I am here, sitting in prison when I should be out, following the inspirational teachings and high expectations of so many of my teachers who recognized my potential and believed I would accomplish many good things.
I have no doubt disappointed them and I am so sorry for that. But my life is not over and I intend, during my post-incarceration life, not only to fulfill their visions of me but ultimately to go far beyond them in my achievements.
In the meantime, let me share with you what some of my teachers did for me:
Mr. Harris actually was my first male role model. The first Black man I truly adored, admired, and looked up to, and wanted to please and be like.
When I look in retrospect, Mr. Harris actually was my first male role model. The first Black man I truly adored, admired, and looked up to, and wanted to please and be like. He created an environment for me to learn and excel—that had as a foundation Black history, Black Pride, African culture, and education.
He implanted in me the idea that I had “unlimited” potential and told the youthful me that I could be the first Black President of the United States of America [I missed that one]. When I look back, he may or may not have truly believed this, but that was not as important as the fact that I believed it when he said it. That compliment filled me with pride, and now, as an adult, I understand its underlying message—that I was not limited in potential or achievement because I was Black, poor, and lived in the Public Housing Projects.
Never once did this man acknowledge nor speak to what others may have thought—people who expected so little of people like me who were existing in a place of hopelessness due to our socio-economic environment. And it is because of what he taught me and the pride he instilled in me that, in part, I am the man I am today. And because of his influence, I do not suffer from self-hate nor low self-esteem as so many do who come from the Hood (like myself).
In this sense, he was my first Father-figure. He inspired me in numerous ways, even though I was not conscious of it at the time and maybe was not ready to accept his words.
Mr. Harris was my teacher in South Central Los Angeles, located in the Pueblo Del Rio Housing Projects—known as The Pueblos, and home of the Notorious Blood Street Gang called the 52 Pueblo Bishops. For many of us, Mr. Harris was a Savior (sent all the way from Tennessee), but like the Black Jesus of Biblical times, we did not know his true worth--while he was in our presence.
Perhaps because of his own African roots, he taught us more than the basic curriculum. He taught us to speak English correctly. He was a role model because he spoke English with the same degree of perfection as any scholar. But because he was from Tennessee, we always laughed (because of his accent) when he taught us the specifics of grammar and composition. As an example, when he was telling us about third person, singular pronouns, “he, she, and it,” it sounded to us like “he s---.” Just too funny.
Mr. Harris was my elementary school teacher for 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. My sweet mother, understanding the importance of education, made it mandatory that I and my siblings go to school every day—with few exceptions--knowing if we are not there, we can’t learn. And daily attendance was so meaningful to Mr. Harris as well.
He wanted to keep some of us with him in his classes over time because I think he felt he could get through to us. On occasion he would take some of us to a movie or a public swimming pool or even take us to his apartment when his girlfriend was there—I think in order to see for ourselves what a different style of life can mean and how it can be possible even for us. Of course, this would not be possible these days with all the concerns about inappropriate behavior, but his innocent actions were not like that at all.
It became obvious to us that Mr. Harris was not your average teacher. First of all, he taught all three classes in one class. He did not restrict learning to the grade level you were in. For example, if you were in the 4th grade but read at 5th grade level, he would provide 5th grade books to challenge us at our level. I actually was studying algebra in 4th grade! As a result, when I was in high school in 10th grade, I was placed in a gifted class for math and science.
Mr. Harris taught me about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Black pioneers, like Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marian Anderson—to name but a few. He placed pictures and brief biographies of them all around our room. He taught us the Black National Anthem: “Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring. . . . Let us march on till victory is
won. . . .”
His goal was to teach us how to be good African-Americans. He taught us of the glories in African history. He even created a dance troupe. It was more like a combination of modern dance, African dance, and ballet. We danced to African drums--beats and rhythms--as well as to R & B songs. He taught us to appreciate the banjo, conga, and other drums. We wore African dashikis. He taught us how to tie-dye cloths and make our own colorful African shirts.
To us, Mr. Harris was a true Black man. For our 6th grade graduation, he wanted us to sing the theme from Mahogany and other pieces, but the school would not allow it. But I still remember the inspirational lyrics he taught us:
Everything has a season,
Everything has a time,
Show me a reason,
And I’ll surely show you a rhyme.
Cats fit on the window sill,
Children fit in the snow.
Why do I feel, I don’t fit in
Anywhere I go?
Rivers belong where
They can rumble.
Eagles belong where
They can fly.
I’d like to be
Where my spirit can
I gotta find my corner of the sky. . .
Mr. Harris did far more for us. He taught us a sense of responsibility for each other. He taught us--with love and purpose--about discipline. He always wanted to meet the parents of his students. If they didn’t come to the school, he, like Muhammad to the mountain, would visit them. For Mr. Harris, showing disrespect to our Black selves and heritage was extremely offensive. As caring and kind as he was, he tolerated no disrespect for himself, yourself, or anyone else.
Yes, as Mr. Harris’s evaluations reflected, I was always improving in my educational growth and development under his attentiveness. Even though I never thought about it until today, I guess Mr. Thomas K. Harris from Memphis, Tennessee, was my first father figure and my first Black role model. Mr. Harris always gave the best of himself to us ghetto youth and tried to save us from a life of self-destruction. He was and still is a person worthy of emulation.
Not to be forgotten are some other teachers who influenced me:
Mrs. Blackwell wrote in her evaluations of me that I was “a very independent child. Follows directions well. Gifted in art. Hard worker.” She was jet Black and beautiful, spoke like the French and loved art. It was Mrs. Blackwell who taught me to draw and to love and appreciate art. When I told my birth father that I wanted to be an artist, he told me “Artists are only famous after they are dead.” Nevertheless, I still draw from time to time and I still love art (despite his discouraging words).
I am also thankful for Mrs. Maxine Lowe who was my 9th grade teacher. She even testified during my trial as a character witness (I think she recognized my potential). Mrs. Sarah Cogshell taught me while I was in Juvenile Hall. She would bring me magazines, like Ebony and Jet, and would say to other inmates, “I wish more of you were like Patterson.” She even entered one of my drawings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into a contest. I won the trophy—a feat, unfortunately, I never repeated.
Sadly, even these Black Angels (as I call those teachers) could not save some of us and me. They tried to teach me in their own way to believe in myself and that I could soar.
But, unfortunately and foolishly for me, I was being drawn to the street life by that time and thus started ditching classes. Mathematical equations and scientific formulas were far from my daily thoughts. By then, I had been captivated by the life of the street hustlers, players, dope-dealers, and pimps. I was dreaming of Sevilles, Broughams, Fleetwoods, Benzis, pimping, pretty young women, making money, gambling, and hustling. My mind, like other youth around me, was consumed with the conventional “wisdom” and culture of hood life—the life of the streets and those who reigned supreme on them. I truly believed that one day I could live that life--be bigger and better than those I looked up to whose lives seemed so appealing to me at that young age. My thoughts were far from being “President of the U. S.”—the idea that Mr. Harris once dangled over my head. I wanted to have more jewelry than Sammie Davis, Jr., and to “Roll like God.”
When all is said and done, Mr. Harris had always said that I am a sharp thinker and enjoy challenges, that I am capable of improving myself, and that I can do good things. Those “talents” are what I plan to pursue and build on once I get that second chance after prison.