By Tonyaa Weathersbee
Unlike at the recent Arlington High School commencement, which went viral after adults began battling over seats, no brawls broke out at this ceremony.
In fact, the only thing that erupted at this graduation, in Building F of the Shelby County Correction Center, was cheers and tears.
Cheers erupted when 34 inmates and former inmates strode across the stage in their royal blue, standard-issue caps and gowns, to pick up certificates for finishing personal and career development classes coordinated by HopeWorks – a non-profit that, among other things, combines faith and counseling to help incarcerated people learn life skills to find work and stability.
Tears flowed from Jessica Flournoy, 28, as she read a poem she wrote titled, “The New Beginnings,” in which she praised her instructors for helping her to love herself again.
“…Who would have known that I was worth more than dirt? That I would be something my kids could look to first…” read one verse.
Alexandro Sebastian fought back tears as he thanked his mother and his sister for standing by him during his incarceration, as others praised HopeWorks instructor Brandon Gunn, who urged the audience to see them as “your sons, your future leaders.”
And Tara Cooper, who grinned and laughed along with her classmates when they saw themselves featured in a HopeWorks video, explained what it felt like to see herself on film, in a class instead of in a cell.
“I was extremely excited,” Cooper said. “I was real nervous. But when I saw myself up there, it just reminded me of all the hard work I put into this.”
For Cooper, who is 43, it has taken some work.
She spent 19 months at the correction center for reckless aggravated assault. She had been struggling with drugs, drama and, like most of the women who she graduated with, old hurts that had battered her esteem.
“When I came to HopeWorks, I was a shy and angry person,” Cooper said. “I wouldn’t open up at first, but now I’m bettering myself. I’m proud of myself and the ladies. We pushed each other through and we made it.”
Flournoy said HopeWorks changed her, as well.
“It’s amazing for me to finally do something that my kids can be proud of,” Flournoy said. “I’ve made a lot of messed up choices in my life…I’ve had a lot of abusive relationships, and I was very damaged, but HopeWorks and my sisters [in the program] helped me to get through it.”
Building esteem in women like Flournoy is a challenge, said HopeWorks instructor Hilarie Pulley.
“They’re really stuck in the past, and they have a hard time moving on,” Pulley said. “But that’s because they’ve never had encouragement. No one has ever encouraged them.
“That poem said a lot, like not about looking down…”
Of course, the challenges for HopeWorks graduates are far from over. They will rejoin a world in which many will only see their before, and not their after, picture. They won’t see the video that reflected their growth, and not their mistakes. Their graduation cheers, and tears of joy, may well turn into tears of despair.
But through HopeWorks, they learned that the most important person they needed to believe in to avoid caving in to hopelessness, isn’t others.
And HopeWorks will stay with the graduates to help them stick with that belief – so that women like Cooper, who is completing her GED, can see their way to not only stay out of trouble, but to dream.
Cooper, for one, is building her dream based on what her family missed – her cooking.
“I want to own my own restaurant that says, ‘The Coopers,’” she said. “That’s where I want to be. Until then, I’m going to work and do what I have to do.”
Sounds like a plan.