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From "2021 Excel Lockhart Graduation" on Vimeo.

The Goodwill Excel Center, a high school that operates in the Gregory S. Coleman Unit, held its graduation ceremony last year on Sept. 9, 2021.

In the well-decorated prison gym, a small stage was adorned with balloon arches and banners. Sitting in attendance in rows of folding chairs were Warden Jennifer Brown, various program administrators including the Excel Center’s Superintendent of Schools Traci Berry and the graduates’ families and friends. 

The excitement was palpable. Smiles illuminated the room. When all 38 graduates marched into the gym, wearing navy blue graduation caps and gowns, the applause seemed deafening. The Coleman Unit’s gospel choir sang uplifting songs, and the Unit’s dance troupe, Majestic Praise, honored the graduates in dance.

Then the time came for me to speak from the perspective of a program alumna. Everyone turned to look down the aisle for me to take the stage. I hesitated, wondering if my speech would be good enough even though I had written all the words myself, with painstaking care, and rehearsed my speech tirelessly in my cell for days — reciting the words over and over and over again. 

2021 Excel Lockhart Graduation from Excel Center on Vimeo.

With nerves on heightened alert, I made my way to the stage. The room was still. Time seemed to stop. I walked to the microphone and began to speak. (Editor’s note: This speech has been condensed for length)

“A prisoner. A convict. An inmate. An offender. A felon. A number. These are just a few words society uses to describe us. But you! 

You became a student, a listener, an achiever, a believer, an overcomer, an optimist. But above all, you are now a graduate! 

Earning a high school diploma while incarcerated is no small task. You overcame all obstacles, such as COVID-19 lockdowns, worries about whether your stimulus check was in the mailroom, the darkness of a cell, and the number attached to your name. 

Your diploma doesn’t have a number on it; it just has a name. 

You used the math you learned at the Goodwill Excel Center and figured out how to solve equations and canceled the “X” society had on your back. 

You used the English you were taught at the Goodwill Excel Center and wrote a new chapter in your life’s story. 

You were intrigued by the history you studied because it made you realize that your past is actually history. The science you conquered helped you discover that achieving is in your DNA!

You will still face monumental challenges. But you keep fighting. Keep believing in yourself.

Be unwavering in your investment in yourself. Stay grounded in gratitude.

We celebrate you, graduates. You are on the runway of continued success, so tighten your mental seat belt, fight through the turbulence of your past, increase your educational altitude and fly, fly, fly. Never tire. Just fly!”

I did it! I felt so proud! And I could breathe again. Everybody in the gym rose and clapped, and we all felt the enormity of the audience’s applause. The graduates were proud not only of themselves, but I also felt that they were proud of me. 

The day was for the graduates, but I made it my day as well because we were all trying to improve and be more than our failures and the hurdles we have created for ourselves. 

In sharing encouraging words that day, I developed what will be my blueprint as a writer: pride that I’m able to convey the feelings in my heart with words, and a new confidence that can only come from receiving your peers’ enthusiastic support.

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.

Cheryl L. Jackson is a writer incarcerated in Texas.