My dad told me that time is something I’ll never get back, so I should do with it what matters.
My whole life, most of the things I have done had negative results. I thought I had to be an invented character of who I was supposed to be. It was my life’s work. Instead of focusing on what was best for me, I fought people, protected my family, myself and lived for the amusement of others. I told myself it was to justify my behavior. I convinced myself that it was okay to knock out someone’s teeth for picking on me. I told myself that violence was necessary for my survival, it was expected of me if I wanted to survive. I made myself believe that it was necessary to steal and attack, so long as I got what I needed and I was seen as useful. All of this, the violence and the crime, all of it was for nothing. All those things got me in trouble. Now I’m spending my life in prison for trying to be someone I am not.
When I was first locked up, I was very very angry, mostly because of shame and fear. I was ashamed of my upbringing in the gutter of the ghetto and afraid of bullies all around me. I had no real outlet for my anger except drawing and writing. My parents accused me of always living in my own little world, ignoring reality.
After my arrest, I spent a lot of time writing, drawing, and trying to sleep in an attempt to ignore my dire circumstance: facing a third strike, the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison. I only marginally cared, mind you, figuring I would not be much use to anyone behind prison walls. In all honesty, I didn’t care if I died in prison, but for the sake of those I knew and loved. In prison, I got a card from my mom and some money. It helped me live. I started writing again because my head hurt with so many stories and rhymes. I suppose I wanted to get as much of my writing out as I could before something happened where I couldn’t. I hope that someone can maybe collect the money from selling my books and I can be useful. I had no idea how much venting I did when I wrote. I wrote stories about outcasts and antiheroes and violent vigilantes and wanton destruction. I wrote about dangerous animals and hideous aliens and inconsolable monsters. I built so many worlds….
After a few years of introspection, I realized a few things: I am still a very angry person, I still see the world around me as a dangerously frightening place, and there is still a chance I can die in prison. Of course, I continued writing, but I realized that my writing is a direct reflection of my mindstate. As I attended college and self-help groups, I wrote about my despair in getting beaten and left to bleed on the street. I wrote about being accused of cheating on tests and getting suspended for defending myself. I learned more about the school to prison pipeline as I navigated being bullied by correctional officers for trying to help people pass the GED, and got into trouble here at the Robert E. Burton Adult School in San Quentin for encouraging people not to ‘Grandfathered out’ of school, meaning the student is phased out because they have been convinced by their teacher that they are incapable of learning. I wrote tips on teaching algebra and writing essays and critical thinking. I wrote lesson plans on how to help adult students have a hand in their own education. I still write about these things, and as you can imagine, these topics are not very popular. So I find myself bullied all over again. I am ashamed of my inability to be a stronger advocate for education, and I am afraid of what will happen if I stop, so this makes me very angry still. I have terrible nightmares I put on paper, and maudlin feelings I place in my rhymes.
To look at me, some people think I have it all together. My writing is like a pressure release valve on my negative feelings, so my optimism and willingness to help is in the forefront of my brain. But the shame and fear lurks in the shadows of my thoughts, waiting for their chance to strike me down again. I fight them, I do what I can where I can to help as many students and write about the rest. I write essays and articles about teachers & administrators who care about how students test and stall out on the GED by missing a point here and there.
This awakened a new anger in me, born of a frustration at seeing the intentional roadblocks against students earning their GED. it brought me all the way back to my own schooling, jaded teachers, arrogance. Refusing any and all help to reach their students. This compounded in prison; a discussion about academic dishonesty can lead to administrative segregation or worse. I stay up late nights scratching out ideas that help students overcome these obstacles, and spend my days encouraging them so they will excel. There are teachers who refuse to speak to me since joining the Peer Literacy Mentor Program and APEP, for their precious egos cannot withstand a cannonade of truth from yours truly, so I write about that as well. Then COVID-19 hit.
