A Man Should Always Be Learning

I kept dying. I’d been trying to get past this stage for about an hour, but kept failing. I couldn’t get past the tedious obstacles. I tried to strategize what would be a better approach to this level, but I couldn’t even think because I was frustrated. My hands were sweaty and hurting. My body was sore from being in the same position for hours. Maybe if I….

“Tomas!” said my 7th-grade teacher Ms. Diaz, snapping my concentration, “What do you think about this chapter?”

In sudden shock, I realized I wasn’t paying attention again. “Um…,” I began. I was embarrassed again for daydreaming.

“That’s ok, you have extra homework,” said Ms. Diaz. I thought, “Great! Another task I despised.”

In middle school and high school, I was not interested in the process of learning. I would sit there staring at the book, uninterested. My head would pound. I didn’t want to be there mentally or physically. I was conscious of every stimulus, except the reading. But, in the last few years, secondary education gave me another opportunity to redeem and revive myself in learning. I channeled the chaos of oppression and depression, became a better-educated man and in the midst, I learned that if I’m not learning, I’m not living.

I don’t believe that I should ever blame others for my flaws, but I feel that the banking education style of my teachers aided my disinterest in learning. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire critiques the traditional form of learning between student and teacher: “Authentic education is not carried on by ‘A’ for ‘B’ or by ‘A’ about ‘B’ but rather by ‘A’ with ‘B,’ mediated by the world—a world which impresses and challenges both parties, giving rise to views or opinions about it” (Freire 93).

Freire is saying that dialogue should be a sit down between the teacher and the students in which both parties engage in learning. Like the student, the teacher can learn perspectives or ideas from and about the student. Without this, there is no education happening. If we engage in more open dialogue in class, the teacher can learn who needs more help or can learn better ways to teach me and has the opportunity to learn perspectives outside of textbooks. If the teachers learned more about me, it could have helped me be engaged in class.

At home, I lacked encouragement and push to be proficient at school. Although I did receive the punishment when I didn’t get passing grades. With a 65-70 average, I was getting by. I wanted help but didn’t know who to go to. In class, my problem was that I was too afraid of what people thought about me if I asked for help, only worsening my mediocracy. I always felt insecure about learning.

When tasked to read books and write a report, I tried to find shortcuts by reading parts of the chapter. I always wondered, how is homework helpful? I couldn’t focus, knowing I could be playing sports or video games. It didn’t help that the lack of dialogue about the book in the classroom might have made me more interested. My speech suffered from not reading or writing enough. When called upon to read, I could feel my gums tremble in nervousness. I feel the more you read and write, the better your speech is because of the amount of words you learn. When I read more, I started to mimic the authors’ writing and use better words to express myself. I only discovered this because of my interest in college work and the presence of other intellectual students.

Public middle school and JFK high school were enjoyable, not because of learning but because of everything attached to it. I enjoyed dressing up and looking “fly” for the girls. I loved playing sports and being on the baseball team. I had a lot of cool friends. I enjoyed socializing and going to parties, events, and gatherings. I only thought about the moment and temporary things. It would be my biggest disappointment when I get cut off from the baseball team for failing two classes. No matter how good you were as a player, there’s no tolerance for academic failure on this team. Temporary things kept fading as most friends grew up and apart. I grew more confident and didn’t care as much as I did before about what people thought, including my parents.

I was supposed to feel privileged to have it all, but I didn’t. I started to feel depressed and anxious while I was in class. In my Junior and Senior years of high school, I developed a philosophy about school: “I don’t need an education to be successful.” I’d been pumping myself up for months to tell my parents I wanted to quit. Fear was the theme of my life during this time. I felt like my dad would disown me if he knew. One day I told them, and guess what? He disowned me for months.

The anger and disappointment in the house made me think that this was the day I was getting kicked out. At the moment, I felt like maybe I would be a failure and live in someone’s basement. They wanted me to be different from them because they didn’t exceed the 8th grade. It was the worst feeling in my life. I was a loser. The only way I didn’t feel their disappointment anymore was when I moved out and didn’t have to feel ashamed of looking them in the eyes.

With just two classes left of night school, I dropped out of high school. I’d been working at a gym part-time and decided to work full-time. Small-minded, I was only thinking about short-term goals versus the long-term achievements and skills that would eventually bring me what I wanted at the time: success. Naive and immature, success, to me, was having material things.

A decade later in prison, I entered a cold and colorless room. I knew these men, but I didn’t know them in this environment. I was sitting with scholars. My day of redemption was finally here.

I’ve been a faithful man. One of my goals in this terrible place was to become educated. I told myself I must change, work harder, gain value, and learn. For years I waited, now was my real opportunity. There were fifteen well-spoken men. We all sat in a perfectly formed circle that included Dr. Beck. We were discussing Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ironically.

I was instantly overwhelmed. The way that the men expressed themselves, the different and strange vocabulary of words unknown to me, and the spontaneous speaking like a debate. This style is anti-banking education—we were Freirean.  In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes: “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them” (Freire).

Freire suggests that simply learning what is taught and what is required to be remembered is depriving the student of using their consciousness, which can be used as a tool of liberation. The student simply accepts what is thought to be reality and what is insufficient to change the world. There is liberation in using your ideas to be able to change the world, a student must be part of this learning process “anti-banking education”.

Our professor, Dr. Beck, always lets the class be part of the change. She let us be involved in choosing our class changes and allowed us to dictate where our open dialogues went. As we learned from her, she learned from us. In this class, we were changing the world and using it to liberate us. We were doing things society didn’t believe we were capable of. This group is a reminder that, although oppressed and constrained, we are free.

It is a miracle how we can discover enlightenment in atrocious situations. Even my family couldn’t believe that I was in “prison college.” It was difficult at first, but I knew that if I wanted to be different from when I was a child, I must work harder. I stressed myself a lot because I studied more, but I wasn’t intimidated. I always tried to be hyper-focused on my tasks. I scheduled my study times and stayed consistent. I listened intently and took notes of words I did not know to learn them. I stopped the professor when she was going too fast. Humbly, I asked my peers questions to learn from different perspectives. I was conscious of my flaws and broke them down. Everything about the way I learned became better. I could write academic papers and express myself like those fifteen men.

From “AZ” a friend/student, I learned to be sure the premises of my arguments are solid because otherwise, someone can easily break what I’m trying to prove. “AZ” also helped me better understand complex writings from philosophers like Immanuel Kant. He always challenged me and others on the idea of mediocracy. He kept me on my toes and I always tried to do the very best of anything I did in class, workouts, and life. A friend/student called “Gallo” was like my editor, he effortlessly deciphered and corrected the mistakes in my papers. He taught me how there is always room for growth in writing, it could always sound and be better. Most importantly, I had support, there was never a bad time to speak about learning.

The pressure of a negative environment propelled me to strive. Oppression and depression pushed me to find something to heal me and I did. To be successful in a place like this is difficult, but I recycled the negative and used it as a coping mechanism to feel better psychologically. After my initial learning, I became attached to learning and whenever we weren’t in class I could start to feel depression creeping back in. That’s when I learned that I needed the process of learning for the rest of my life.

In retrospect, those men, the professors, and the stress of being in a detrimental setting taught me and helped mold me into the man I am now. Now I can learn effectively and become more interested in reading and writing. My new philosophy is, “A man should always be learning.”

Ms. Diaz would be proud of me if she knew how dedicated I’ve become. This time around, I’m not going to give up on myself.

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