I never took my education seriously. I dropped out of high school and got my GED when I was 16, going to work full-time breaking the law. I wasn’t a good student and didn’t care about higher education — to the disappointment of my father, a college professor, and my well-read, working mom. Even though I was encouraged to attend college or art school, I never listened to my parents’ advice.
Later in life, I had a son of my own, D. (I’m not using his full name to protect his privacy.) When D was a little boy of maybe five or six, he used to sit on my lap and I’d read to him, or quiz him on his homework.
As D grew older, his mother and I divorced and I struggled with drug addiction, eventually landing in prison. I love my son and wanted to be a part of his life while I was incarcerated, but parenting from behind bars is like an air traffic controller trying to fly a plane from the ground — you can relay information, but you miss the hands-on experience that matters most.
When D graduated high school with honors, I urged him to go to college, knowing the advantages of having a degree. I wrote long letters pressing him to attend a university and sharing my regrets of not continuing school. I emailed him studies about college grads earning almost a million dollars more in a lifetime than high school grads. But he wasn’t very motivated to apply to schools, and didn’t really have any direction after high school.
In conversations with my parents, I pleaded with them to push D to commit to school, and he eventually did by earning a soccer scholarship to a junior college. That became one of my proudest moments and a colossal relief, knowing that my progeny now was less likely to follow in my footsteps.
There are 2.7 million children that have a parent serving time in prison or jail on any given day. Studies show that children with an incarcerated parent are less likely to graduate high school and complete college than their peers, a continuation of generational failure that hurts everyone involved. However, with my son attending school his chances of succumbing to this fate narrowed. I became a college parent in absentia.
I’ve talked to men in prison who don’t know the first thing about higher education and don’t know how to talk to their kids about it. I’ve seen a man cry when talking about a daughter he’s never met graduate med school, and then asking me what an M.D. was. In a poignant role reversal, that same man was so inspired by his daughter that he enrolled in a college-in-prison program in Miami and eventually earned an associate of the arts.
With each report from home during D’s freshmen year — my folks sending photos of his first dorm room and giving play-by-plays of his soccer games — I lived vicariously through their eyes. I sent emails to my son every week asking for details about his new life, mostly to no avail. Our relationship had been strained since he became a teenager, and our communication waxed and waned.
My son made the dean’s list his sophomore year and his team went to the Division OneSoccer Championship in Kansas, far away from our hometown of Philly. During these accomplishments I was only ever on the peripheral, calling my parents and staring at the screenshots from espn.com on my tablet with pride … my son, the soccer star.
His junior year, I was able to help him pay part of his tuition with my stimulus check. I’m aware of how privileged I am, even in absentia, to have the ability to help pay for college for my son, and to have family who are able to guide him through the process. Even though I faced challenges supporting D through school, at least I was able to participate in some way.
I tried to make up for my past absence with present attention and love, inquiring weekly about his classes, girlfriends, jobs and hobbies. When he transferred his junior year to the university in the same town where I lived for a couple years in my youth, we bonded over local hang-outs, dingy bars, and pizza shops on campus. But it constantly pained me not to be there; his college career unfolding without me ever experiencing it with him. Now he’s 22 and we’re reconnecting slowly but honestly.
As he finishes his senior year with my parents playing the role of advisor, financial benefactor, and liaison to a father inside prison, I glow with pride whenever I talk about his achievements: a marketing major with aspirations for a career in sales; a college athlete who went all the way; a boy who overcame adversity because of a father with an addiction.
And as I sit and look at pictures on my tablet, I can’t help but feel like a little piece of me is there. In fact, because I get out in December, I will be there in person to see him graduate next spring.
The story was produced by Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. A version was published in College Inside, a newsletter about postsecondary education in prison.
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