The story of how we "ended up in prison" is one we're often asked to tell, and we think this column (first published in February 2013) does a good job of doing that …
|Coming up with this month's topic and title was easy. Figuring out how to explain it may be a little more complicated.|
|No kidding. Every time we meet with Chaplain Watkins and she tells us about the men she works with and how they've reacted to our book, I'm left speechless.|
|That, in itself, is fairly amazing.|
Cute. But if anyone had told us when we wrote our book that it would end up in a men's prison and that offenders would not only be reading the book, but enjoying it, learning from it, and sharing the lessons in it with their families, I'd have said they were crazy.
|I believe that is what you called me when I told you that we were going to be speakers at the National Prisoner's Family Conference last February.|
|No. I thought you were kidding. Remember, YOUR business plan was that the book would be the basis of a sitcom. Not a Texas-approved textbook.|
|That might not have been our plan but, as you know, life rarely goes according to plan.|
There's an understatement. But at the time, I thought it was just another one of your "outside the box" ideas. Way outside the box. However, once we spoke at the conference, and started learning more about the prison world, I realized there was a huge need for this information.
|You are conveniently forgetting that initially you were fairly negative about it.|
|Yes, I was. My attitude was that prisoners had done something wrong, so they deserved to be in prison. I had no desire to help them. My heart was with the students, and trying to get our book and its "real life" lessons into the schools.|
|I understand. I would venture to guess that most people feel that way. On the surface, it seems logical.|
|Of course, you saw it differently.|
|Maybe more pragmatically. And then I started doing research. What really got my attention was the Children's Defense Fund's, "Cradle To Prison Pipeline" report. It explains all the contributing factors that feed that pipeline. And how education is a critical key to changing the trajectory of these lives.|
|What got my attention was the concept that you can calculate how many prison beds will be needed in the future based on children who can't read on grade level by the fourth grade.|
|It makes perfect sense … once you stop and think about it.|
|But it's not something you would typically think about. But then again, you rarely do the typical thing. Like the time you asked me what I was doing on a Friday night, and I thought you wanted to go to a movie. It never dawned on me that you were inviting me to "go to prison" with you and the founder of Wings Ministry.|
|And you found every excuse in the book not to go.|
|I'm a single mom. Heading off to a prison is not something I'd feel safe doing. And I wondered about your logic, but didn't want to ask.|
|There is only one way to get first-hand knowledge. I wanted to see what I had only read about. However, I was not prepared for what I discovered.|
|I remember you telling me that it was like a scene out of the old "Get Smart" TV series, with the long corridor and the locking doors.|
|Architecturally, it was built in 1908 and is beautiful. Although initially intimidating, once I met some of the men it became very "human." They were truly appreciative of my being there, as so many of them feel the outside world has forgotten them. And once the chaplain heard about our book she was anxious to read it.|
|What I still find hard to believe was that she mentioned that Stringfellow Unit is the only prison in Texas that has a kosher kitchen! I remember telling you that in this instance, G-d was not being subtle. There was clearly a reason that this was the first prison you ever visited.|
I believe the word is beschert.
|Well, a lot has happened since then. Chaplain Watkins not only had our book/program "approved," but also completed two pilot book clubs with 50+ men, and has already started a third. Even Sawyer, who is only 10, was surprised by the feedback from the men who have completed the program. Her exact quote was, "Wow!"|
|What I find fascinating is how many of these men are connecting the dots between how not understanding personal finance causes stress, and then realizing how it can lead to drugs and/or alcohol. And how "all of the above" contributes to bad decisions.|
|Obviously, they're finding the "life lessons" I learned as a 40+ year-old to be extremely important as they're saying they want to share the book with their families. I'm moved by their statements that they want their wives, their children, to learn what they're learning.|
|Well, according to Chaplain Watkins, their actions are matching their words. They are writing home about it, and a few even said they were going to send the book home.|
|I know. But my favorite story is the man who now turns off the water when he brushes his teeth. It sounds like such a small thing, but it says so much once you learn that he's doing it to because he recognizes he'll be living with someone when he gets out and doesn't want to waste their money. He wants to start today to make it a good habit for the future.|
|It is all about taking control of your life, versus letting your life control you. It is what I told you when Nick got fired. And it is what we tell students.|
|But in this case, I can't help but wonder how many lives are being touched – not only the offenders, but their families, their friends, their communities. Not to mention, what if some of the men who have read our book now start making better decisions. And once released, don't return to prison.|
Exactly. Just imagine the money that would save taxpayers. The cost of Texas state prisons is about $22,000 per person per year, which works out to $60 a day. Our book costs less than half a day in prison. So if it has the potential to actually make a difference in their lives and their future decisions, it seems like a small investment … with huge upside potential. To me, it is a no-brainer.
I was thinking more about the family environment, but your numbers make perfect sense. Unfortunately, just because something makes sense, doesn't mean it's going to happen. Just take a look at the education system. And what we've been trying to do for over three years now with limited success.
|I know. It is extremely frustrating. But one day it will be ironic.|
|What do you mean?|
|Besides the fact it is much cheaper to educate than incarcerate (average cost for a year of public education in Texas is about $8,700 per student compared to the $22,000 cited above; nationally, the numbers are around $11,000 and $31,000, respectively), one day I expect to ask the question, "Why is it that these critical life lessons are being taught in prisons, but not in our schools?"|
|Well, that should get Austin's attention.|
|Austin? I was thinking Washington, D.C. And, it needs to do more than that. It needs to get everyone's attention. Especially voters.|
Your stomach starts to growl, and you look at your watch, calculating how many more hours you have to endure before you can eat because, simply put, you’re hungry. Or, you can set aside the minor discomfort, appreciating that it’s a small sacrifice to make while you reflect on the past year as Yom Kippur, literally meaning the day of atonement, is a day for reflection, repentance, and forgiveness. And a promise to do better.
