That's right, it's time for Taylor to take center stage again!
You all know Taylor, of course, and you know how passionate about ensuring those who are imprisoned are treated fairly.
Well, I didn't know the backstory for why she devotes so much of her time.
Now I do.
I'll never forget the single greatest moment of my high-school experience, the day my teacher Mr. Dershimer read one of my emails out loud to the class.
It was a Monday and we'd finished watching "Captain Phillips", the true story of a ship captain who was kidnapped by four Somali pirates, the week before. I remember Mr. Dershimer coming up from behind me one day to see if I needed help on a project. Out of the corner of his eye, he'd seen my phone, taken notice of the picture on the screen, and asked.
"Is that from the movie?"
He was smiling, clearly delighted. I'd become obsessed with "Safe Now", with its mournful tones and it's reassuring title. I'd become obsessed with the film, with the story, with the class. I nodded, smiling back.
"I think it's awesome that you have it on your phone," he said, chuckling with excitement. "I listen to movie soundtracks too!"
Then, he lifted his hand and gave me a high five. I remember he was tall with a deep voice that made him a little intimidating to me when I first saw him. But when I saw that smile, when I received that high five, he instantly became my friend. I remember being excited about taking his class when Mr. Robertson, my homeroom teacher, told me and my parents about it. Even my father seemed excited.
"Taylor loves the History Channel," he said. "We watch it together at home all the time."
He had a right to be excited. For the first time in my life, I loved going to class on Monday mornings, because I knew I would see Mr. Dershimer. He began nearly every class with a story about his little ones, taking off his shoe one day to show us his painted toenails, telling us how his son and daughter had painted them while he was napping. He was an absolute joy to be around, always smiling and encouraging us to think outside the box, to stick to our beliefs and morals even if others disagreed with us.
I was ecstatic when Mr. Dershimer assigned us a new project pertaining to "Captain Phillips''. I couldn't wait to dive deeper into the story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking and the chaos that followed. Our assignment, I believe, was to research any one of the actual people portrayed in the movie, except for Captain Richard Phillips, for obvious reasons. So, I decided to do my research on the only pirate left alive after the catastrophic events that took place.
He was Muse, a skinny nineteen year old boy who acted as leader of the entire operation. He grew up relatively poor. His father had died, leaving Muse, the eldest child, to care for his mother and siblings at a very young age. After the hijacking, Muse was arrested and sentenced to thirty-three years in a U.S federal prison. The more I found out about this boy, the angrier I became. As soon as he was taken in for "questioning", Muse was repeatedly shown pictures of his dead friends, the pirates who were killed in a standoff with the U.S Navy, until he developed crippling PTSD and lasting nightmares. He was then thrown into Solitary Confinement for a period of two full years. In those two years, he'd attempted suicide twice, causing his mental health to plummet into a rapid decline. His teeth had rotted and he was denied any form of contact with his family. By the end of his stay in Solitary Confinement, Muse was completely broken and remains that way to this day, struggling under the weight of overwhelming depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.
"But he deserves this." I kept telling myself. "People who do wrong deserve to be punished…. Don't they?"
The question haunted me. In less than an hour, I found myself questioning everything I believed.
Why was I so heartbroken for the "enemy"?
Did Muse deserve my pitty after what he did?
Was I wrong for feeling such compassion for one who'd committed a crime?
Prisons were made to punish criminals, so why was I so angry over the suffering of Muse?
As the week progressed and the film came to an end, I emailed Mr. Dershimer more and more, asking questions, showing him the links I'd found and discussing whether what I was feeling for Muse was right or wrong. Through our conversations, I started to realize why I was so disturbed by Muse's case. I was disturbed because he was human. Criminals are human beings like everyone else. To quote Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, "I pulled the curtain from the other side and started to explore the depths of their world. It took me a while, but I came to the conclusion that criminals laugh, too. Yes, they fall in love, feel pain, and are capable of deep, soft human emotions."
Finally, on Friday night, I sent Mr. Dershimer the longest email I'd ever written. I talked of Muse and how hard he must have had to work to support such a large family on his own. I spoke of the violations of his human rights and why they bothered me. I told him why I believed Muse had no other choice but to hijack the Maersk Alabama. I never expected that Mr. Dershimer would do what he did on Monday. He pulled out his phone and read the entire email word for word to the class.
I just sat there in my seat, feeling somewhat embarrassed, yet also empowered at the attention I was given. I was floating above my own body, wondering if it was all just a dream. But it wasn't a dream. He was reading my words, my thinking, my beliefs out loud to those I knew and didn't know. Never had I ever had a teacher do something like that before.
"It was just an email!" I thought to myself.
When he'd finished, he waited for the class's response, but it was Monday, so naturally, most of us, if not all, were exhausted.
Despite my writing being met with silence, tired yawns and heavy eyes that morning, the memory has etched itself into my mind. What Mr. Dershimer may have thought was a small gesture turned out to be the very thing that's impacted me more than I could have ever imagined. He didn't just read my email out loud in class that day. He showed me that I wasn't wrong, that I wasn't crazy or bad for feeling the way I felt, for thinking the way I thought. He showed me that I could continue to do so no matter what others thought of it. He showed me that I had a gift.
And so, it began. I fought against the inhumane treatment of prisoners every chance I could in every class I could. Throughout the years, I learned that, yes prisons are built to punish… but that doesn't mean they have to be. Through Mr. Dershimer's praise and goodness, I've come to the conclusion that prisoners should come out of their sentences as better people, not broken ones.
For the past ten years, I have advocated for better prison conditions as well as an end to Solitary Confinement. I haven't yet done it on a grand scale, however. Mostly, what I've done is written essays in my College classes and expressed my concerns on social media. Of course, doing something is better than doing nothing at all. But I know I can do better, and for Mr. Dershimer, for those like Muse, I will do better.
To Mr. Dershimer,
It is because of you that I pride myself in advocating for human rights for all. It is because of you that I feel so much and fight so hard for those that most consider to be the scum of the earth. It is because of you that my heart has grown bigger, that my compassion now goes out to those who may or may not deserve it. It is because of you that I believe in killing with kindness so fiercely. It is because of you that I am who I am.
Today, ten years after you read my email in class, I continue to strive to make the world a better place. And it's all because of you.