town.” He shot up people’s houses, “real pieces of shit in a piece of shit world… I never did shit to people who didn’t deserve it.” He stabbed people. He beat people senseless. He was the true definition of a thug, not some tag line on a t-shirt sold at the mall.

Another guy, one who really broke down when his mother walked into the classroom, was arrested for commercial burglary. He wanted a pack of cigarettes, broke into a gas station, and proceeded to have a 4 hour standoff with the police, over a pack of smokes! He said, “Thanks to Gordon Bernell Charter School doors have opened for me; I am no longer locked out. It was rough at first, but no matter what I kept going; classmates kept pushing, and it encouraged me to want it more. Thanks to Gordon Bernell Charter School, I know have my education, and for those that are on their way to this moment, keep it up. No matter how hard it may be… it’s worth it.” By the way, the punctuation is his; I’m particularly proud of his use of the semicolon!

Though both of these men cried during their speeches, there were no shouts of disdain or teasing from the other inmates. Instead, things like “You the man, Pitbull” or “You can do it,” “We love you,” and “Good job” were de rigueur. It was quite a day.



  1. Chris, this is amazing. I think you have book in the making!!!! Love you, Jane

    • I hope that’s not just a mother’s love talking… Thanks! Love you, too.

  2. Hi Chris,
    What a great blog. I cant wait to read the whole thing. I have been meaning to get in touch since we moved back to abq last July! Plus Keith always talks about you, and the work you guys are doing. It is really compelling. I hope to talk to you more about it, and also to see Natalie!!! Please send your contact info!

    • Thanks for the reply and feedback. We will definitely have to get in contact. Keith always talks about you and your lovely family. Apparently you have some very sharp little girls.

  3. Half way through the tears started rolling down my cheeks. It’s an amazing event and with all the bad stuff that got these guys to jail and what they must go through day to day this must have been a pivotal moment for most of them.

    • It was really special. I’m glad at least a sliver of that came through in the post. Did you really cry?

  4. Blessings, brother. You are working wonders. Signs and wonders!

  5. I was at the graduation with tears rolling down my face, and as I read this, I found myself tearing up again. I love when our guys fight to make the necessary changes in their lives to become productive members of society. Watching these guys graduate the other day, considering half of them almost dropped out again over the last few months, was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a teacher.

    Keep up the blog! I am enjoying reading it. (How the heck do you remember all these quotes? Amazing!)

    • I asked to borrow their speeches; that’s how I “remember” their quotes:) I really loved your comment, Jenn. Thanks.

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