My mother was my first instructor. As an infant and then toddler, she would introduce me to so many things: a bowl, bottle, cup, spoon. As I grew, she noticed that I had a very good memory, due to my memorizing the ABCs she taught me. By 11 months of age, I knew the alphabet. By age 2, my mom had taught me how to read, to spell, and to memorize some of her college work. When she would need to recall it, she would ask me and I would recite it for her. Those times gave me a profound sense of accomplishment and started my lifelong love of learning.

By age 3, my formal education began with daycare and preschool. During this time I was instructed in the alphabet, shape and color recognition, and preliminary ethics and morals. By age 5, I was able to read, spell, write, add, and subtract, thanks in large part to my mom. Needless to say, I was ahead of the curve as I headed into kindergarten. From kindergarten through 8th grade, I excelled academically. This trend continued in high school. I was always a straight-A student. I won spelling bees, received numerous year-end awards, and stayed on the honor roll.

Heading into high school, my informal education began to supersede the formal. From my earliest memories I was inundated with violence, aggression, drug use and sales, gang culture, and war. Yes, war. I was raised in a thriving crack house–a home where crack cocaine was manufactured and sold, along with other drugs. My entire family except my mother was gang affiliated and involved in criminal activity. By 6 years of age, I had sold drugs, smoked marijuana, and seen people shot. I was inside my home when it was peppered with bullets from a drive-by shooting. I’d witness people being robbed, brutalized, exploited, and murdered.

My informal education played a central role in my incarceration at age 17 for murder. I learned to be extremely violent and aggressive. I learned to manipulate people for my own ends. I learned that you never show mercy or weakness–it can cost you your life. I learned to trust no one, to only rely upon myself. These lessons, though cruel, allowed me to survive in a gang- and crime-infested home and neighborhood. Some still serve me well inside prison.

Upon my incarceration I was faced with a dilemma: continue wasting my life attempting to excel in street culture or resume my education and better myself. I straddled the fence for years, alternating between gangs and the school offered in the jail. Finally, at age 21, I received my GED. Unfortunately, my formal education halted at that point due to the jail not offering any college courses.

For several years thereafter, I took responsibility for my own education. I resumed my informal education, but now of a different kind. I now chose to sharpen and expand my intellect. I began to consume as much knowledge as I could, no matter the topic. I withdrew from my former associates and began to study and read voraciously. I recall the first book I read, Blood in My Eye by George Jackson. This book had a profound impact on me. It engendered a sense of cultural and social responsibility inside me that is with me to this day. It was also my first introduction to the ideologies of communism and nationalism. The next book I read was Biology 101, an introductory textbook for high school-level biology. This book was revelatory as well. I learned about mitosis, meiosis, protons, neutrons, and atoms. I learned about the makeup of animal, plant, and human physiology.

I continued to pursue my own intellectual edification for years. I studied science, physics, debate, ethics, politics, religion, history, long-term planning, and more. As my intellect broadened, I came to this realization: no matter how much knowledge I accumulated, I still didn’t know enough. Every day is an opportunity to grow, evolve, and expand my minuscule amalgamation of knowledge. Life has taught me the value of education and that to know better is to do better. Being educated is not based solely upon scholarship or vocation. Being educated is also about becoming more human–to be ever-mindful of that humanity and all its prerequisites. I’ve learned that ignorance dehumanizes, poverty dehumanizes, oppression dehumanizes. I learned these lessons experientially and have since made it part of my life’s work to divest myself of their bitter fruit. In this sense, my education has been redemptive–taking me from ignorance, tyranny, and self-destruction to awareness, acceptance, and love.

My formal education began once more at the age of 34, here at Stateville Prison. One of my peers told me about these great classes being offered down here through the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project. He told me about the amazing, dynamic instructors who were teaching these classes. He told me about their drive, compassion, and sincerity. His words inspired me to sign up for PNAP classes.

My first PNAP course was a dance class. It was transformative. The class took me completely outside of my comfort zone and forced me to stretch, not only intellectually but also with regard to my self-esteem. My instructor taught me so much more than mere dance steps and stretches. She taught me to be comfortable in my own skin. She taught me to asses my body, energy, space, time, and opportunity more critically. She taught me to be open to new, and sometimes uncomfortable, situations. Because life is like that, right? Always something new, different, or challenging. I can now embrace the unknown with a more confident approach. I never though in a million years that I’d be caught dead doing choreography. Yet, not only did I do it, I did it front of an audience of my peers and PNAP faculty. I can thank my instructor and PNAP for that.

My second PNAP course was Black Studies. This class was superb. The reading and assignments were very challenging. Our class discussions were vigorous, to say the least. This class dealt with the genesis and evolution of Black Studies, posing questions such as: Should Black Studies be taught solely in universities? Or in elementary and secondary schools as well? Who should determine the curriculum? Should Black Studies be mandatory or elective? Due to questions like these, and the discussions that ensued, I was able to examine some long-held beliefs, to refine some, and discard others. Our instructor allowed us to be critical of one another’s ideas while fostering mutual respect and intellectual camaraderie.

My most recent PNAP class was a writing workshop, with a focus on education and the political issues surrounding it. I felt that this class would help refine my writing prowess, as a budding poet, philosopher, and intellectual. The class was far more than I expected. My instructor believed in what she spoke about, and she matched that with her actions. Her attitude encouraged me as a student to apply myself fully to the curriculum. I hope she learned from me a fraction of what I learned from her.

The PNAP program is revolutionary. These awesome teachers use academics, humanities, and the arts to imbue hope and light into this dark, dismal prison landscape. PNAP allows individuals such as myself, who are incarcerated, the means and opportunity to embark upon a journey of critical self-discovery that can lead to restoration. PNAP has been more than I could have fathomed, and I continue to flourish in this inclusive, rigorous, and challenging environment. In this environment I am not only free, but also encouraged to think for myself. I think critically to create something that will transcend my current circumstance. I am encouraged to change the world.

Education is a light. Light illuminates, it disables obscurity and ignorance. It exposes paths to understanding and enlightenment that push us to strive for a better future. A future of community and hope. A future where we all recognize our uniqueness, while simultaneously recognizing our myriad similarities. Education can be that scrying glass that we use to show us who we are and all that we can be. I will steadfastly continue to avail myself of the opportunity to illuminate the darkness of my heart and mind. I will happily utilize the resources that PNAP provides, recognizing that the most vital and valuable resources are our PNAP instructors. From these instructors I have learned courage, selflessness, dedication, and moral and intellectual tractability. My education is a lifelong journey. As such, I will measure my steps with a critical eye, discriminating forever in favor of growth, evolution, and above all else, equality and enlightenment.

This is my journey so far…to be continued!

Antonio Jones is a PNAP student.