Illustration by A.M.R.

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I grew up in a house where my needs were not the most important, where education wasn’t important. I had selfish parents who would rather get intoxicated than sit with me and help me work through my learning disabilities. Even as a kid, 7-10 years old, I knew school was my pathway to having a good life. From age eight, I had each and every Ivy League university memorized. I knew if I wanted a life the only way I would get it was through education and determination.

First, learning for me became a sort of escape. When I was in a school classroom with a pencil and a worksheet in front of me, it was my safe place. I found myself in between the pages of the books I read, in between the digits on math sheets and the layers of the earth. But for the first 11 years of my life I struggled to understand why, when I read, the letters floated off of the page. Why, when I wrote, random letters and numbers seemed to slip their way into my sentences. Why, when I was in a class, I couldn’t seem to concentrate on the words coming out of my teachers’ mouths. All of these questions held me back from the Gifted and Talented Education Program (GATE) classes.

We learned that I had comprehension problems, that I had dyslexia and that I had years of hard work to catch up to all of my classmates.

When middle school came around, I had finally caught up with the rest of my peers. Actually most days I exceeded my classmates. Middle school was my turning point and for a long while it was toward the worst.

“I ended up being the smart girl who still got A’s while on drugs. I could pass a class drunk and grieving. … I had all these plans and then it felt like they swirled down the drain.”

I ended up being the smart girl who still got A’s while on drugs. I could pass a class drunk and grieving. The two worst years of my life happened to be during middle school and they led to right now sitting in a cell writing this. I got locked up right when the second semester of high school started. I was 14 years old. 

I had all these plans and then it felt like they swirled down the drain. Juvenile detention school was unlike any school I had ever attended. You sat in class with 20-odd girls of all ages and worked from a book — alone. The teacher we had was an English teacher so she couldn’t help me learn chemistry or geometry and neither was she interested in poetry or short stories.

Then came the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] Division of Juvenile Justice and it was a whole different story. The school was different. When I came here I was 15 and I only needed 50 credits to graduate. The teachers were used to students who asked for easier work. I, on the other hand, refused to do anything easy. I needed to be challenged or school felt pointless. So I made my teachers challenge me. They asked me for 500-word essays; I gave them 3,000. I learned calculus and medical billing, and any challenge became my favorite. At 16, I graduated with my high school diploma as the class valedictorian, all the while taking my second semester in college.

“The class was able to open my eyes to misconceptions that public schools taught about our history, and the system that I am locked within. I was able to learn things about society and my own culture that I had not known before.”

After I graduated, I was accepted into an ethnic studies certificate program at San Francisco State University. It came as a surprise to me because I had expected to stay in community college classes until I was discharged. I did not believe that I would get into a university until I was out and able to transfer from my community college. San Francisco State gave me a chance to take classes my community college didn’t offer. I was one of the five girls originally chosen for the program and the only one to complete the first course. 

Through the ethnic studies program, I have been able to learn more about cultural stereotypes and the different perspectives of ethnicities in society. The class was able to open my eyes to misconceptions that public schools taught about our history, and the system that I am locked within. I was able to learn things about society and my own culture that I had not known before. San Francisco State has given me a boost to be able to attend my dream school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A school such as San Francisco State would have cost me thousands of dollars to take classes there, but I am able to go with no fees thanks to the programs that made this possible.

My whole childhood I struggled with the task of learning. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really excelled, but once I did, I did not let anything stop me. The San Francisco State program has given me a step up in a society where I would have been at the bottom, forever. The university and the people who made that possible have given me a real chance. 

Long ago I realized if I wanted to get out of my abusive homes, I would have to put all of my energy into becoming somebody. Education is what saved me in desperate times; it gave me a purpose and now it is giving me a future outside of the system. Education is both my future and my freedom.

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

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A.M.R.

A.M.R. is a student at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo, California. She is currently taking community college classes and completing an ethnic studies certificate at San Francisco State University.