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I Grew Up Believing I Was Dumb. A College Education Behind Bars Healed That Wound

“My college degree taught me that anything is possible when you show someone how to love themselves, through accountability, vulnerability and education.”

An illustration shows Christopher Blackwell, as a child at school with his head on the desk at the left; as an adult in prison writing at a desk with books nearby in the center; and speaking at a podium on the right.

When I was growing up in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, I hated feeling like I was the dumbest person in my class. I felt confident when I was running the streets with my friends, smoking weed and drinking. But in a classroom, I always felt like my head was going to explode. I would try to avoid my teachers’ eyes at all costs, knowing they would call my name anyway.

Inevitably, a teacher would ask me to read the next section of the book to the class, as if I had a choice. I would try to muster up the courage, but I couldn't show everyone how bad my reading was. I knew that my classmates would make fun of me for the rest of the year and that this would surely lead me to violence — that was the only way I knew how to deal with confrontation and shame. My way out was to get my classmates to focus on the teacher.

“Ms. Fran,” I said one day, “I think I have the wrong book because mine has naked photos in it. I guess, if you want, I could describe the photos. But I don't think that's all that appropriate for class.” The class erupted into laughter. I know the teacher hated me for these outbursts, but I hated her for putting me in this position. She didn’t understand that I was acting out because I needed someone to show me how to read and write at the same level as the other kids.

In middle school, my outbursts only got more outrageous. Once, in a summer-school classroom where I had landed because I failed to complete the requirements of 8th grade, I smoked a joint in front of the teacher. Eventually, I was expelled from every age-appropriate school in the county, including special-education and alternative schools.

With school in my rearview mirror, and a single mom unable to control me, it wasn't long before detention centers became where I laid my head. While the laughs may have saved me from reading out loud, they did nothing for the judges who imposed my many juvenile sentences. By my 20s, I was sentenced to a total of 45 years in prison, first for robbery and then for taking another person’s life during a drug robbery.

About 10 years into my sentence, I finally started to grasp the irreparable damage I had caused to so many. That’s when I stumbled across a group of guys who were taking classes with University Beyond Bars (UBB), a non-profit that provides college-level education and Associates of Arts degrees to people serving time at Washington State Reformatory. UBB also offers college-prep classes, workshops and arts programming. While the organization is run by prisoners and outside volunteers — people who actually care about seeing incarcerated people change — I told myself to stay away, that I was too dumb to pass any classes.

Because of the toxic masculinity in my home and prison environments, I couldn’t admit my fear. But the guys knew the signs; they had been in the same shoes when they embarked on their collegiate path. Some openly shared how nervous they were when they first started and promised to help me pass the prep classes.

I claimed I was too busy, even though my days consisted of nothing but acting tough, lifting weights and gambling to pass the time. Still, I just couldn't shake these guys. They were deep into their education, and some were publishing articles in national outlets and teaching their own classes for the program. Seeing the possibilities, I finally took a chance. I studied English, political science and finite math, and each class I passed deepened my confidence and self-love.

This growing self-love was key to my academic development. Growing up, I didn’t experience much real love, outside of my mother and a few family members. I most often encountered the kind of false love expressed through violence and monetary possessions. College changed the way I thought about myself and others. I worked hand-in-hand with men from all backgrounds to complete assignments, and even taught other students. Before I knew it, I was getting A’s on my essays and solving quadratic equations in math class.

My confidence spread to other parts of my life. I started to feel like I was destined to be more than a drug dealer from a community no one cared about. I could be anything I pushed myself to be.

When I received my associate degree in 2017, I knew I couldn't stop there. I’ve since developed prisoner-led mentor programs, served as a restorative justice facilitator, and completed credits toward my bachelor’s degree. Through my writing in publications such as HuffPost, BuzzFeed and The Marshall Project, I am a voice for people behind these walls who experience injustices on a daily basis. In December 2020, I got to see my byline in the Opinion section of The Washington Post.

When people question why it’s important to educate prisoners, I remind them that to see change, we must support change. We must give individuals the opportunity to see themselves as more than the harm they've caused, more than what was once broken within them. And who knows what is inside of each of us? I, for one, had no idea there was a mentor and writer inside of me. My college degree taught me that anything is possible when you show someone how to love themselves through accountability, vulnerability and education. I didn’t believe you could learn all of this in a classroom. For once, I’m glad I was wrong.

Christopher Blackwell, 40, is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington State. He co-founded Look 2 Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass sentencing- and policy-reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, Insider and many more outlets. You can follow him and be in touch on Twitter at @ChrisWBlackwell.