How a Mom’s Letter Impressed a Closing Speech – From Jail: NPR

Yusef Pierce is a California graduate.

Writing a closing speech is a tricky task. Should you be funny or sincere? Tell a story – or give advice? It was a little more difficult for Yusef Pierce, a senior graduating from California, to compose his public address.

“Since I’m inside, I can’t really relate to any other graduation speeches,” says Pierce. He’s speaking on the phone from the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison in Norco. “I was just trying to find something that sounded like a graduation speech.”

Get a college degree when you're behind bars

He is the first to earn a bachelor’s degree from the Inside-Out program from Pitzer College, a liberal arts school outside of Los Angeles. In a normal year, the school took traditional students to jail by bus to take classes with the jailed students.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, these courses are taking place online. Pierce shared his zoom square with 10 other men, all wearing the CRC’s blue uniforms and sitting at the classic desks in the classroom with the chair and table attached. This spring, his classes included topics such as feminism for men, microeconomics, and mass.

In one of these classes on a final evening this spring, Professor Nigel Boyle asks each student what they are looking forward to this week. Pierce replies, “I look forward to doing a lot of homework!”

“Every professor wants a Yusef in their class,” says Boyle, who runs the inside-out program and teaches Pierce’s Wednesday night class on mass imprisonment. “They want this smart student to do the work, but also to help bring the others along.”

Back then, it was only natural that Pierce would be one of the college’s graduation speakers.

“We don’t refer to the student representative as a valedictorian,” explains Boyle. “But there are times when Yusef has a 4.0 and has a really interesting story to tell.”

Pierce is in his early 30s and a bit of a nerd and a class leader. He also writes poems and colors. “It is true that oppression often requires individuals to make themselves extraordinary in order to simply survive,” said his artist’s statement in an online exhibition of his work. “My pictures are whole conversations on canvas.”

As part of an effort to provide inmates with access to federal student scholarships for college

After all, he says, he wants to become a college professor and work with formerly incarcerated students.

“So he wants my job,” says Boyle with a laugh, “and he’d be a lot better at it than me.”

Boyle acts as the academic advisor to all jailed students, and he has become a mentor for Pierce who guides him through the graduation process. In one of the last classes of the semester, Boyle puts on an impromptu fashion show wearing his own blue hat and dress and pulling away from the camera to give the looking students a full view of his outfit.

The boys inside cheer and whistle. “Go for a spin,” calls out one. “Fine, fine!” another screams.

As the cheer subsides, Boyle searches the screen for Pierce. “He doesn’t know, so it might be a bit of a surprise,” he tells the class, “but, Yusef, you’ll get these cables too.” He puts dark orange strings around his shoulders. “These cables are for students who graduate with Honors. Congratulations, Yusef, you will graduate with Honors.”


The story of how Yusef Pierce ended up in those college classes and ended up in jail in the first place starts with trauma. When he was a teenager, his older brother was shot dead. “He was murdered right in front of my face in the front yard of our house,” he explains, “so I had to call my mother and let her know what happened.” All these years later, it’s still something he doesn’t like to talk about. He considered including it in his graduation speech but took it out, fearful it might be too much for his mother to hear.

“It had a traumatic effect on all of us,” Drochelle Pierce tells me on the phone from her home in Victorville, California. She remembers a change in Yusef at that time.

“It was just one thing at a time. He got into trouble. He allowed the people he was in contact with to influence him in a direction that he really wasn’t.” Yusef finished high school but was arrested in his early twenties and convicted of armed robbery. Drochelle Pierce says she was upset when she learned his sentence would be nearly 20 years. “I’m telling you, to be honest, I never thought that Yusef would ever go to jail. Never, never. Never.”

A few months after Yusef was imprisoned, she wrote him a letter. “What is done is done,” she wrote. “Now more than ever, you must diligently seek and obtain higher education.”

It wasn’t new news. Education has always been at the heart of her relationship with Yusef. When he was young, he remembers driving in the car with his mother, a sociology textbook that was on his lap. “She wouldn’t let me turn on the radio,” he says. “She would make me read to her.”

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“Oh, I did [my kids] Read everything, “says Drochelle Pierce.” If you read it out loud, I know you read it. This is the only way I would know that they are actually reading something. “

Today the two call almost every day. “He was always a deep thinker,” says Pierce. She knows that she sounds like a typical proud mother, but she can’t help it: “Yusef is very smart.”

In California, college classes can shorten a prison term. When Yusef Pierce first had the opportunity to take classes in prison, it just felt like a means to an end. “I just want to get home early,” he recalled joking with a friend at the time. “If they gave us time to go to college, I would get out of here with a PhD!”

When Pitzer College started offering courses for a bachelor’s degree, Pierce was surprised to find that he really liked the college.

“I loved it because it reassured me,” he says. “To know that someone was reading my stuff and that someone felt that the things I thought about and wrote about were worth something. I got really addicted to that confirmation and it really made me a high-flyer. And I took just after class after class. “

This trip was worth it.

After Pierce wrote and rewrote a number of drafts, he delivered his closing address to hundreds of Pitzer alumni and their family members and friends on May 15. The content it landed on? That letter his mother sent him all those years ago.

“I now realize that I have saved this letter because it was meant for me to share it with all of you today,” he says, dressed in his white cap and his dress, wrapped in a Kente stole the prison classroom where he spent so much time in the background. “It reads: ‘Dear son, I was so happy to see you on Monday …'”

As he reads the letter, he comes to the part where his mother, a great poet, recorded the lines from Invictus, a poem by William Ernest Henley. Pierce looks straight at the camera while reading. He knows that part by heart.

From the night that covered me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank all gods
For my invincible soul.

In the fallen clutch of circumstances
I didn’t flinch or cry out loud.
Under the stick of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond this place of anger and tears
But the horror of the shadow looms,
And yet the threat of the years
Find and will find me without fear.

It doesn’t matter how the gate
As if the scroll were burdened with punishments,
I am the master of my destiny:
I am the captain of my soul.

At home, Drochelle Pierce watched the speech on her laptop while the family gathered. “We all cried. We just booed. It was just so cute,” she says.

The last line of the poem:

It doesn’t matter how narrow the gate is / how punished the scroll is / I am the master of my destiny: / I am the captain of my soul.

“I love that so much,” she says. “I sent this to my son because I wanted him to say, ‘OK, here you are now. What happens to you from that point really depends on you.’ “”

She is proud of her son and also inspired by him. “Look what he did. He made something very, very positive out of a bad situation. Here he is, graduating with his degree.”

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