‘Life ain’t a game’

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By Jonna Spelbring Priester

General Manager

Every day, 7,000 students nationwide drop out of school.

According to Steve Swank, Henry County Public Schools’ Dropout Prevention Coordinator, those dropouts are eight times more likely to wind up in jail when compared to those who have at least a diploma or GED.

In the course of his job, Swank said he sees students at all grade levels. The decision to drop out, doesn’t come on a whim, and sometimes is based on seeing someone else do it.

“(One) problem we face when I talk to these kids, ‘so and so dropped out,’ or ‘my dad dropped out and he’s doing okay,’” Swank said. But that, Swank said, was 20 years ago. “Right now ... it’s hard to get a job with a degree. Drop outs have virtually no chance.”

Friday morning, as part of his effort to reduce dropouts in Henry County, Swank hosted four inmates from the Roederer Correctional Complex for a small assembly of 25 “at-risk” students.

The four men spoke frankly to the students about the poor choices they made and the importance of staying in school and making the right choices.

“My whole life, I never did anything positive,” Reylando Payton told the group. “I grew up in West Louisvlle, had a lot of influence on a lot of young guys. A lot of them got killed, a lot got sent to penitentiary.

“If I could have been a positive influence … some of my friends could still be alive.”

Payton and the other men gave the students a quick picture of the hard reality of prison life – there’s no privacy, few options for clothing, a strictly regimented daily schedule and food that’s not quite so good. Once in prison, no apologies will get you out.

“When you get locked up, you can’t say I’m sorry, I quit,” Payton said. “Your momma can’t get you out. Your daddy can’t get you out.”

Life takes a different tone, Payton said. His dreams now are about prison. “I don’t dream about the outside,” he said. “That’s crazy. That’s not normal.”

The things most people take for granted are the things Payton misses. Even the trip from Roederer to HCHS had its small moments. “I walked outside and I smelled gas fumes,” he said. “I was listening to the tires on the road. That’s normal everyday things that y’all are jeopardizing.”

Even upon release, life will be hard, Payton told the students. For the rest of his life, when filling out applications that ask if he has been convicted of a felony, he has to mark yes.

Payton told the group that what he once thought was cool, isn’t. He’s a loser, he said, because he did the wrong thing and wound up in prison. “One person doesn’t determine what cool is,” Payton said. “Cool is being an individual. Cool is being a leader.”

Like two of the other men, he’s a father, and wonders what he can do so his son won’t end up where he is.

“You can have your fun right now,” he said, “but y’all gonna suffer in the long run. It ain’t important.”

Since his incarceration, Payton has learned just how important education is.

“What’s wrong with learning?” he asked. “That’s the whole purpose of growing. You’ve got to be able to learn how to eat, how to drive a car … that’s what life is all about.”

Justin Metcalf, 24, is serving a 20-year sentence for trafficking in methamphetamine, and said he didn’t know how good he had it growing up. “I’m not going to stand up here and give you guys a bunch of clichés about how my daddy wasn’t around, or I was too young or I was a spoiled brat,” he said. “We all know right from wrong.”

Ashley Lawhorn, 28, told the students that their choices affect more people than just themselves. His family suffered, he said. “I lost my grandfather in prison,” he said. “I didn’t even get a chance to mourn with my family, or say goodbye to him. Y’all need to think about the choices you’re making, and the people you hurt with your choices.

“Life ain’t a game. Y’all need to realize that. School is important, get your education. Nobody can take that away from you.”

Tony Pennington, 27, asked the students how they would feel laying in a small, uncomfortable rack every night, with little to look at but a sparse ceiling and a small window. His family is more than two hours away.

He urged students to take a different path than the one he chose.

“Don’t take the path that I followed,” he said. “It’s long, it’s rough. It’s embarrassing.”

Pennington said his younger brother is serving time too – almost six years in federal prison. “I feel like that’s my fault that he’s in there,” he said. “I led by example. That’s my fault.”

After sharing their own stories, the men gave the students a picture of prison life, with the help of prison supervisor Sheila Rucker.

“I hope you paid attention,” Rucker told the students. “What they’re telling you is truthful. You don’t have the luxury of taking showers when you want to. I could walk into the wing, and they could be on the toilet, they could be in the shower. There’s no such thing as privacy.”

There really is no privacy, the men said. When using  a toilet, for example, you do so “right next to somebody else.” Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes, and all are recorded. There are cameras in every room.

Life is regimented, and along with set times for getting up, eating, showering and sleeping. There’s even a scheduled time to play board games. Beds must be made. Shoes have to be lined up under the bunks with the toes pointing out.

According to a handout Swank made for the Henry County Board of Education, students drop out for a variety of reasons.

“Really, what the public doesn’t understand, not only does (dropping out) cost the schools money, but (it costs) about $2 million a year (in) the services to take care of these kids.”


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