When we first ran the post below, it was looking back at a speaking engagement we did in 2014, but this year it’s about doing a repeat performance for Rabbi Scott. The High Holy Days, culminating with Yom Kippur, are about making fundamental changes – or at least adjustments – to how you live your life. And although it’s a spiritual journey, there’s no reason this year’s promise to be a better person can’t start by learning with laughter (and the rumbling of an empty stomach).
|I know that Yom Kippur isn't exactly known as one of the "fun" Jewish holidays, but every year I can't help but laugh at what's easily my number one Yom Kippur memory.|
|That is what makes memories … memorable. And, finding something to laugh at on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is probably the most important and solemn Jewish holiday, would be memorable.|
|I can't believe you're not even curious what it is!?|
|You know I love to "connect the dots", and all you had to say was Yom Kippur, fun, and memory. Obviously, it was when Rabbi Scott asked us to speak before his congregation on Yom Kippur.|
|Well, I still find it surreal that we were asked to speak about money on one of the High Holy Days. And that we titled our presentation, "Oy Vey, You Want To Talk About Money?"|
|The day is about reflection, making fundamental changes – or at least adjustments – and trying to become a better person. And, just because it is a spiritual journey, there is no reason you cannot make learning fun.|
|True. I remember the time Rabbi Scott put a piece of aluminum foil in the children's Yom Kippur service program to help them understand that Yom Kippur's a day for reflection. But even you must admit that making a congregation laugh about money on a religious holiday is a bit much.|
|But, memorable. A few years later, I met someone that attended that service, and he said he's never forgotten it.|
|For the content or all the food analogies?! I can remember we started by saying how we just wanted to give everyone some food-for-thought and then saying, "Oops, since Yom Kippur's a day of fasting, maybe bringing up the subject of food wasn't such a good idea."|
|Of course, it did not stop us from doing it, again and again.|
|How else could we explain our unexpected journey into personal finance without mentioning it started at our first speaking engagement … which was at a Jewish Federation breakfast?|
|Or, how our detour into criminal justice started with me meeting with the chaplain at a men's prison? But I knew it was meant to be when she told me they had the only kosher kitchen in the Texas prison system.|
|And each time we looked at each other and then the audience, and we all laughed! With each mention of food, it just got funnier and funnier. But there was no way to avoid it.|
|I know. How could you tell the story about realizing all the money you were mindlessly spending at Jamba Juice without mentioning your almost-daily smoothies? Or, how you went grocery shopping at Whole Foods because it was convenient but not cost-effective. Anyway, until that day, I never realized how so many of our stories have to do with food.|
|I think the highlight was toward the end when I was explaining how I felt overwhelmed trying to tackle personal finance. That at times, things seemed insurmountable, and then you told me … it's like eating an elephant, you can do it, just one bite at a time. And everyone started laughing again.|
|On any other day, I doubt that analogy would make you think of food. But, on Yom Kippur, and especially since we were presenting after at least 15 hours of fasting, everything makes you hungry|
|I guess it's like being so tired that you get slap happy. But I never thought a day of atonement and reflection could end up becoming a day of laughter.|
|On Yom Kippur, we wish people an "easy fast" or a "meaningful fast" … and if a bit of laughter, even if not intended, helps, what is wrong with that?|
|Good point. For that matter, you don't need to be Jewish to take a day, or even just an hour, to stop, to think, and to improve.|
|No fasting required.|
What can I tell you? When I was a kid, one of my all-time favorite things to do was … clean the toilet. Yes, you read that correctly. And it wasn’t because I was a germophobe or a clean freak. I just loved being able to sit on the floor, using as much Bon Ami (I’ve no idea why I remember the brand) cleaning powder as I wanted. And the best part? All those bubbles!
It kept me entertained for hours. Not to mention, my mom was thrilled because it kept me “contained” and out of her hair. So much so that if I was very good and behaved myself, she might even give me “special permission” to clean the toilet in my parent’s bathroom. Of course, Black, being five years older and understanding the situation, found it all extremely amusing. Even now, decades later, she still gives me grief about it,
I couldn’t help but think of you when I saw the photo of a robot cleaning a toilet at the recent World Artificial Intelligence Conference. Growing up, I may have been “punished” with a budget, but it is good that you were such an obedient child, as Mom would have hated punishing you by taking away your toilet cleaning privileges.
Of course, Black doesn’t have children, so I’m not sure that she appreciates some of the best childhood memories include simple activities – no technology necessary. (For all the parents out there, how many of you have experienced a Christmas or Chanukah where the kids enjoy the box and/or plastic bubble wrap more than the gift?) There’s even a current TV commercial about a kid fishing in the toilet bowl using a sock as bait. Bottomline: the only “requirement” is a desire to have fun and maybe use some imagination.
And for those of us of a certain age … doesn’t this describe pretty much everything we did as kids growing up? Even Black’s admitted to her love of watermelon seed spitting (although I think she’d enjoy doing it even more now that she lives in a high-dollar high-rise).
Now, don’t get me wrong. Love it or hate it, technology has its place in almost all our lives (and what kid doesn’t want the latest and greatest “gizmo”), but not everything has to be powered by technology,
A computerized toilet cleaner is a marvel of technology, but can it beat the smiles and laughter of a child sloshing a brush around a toilet, especially when you can’t tell if they’re having more fun with the bubbles or the mess that they’re making?