Nowadays, I spend upwards of 15 out of 24 hours a day reading, writing and studying. Work continues. I send lesson plans via correspondence and tutor students as I see them and write harrowing tales of derring-do. I write papers about art and activism, and I write poetry about the same and it’s personal connection to my heart and mind. I write articles about others through the lense of the incarcerated being treated as the source of the deadly pathogen responsible for shelter in place mandates, from the point of view of someone who knew about social distancing before the term became synonymous with the physical distancing required to remain safe from infection. I write about that stuff, too. With all this time down, hours upon hours in my cell, I figured out the true source of my anger and frustration, my shame and fear: Inadequacy. I have never been enough. Ever. I’ve never been enough for my family. I’ve never been enough for those I thought were my friends. I’ve never been enough for my students. Most of all, I’ve never been enough for me. In my imagination, there are stories of hotshot pilots and powerful wizards and genius scientists and stalwart warriors and steadfast missionaries and unshakeable ship’s captains with their crews. There are stories of people who harness the elements for justice and even a sun in human form out to balance the cosmos. All the things I am not. When I write, I can be these people. I get to exercise their powers and explore parts of me normally reserved for roleplaying games, which are no longer an option thanks to physical distancing. I also get to see the negative sides of me. I get to explore my penchant to rely on violence when talking and compromise fail. I get to think of what it means to be a mastermind, and how to shut down nefarious plots with a little bravery and ingenuity. So this inadequacy was stifling for me, and the deeper source of my shame and fear. I am afraid I’ll never be enough to help make a change in this world, and I am ashamed of that failing. These feelings still lurk deep inside, where my darkest pain stabs at me every day of my existence. However, I make myself remember I have one freedom no one can take away: the freedom to choose.
Therefore, I choose to turn my feelings of inadequacy into a quest for perfection. My sense of inadequacy is why I work so hard and, according to a proverb I read recently, “In all labor, there is gain, but mere talk leads to poverty.” My sense of inadequacy pushes me to be better at everything I try to do. And, as much as I hate to give prison any credit for anything except the enslavement of humanity, I would never have learned that if I had been killed when I was arrested. This may sound like I am okay with not being enough. I’m not, now my goal is to be more than enough. I aim to inspire others to work hard despite their own feelings of inadequacy.
Prison sucks. I hate it; hate its necessity. However, during all this time I have learned many valuable lessons; the lesson of choice and choosing to turn from my feelings of inadequacy to seek perfection, that help me keep moving forward.
I’m not a violent criminal or anything like that anymore.
I’m a nerd.
I read books.
I like school.
I like role-playing games and writing stories and spending time playing with my imagination.
I can be me and it’s okay to be me.
This was an incredible discovery for me. I hate that it took my 14 years to get fully comfortable with me. Struggling and pushing through all the feelings of shame, fear, anger to reach my sense of inadequacy. I still struggle with relationships here in San Quentin, my usefulness dictates the value of the relationship. But with my new found self-esteem, I realize these interactions faster and whether or not such relationships are worth pursuing. In the past, I endured misuse and abuse in order to get the interaction I craved. I looked at my life as being without value, and, since my life meant nothing to me, whatever crimes I committed for my survival beyond food and shelter were done to be useful to others, content to let me take the fall for their ambition.
Now that so much time has passed inside, and realizations made, my life has meaning. I have value because I do match who I am. I work carefully at making good decisions in my life. I work hard to live my life with purpose, that’s part of who I am and it ties right in with my pursuit to overcome my feelings of inadequacies.
On lockdown during COVID, it’s hard to reach my students and friends, so I focus on my writing. I am a recovering claustrophobic, who enjoys people, but can’t visit them in here which could lead to the looming fear of progressive discipline. If I get caught by a correctional officer it would be used against me. My first parole hearing is coming up on New Year’s eve, so I don’t need that kind of trouble. I focus on long term beneficial solitary activities that will promote inner growth, like storyteller, being a poet and a student. Now, my reputation matches my character, who I really am. Even if I’m behind these walls.
There is one lesson I have learned with all the years while being in prison, more important than any other I have found, more important than feeling inadequate, the biggest and best lesson: It’s ok to be me.
Salvation. Allah. Unity.
I know it feels like the world turned its back
And you live your life under constant attack,
But this pain is just another setback
On the path of life where mad schemes hatch…
It’s okay to uprock and love to rap,
To paint murals and scratch for those who got clapped
And that’s no cap. It’s okay to use your brain.
It’s okay to love fiction and play games.
It’s okay to mix proper English with slang,
Nevermind the ridicule and the shame.
It’s okay that you’re not the same;
If others don’t like you, you are not to blame…
The world is your personal playground:
Climb life’s jungle gym when opportunity slides down.
Wear your self-esteem like a crown
And turn beatdowns to beats and sounds.
Express yourself when you’re lost so you get found
With both feet on the ground shouting “What Now?!”
It’s okay to stand up and use your voice,
Even if you find your name on a prison invoice.
Be you. Don’t take your life and compare
It to others who don’t even care…
Recognize your blessing and forge weapons
Of reason for hunting seasons. No half-steppin!
Confidence in your life choices, no second-guessing;
You’ll soon be in classrooms giving lessons.
Don’t let your anger cloud your judgement
Or let heartbreak make your soul plummet…
You are the Human Sun, unpredictable at best.
Incinerate preconceived notions and bring it to their chest.
Know you are amongst those highly blessed.
It’s okay to be who you are, nevermind the rest…
-Mesro, the Human Sun