ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was, after all, a commencement ceremony. With Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” filling the air, 10 smiling graduates strode proudly into the room, their black caps and gowns stating the obvious.
Family members also beamed with pride, and several teachers seemed to be near tears.
But this high school graduation was different. The Gordon Bernell Charter School graduates, all men, are also inmates at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.
As if to underscore the point, their orange jumpsuits and flip-flops screamed out from below the hems of their gowns, a reminder that while the diplomas they earned might eventually serve to open some doors, others would remain locked, some perhaps for a very long time.
Principal Dan Busse, noting that “our students are obviously a unique set of individuals,” had nothing but words of encouragement: “Gentlemen, this is your day. … Today you are high school graduates. … You did something good. … This means something.”
The latest crop of graduates brought the number of Gordon Bernell alumni to well over 300 in eight years. Ceremonies are held twice annually. Six other graduates will pick up diplomas at Gordon Bernell’s sister campus on Roma Avenue. Some of the six have been released; others are imprisoned.
“We never met before you walked into my classroom here in MDC,” Denise Young, a teacher of the men, said in a graduation address. “I don’t know who you were on the street, what name you went by, what you did for money, where you lived or with whom you lived, what your drug of choice was, why you are here, how many times you’ve been here or if you’ve ever spent time in prison.”
“None of this matters,” Young told the men. “When you walk into my social studies class, I get the honor of seeing you for the first time … clean, sober and clearheaded, possibly for the first time in years, and I get the best of you – the curious, interesting, kind, funny, warm, decent and respectful human being you are under the blanket of terrible experiences, bad choices, negative influences and the dulling effect of drugs and alcohol. … I love watching you connect with learning and opening your mind, especially when you have no idea you’re doing it, and I want you to know and really believe that every day you have the opportunity to be the person I see, the person you make me believe you are.”
And so, with those supportive words and others like them, Jesus Linam, Matthew Lucero, Richard Pickens, Shaun Ryals, Jay-Cee Smith, Michael Solis, Isaiah Vasquez, Justin Virginis, Richard Wiggins and Enrique Yanez walked on Graduation Day. They know that life can be tough, but, with a diploma finally in hand, it may have just become a little easier.