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Empty chairs face each other in a circle
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This past fall I took a life skills class — six weeks, five days a week, in two-hour chunks.

I appreciated every minute.

This class was an opportunity to learn about and challenge myself in ways that improved my experiences and how I see my life. For example, Day 3 kicked off a unit about creating change. Day 7 continued this lesson with specifics of self-talk and self-awareness. Day 8 was about red flags in thinking.

In each session, I saw my classmates in a new light as they revealed more and more of themselves. These real, deep connections allowed me to transcend prison. When we were in class, it felt like we were no longer imprisoned.

We learned that becoming aware was the first step to change. For instance, if we built awareness of our internal monologue, we were likely to see that we control it.

And we learned that there were three principles of change: it was not linear, it was ongoing and it could last with calibrated goal-setting.

The student workbook was 89 pages. The course was taught by six inmate life coaches who rotated in. The coaches shared from their lives before prison. Each of them has changed immensely — it was hard to believe they did terrible things in the past.

Students become teachers

Students took turns bringing canteen-purchased cookies to class.

I had never noticed most of my classmates among the inmates here. One thing that struck me was the realization that there are lots of good people here. Every day I was shocked by how vulnerable my classmates were. Just looking at them, I wouldn’t have suspected what they went through or their life circumstances.

When we became vulnerable with each other, we helped each other. We all grew together in class. Our class motto: “Keep it real.” I had the honor of hearing about the very worst things that people have experienced.

My classmates shared lots of wisdom by letting us see into their lives. One classmate shared that, when he was 15, his dad faked a paternity test. It shattered him and his mom. That man really was his biological dad.

Another classmate said he keeps telling his children that violence is not right. In response, they mention all the violence he has done. He tells them he was wrong, that they need to not be violent and end up in prison like him.

I shared that I didn’t know how to overcome my life sentence. I used it as an excuse for everything. Before the life skills class, only the second class I have had the opportunity to take here at Huntsville Unit, I was discouraged because most classes were reserved for people with shorter sentences.

Me as teacher

When a life coach told us we would also teach, I was stressed out. The stress dissipated the more comfortable I got with my classmates. It got to the point where I was looking forward to teaching.

When I got in front of my classmates I had zero nervous energy. I knew they would be receptive to learning from me.

I taught the review of Day 8: red flags in thinking. I was now able to explain how common thinking errors include rationalizing, blaming, confusion, assuming, minimizing, entitlement, lying, victim stance, grandiosity, sidetracking and boredom. I gave an example for each.

For entitlement, I gave the example of Larry, who ran our laundry service. He has fire-and-hire power. We all laughed, because he acted like he was a guard. He had worked in the laundry forever but made no friends from it.

My lesson went extremely well. I had my classmates laughing, nodding and taking notes. I also noticed the two life coaches taking notes. At the end of my lesson, some of my classmates gave me compliments. Two classmates even asked me to further explain some points.

Lifelong esteem 

Our graduation was held Dec. 13, 2023. Thirty-five alumni showed up.

Everyone’s presence and speeches were sincere and heartfelt. Each of us was deeply impacted by the experience. We all teared up, including me.

Each graduated class had a speaker step up. They all touched on how their group grew together, was vulnerable and cried in class.

Our speaker thanked us individually. I was surprised when he said he saved the best for last: He said all my classmates looked forward to me getting in front of class every day when I presented my daily homework. He said I made them laugh and taught them.

Another speaker said one classmate didn’t know English. Every day, his homework was written in Spanish, but he was able to teach his classmates a lot — that’s because a classmate translated everything he wanted to say into English.

The warden spoke for 15 minutes. She was blown away by how this class impacted us all. She said she has worked in prison a long time, and this group was unique.

Graduating was bittersweet. We will no longer be able to meet together and teach each other. But I know I can approach my classmates when I see them and have deep conversations. I finally found people I can be vulnerable with.

The new cycle of the life skills class started in early January. I look forward to being at their graduation Feb. 28.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Cesar Hernandez is a writer incarcerated in Texas.