Hope at Christmas, from a prison teacher

Cheryl Penn, a teacher at HMP Usk, won the Prisoner Learning Alliance's Outstanding Teacher award in 2016 after being nominated by her students. The following is taken from her reading at PET's 2016 Carol Concert at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden. 

Noswaith Dda a Croeso i bawb 

Good evening and welcome everyone.

I’d like to start by reading you some words from two ex-prisoners who were with us some time ago, because I think it’s their words that matter the most. 

The first is from a young boy in his mid-20s who came to education to "pass the time away" as he told me.  He said he "never did much at school" and "had other things on his mind". I think he found it quite difficult at first, but he had made a promise to his mother and himself, that he’d make the most of his time in jail. He got there in the end and achieved all he had set out to. As he was leaving, he came to look for me, and presented me with a 'certificate of appreciation' he had made, on which he thanks me for my help and support. The certificate reads: 

"I have come a long way from my first days in education.  I will be a better man, and I put a big part of that down to you.  You treat people not by their crimes, but by the person you see in front of you and that is a very good quality to have.”  

The second, is from an ex-serviceman in his late 60s, who, when he first came to education wasn’t, how can I say, the easiest of people to get along with. But, after many weeks of hard work, we started to build a rapport; we really started to talk, and that’s when things started to change.  After his release, he sent me a letter of thanks to tell me how he was getting on and to tell me he had won several Koestler Awards Art Awards for his poems and short stories which he had written with us in education. Considering we couldn’t even get him to put pen to paper in the beginning, we felt this was a huge achievement. This is just some of the things he says in the letter: 

“If I can achieve this, then anybody with the right attitude can do the same. The day I walked into education was one of the best decisions of my life.  Education gave me something I never thought I had in me. 

"The inner strength that every one of us have in us takes time to come to the surface; for some people, it stays locked away for ever. You found the key and set mine free and I thank you, from the heart, for all you and the education staff have done for me.  My family and wife find it hard at times to get used to the person I am now, but they are very proud of me. I had to change and I’m glad I took your advice.  I know one thing for certain I never wasted my time in education.”

We all have dreams, aspirations, goals. I know certainly I did. And mine, too, took a while to reach the surface.  Like these two men, at times, I thought what is the point?  I can’t do that. I just haven’t got what it takes. But, at different stages in my life I’ve been fortunate enough to have someone there to guide me, or give me a little nudge in the right direction and say: ‘go on, you can do it, give it a go’.

It seems the most natural thing to most, because most of us have someone there to support us. Someone who believes in us and helps us break down the barriers we face. I realised my dreams quite late in life; I never gave up because I believe it’s never too late. I achieved the goals I set myself, even though they seemed almost impossible at times. But, believe me, I did not do this alone. I did it with the help of countless other people.

And now each day I stand in front of people who face the same fears and the same self-doubt as I did, and still do, but who have the same dreams, as well, of achieving something better. And each day I, along with countless others, strive to help break down the barriers they face, to allow them to see past the walls that constantly surround them.

Every new day brings a new challenge for me, but the challenge for them is far greater. But, believe me they can do unimaginable things given the right support.  One thing they do have is time on their side and they realise just how precious it is. They have time to contemplate; time to reassess their lives.

And each day, little by little, I see small changes taking place.  I see sheer hard work, dedication, and positive attitudes that almost defy the somewhat negative atmosphere that a prison environment can all too often create.

But, I’m not responsible for making these changes; they are! I encourage, guide, and nudge a little, if I have to, in the right direction, but they do the rest. I try to help them find the best parts of themselves; their goals, their aspirations, their true place in the world.

It will always be a challenge for them, there will always be barriers.  But they can do it, with our help. They can reach their true potential, if, we care enough about the person.  Prisoner’s Education Trust care; I’ve witnessed some of the fabulous work they do.

And so, I want to thank you all for giving me this opportunity today, and for all your help, too, in making prison walls a little more permeable, so that we are able to see the person and not just the prisoner. And thank you, for recognising that time is precious and should be spent wisely.

Finally, I’d like to finish with a quote I heard at the Prisoner Learning Alliance Awards earlier this year where I was honoured to receive an Outstanding Teacher Award that my students had nominated me for.  At the awards, I was able to hear many inspirational words from the guest speakers there, one of whom finished with the words …

"Let’s spread the bug!"

Well, I’ve got the bug and I hope I’ve helped to spread it a little here today, because I know that together we can help these men and women reach their true potential! 

Diolch a Nadolig Llawen! Thank you and merry Christmas!