“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
— Maya Angelou
A few years back, I was offered a position teaching GED to adult incarcerated men. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I loved many aspects of my job, but one of my favorites was graduation day.
Joey was a kid; barely 20. He was indoctrinated into the gang life by his older, and now deceased brother, at eight years old. I met him when he was 19, fairly new to the prison system, for a gang-related crime that got him a 19-year sentence. He looks young, much younger than he was. And he looks innocent; like really sweet, and innocent. He has deep brown eyes, long eye lashes, and a little kid smile. He is, in my middle-aged mind, an “adorable kiddo”. I got to know him pretty well when he was in my class. I found out that he didn’t want to be in the gang; he joined because his brother made him, and now he is stuck for life.
When Joey earned his GED, he invited his mother to come to his graduation. He had told her about me and how much he appreciated me listening, encouraging, and celebrating him, each step of the way. She wanted to meet me. On the day of the graduation, Joey came in, looking nervous, but happy. He joined the others at the cap and gown table, getting his picture taken, and then sitting close to the visitor door, awaiting the arrival of his mother.
Sometime later, a small woman walked in and Joey quickly jumped up and hugged her hard. She began to sob in his arms, and he stroked her hair, choking back his own tears, trying to comfort her. Eventually, they sat down, and we started the ceremony. When I looked up, I saw them sitting, arms entwined, his head on her shoulder and her cheek on his head. In that moment, he looked like exactly what I always saw; a sweet little boy whose mother loved him deeply.
After the ceremony, people started to leave. My eyes fixed on Joey and his mom. I could see that she was ignoring the departures. I could see the devastation through her strength, as she gathered herself up and started to walk to the door. She kept looking back at her son, who kept watching her, too. She sobbed but kept her head up and eventually she lost eye contact with him. As she walked away, my heart broke over and over again, for her. All I could think was, that if I were her, I would be sobbing and screaming, “He’s just a baby! He’s my baby! Just let me take him home with me. I promise he won’t do it again! He needs me! My baby needs me!”
Trust me, I get that he did bad things to get locked up. I may have a soft heart, but I do understand the need for public safety, more so because I have worked where I have encountered some pretty scary people. Still, as a woman, I can feel her pain. This is her baby boy, her only surviving son and she had no choice but to leave him behind.
That is a question that I ask myself often. What can I do?