Upon graduating High School, it rapidly became clear that attending University would be beyond my capabilities.
Oh, my grades were good enough, I’d spend high school on or near the honour roll, and I’d even managed to qualify for two small scholarships, but they weren’t nearly enough to cover tuition, rent and living expenses. I looked into alternate financing, but it turned out that my parents earned too much for me to apply for student aid and not enough to pay my way through school. And with a full course load there was no way I’d make up the difference earning minimum wage at the mall. Even working all summer wouldn’t put me near the ballpark.
So I continued working retail, I continued living with my parents, and I continued waiting for my real life to begin. What else could I do?
One night at the local pub after work, a friend suffering through a similar situation offhandedly commented that there was something fundamentally flawed about a society that gladly spends $50k a year housing, feeding and clothing a convicted criminal, but can’t find the funds to educate the next generation. We laughed at this, a wry, bitter laughter born of hopeless, impotent rage.
The next day I robbed a bank.
I was caught, of course, there was never any chance of me getting away with it. I’m not an experienced criminal, and lack the necessary skill set to do crime well. I’d have gladly spent the money had I gotten away with it, don’t get me wrong, but I went in with my eyes open, I knew I’d be caught. When the police arrived I turned myself in without a struggle.
My lawyer thought she could get me a plea bargain due to my youth and lack of criminal record, but I refused and offered to plead guilty to everything in exchange for a sentence in a minimum security prison.
The prosecutor, recognizing that I wasn’t a flight risk, took the easy win and called it a day.
Once in prison, I kept my head down, avoided making waves, and enrolled in every class and course they had available. I devoured knowledge and, without having to worry about rent or expenses, had plenty of time to learn. Literature, Physics, Theoretical Mathematics, History, I devoured them all with a hunger even I hadn’t previously known I’d possessed, and each was delicious in its own distinctive way. But choices must be made, that’s part of growing up, and finally I settled my attentions on the humanities, focusing myself on Philosophy and Psychology, with a minor in English Lit.
My sentence was fifteen years. I finished my doctoral thesis in seven. Just in time for my first parole hearing.
Having never made trouble, and in light of my newly acquired degree, the hearing was kept brief. Deficits being what they were at the time nobody wanted to pay to imprison someone unless they absolutely had to. I likely could’ve stabbed one of the members of the panel and still been paroled. A week later, I was back on the street. Jubilant.
Five weeks later, I was looking once more for minimum wage work, living once more with my parents, and waiting once more for my life to begin. A criminal record, it turns out, impedes your earning potential every bit as much as a lack of higher education, and it would be years until I could petition the federal government to seal mine. Until then, I’d have to either make do or create my own opportunities.
I took the first job I could find, moving boxes in a warehouse, and started planning.
The wonderful thing about manual labour is that it never asks much investment of you, either intellectually or emotionally. I had plenty of time to think.
Writing a book in what little free time I had was rough, and I missed more than one night of sleep, but once I had it proofed and edited, selling it was shockingly easy. The youth market was buying self-improvement books by the score, and I had a title that sold itself.
Seven Years: How I Defrauded the Government into Paying for the Education a Civilized Nation Should Provide for its Youth in the First Place.
It took less than six months to become an international bestseller. I moved out of my parents’ basement and bought myself a condo downtown.
But by the time I’d gotten settled in, the national crime rate had quadrupled. It would eventually increase tenfold. Most of the crime was non-violent, but most isn’t all. Burglaries, armed robberies, even a wave of arson swept cities across the country as a generation of young people scrambled over one another to get to prison before the classes and courses available filled up.
Life became very dangerous, very quickly, and there were moments when I questioned the wisdom of what I’d done. More sleepless nights followed, as I kept myself awake with guilt at the people hurt, and concern that I’d inadvertently destroyed a nation.
But there was very little real violence, and the spike in crime was temporary. Criminals, it turns out, are every bit as easy to catch as you’d expect when they’re intentionally trying to be caught. Two years after my book was released, crime was back to a manageable level and the streets were safe to walk at night again. And that’s when the national dialogue began over what to do about the sudden wave of easily captured crooks.
New prisons had to be built. A lot of new prisons. Law-abiding citizens must, after all, be protected.
Debate was brief and before long gigantic new correctional super-complexes were being built in every city, coast to coast, to house a whole new generation of ne’er-do-wells.
They funded this trans-national construction project by, among other things, further cutting the education budget. I shook my head when I read the news, smiling sadly to myself.
By the time the first wave of now highly educated ex-convicts are released back onto the streets, I’ll have been working as a professor nearly four years. I love what I do and, while I’m not paid lavishly, I earn enough to get by. I have my book’s royalties to supplement my income, after all, and it isn’t as though I have student loans to worry about.
I taught at the local University nine months, before the local prison came through with a job offer. It turns out every class and every course they offered was booked solid, and they were desperate for teachers to shorten the waiting list of prospective students. I knew which way the wind was blowing when it came to education in this country, I had after all contributed to changing its direction, so I jumped at the opportunity. The class sizes are smaller than at the University, the pay is better and the students are genuinely eager to learn, so why wouldn’t I make the move? And that’s how I came to teach at one of the most prestigious prisons in the country.
The road I’ve travelled has had a number of unexpected twists and turns, to be sure, but I can’t say I’m not pleased with where I ended up. I’m doing work that I enjoy, sharing knowledge with people who love learning as much as I do, and waking up genuinely excited about the day ahead of me. I live, by any measure, a satisfying life.
Oh, there are things I’d change if I could, to be sure. My taxes, for example, are prohibitively high. Imprisoning close to sixty percent of a country’s population between the age of eighteen and twenty four is an expensive proposition after all. But I understand that it’s for a greater good, and when my tax bill comes I pay it gladly. Also, on the subject of regrets, I’ve been thinking more and more as I move comfortably into my thirties that I’d like to settle down at some point soon and start a family. But that simply isn’t in the cards for me right now.
You see, a man like me needs a certain kind of woman. Somebody with a real spark. A woman who’s intellect can keep up with my own. One with fire and ambition, who isn’t afraid of hard work, who wants to change the world. A partner, in the truest sense of the world.
And everyone like that is in prison.