I was one of a small group of black students offered admission into Bard College in Upstate New York in 2001. When my acceptance letter arrived, the thick envelope confirmed my hopes before I opened it. At 18, I had big dreams. I would be the first (and only) child of my parents to graduate college. My mother never finished high school, and my father, who was not a big part of my life, chose the military.
At Bard, I made friends who I would meet for debates about the Rwandan genocide, or discuss the merits of different classes and professors. We rarely talked about home or family. I think my friends assumed I came from a traditional household — but I did not.
I walked around the 600-acre campus holding tightly to a secret: My mother was addicted to crack cocaine, and was serving a three-to-six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to using and selling drugs. She was locked up at Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in New York City, 100 miles from campus. She was scheduled for release in 2005, the same year I was due to graduate with a degree in human rights.
For those four years leading up to my graduation, I could count on one hand how many people knew my secret. I didn’t want to come out as the daughter of an inmate, and I didn’t feel I had to. Thankfully, I was raised by my maternal grandparents. Bard instilled us with hope that we could determine our own future after graduation, and that’s what I intended.
But I was not indifferent to my mother’s situation. As a way of giving back, I helped women and children who were in difficult situations. My first year, I was a peer counselor for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. My second summer, I volunteered as a camp counselor for inner city youth. My third, I interned at a domestic violence shelter. But the program I most identified with, and most wanted to participate in, was off-limits to me: the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI).
It was launched in 2001 as a pilot program in which my peers, student volunteers, signed up to tutor 16 inmates in the program who were earning their own college degrees. When I learned that inmates could both complete their sentences and graduate from college, it blew my mind. I wanted to be a part of it. In some way, it would be as if I was holding my own mother’s hand, bringing her closer to me. (The prison my mother was in did not have a BPI program.)
I read through the BPI application in my dorm room while sitting across from my unsuspecting roommate. I quickly realized I could not volunteer. The application’s small print stated that if the prospective volunteer was in communication with someone in prison, he or she could not volunteer as a policy of the Department of Corrections in New York state. That meant me.
I found other volunteer opportunities, and my studies went well as the semesters passed. Then, two months before graduation, my mother was on the cusp of being released. I went to pick her up.
I took the train in from Poughkeepsie, and as the train chugged along for two hours toward Bayview Correctional Facility I gazed outside, longing for my reality to be different. I was both angry and excited to see her. Her release time was 11 a.m., but I was early. She needed to be released into someone’s custody and that someone was me, at 23 years old.
I did not know what to expect when I arrived at the prison’s big brown heavy steel doors. I knocked and an officer let me in. A tall, black man with a deep voice asked me who I was there to pick up. Valerie Eleazer. He looked at me, then handed me a document to sign for my mother’s release. He told me to wait and she would be down shortly.
Shortly turned into forever as my fear grew into anxiety. My heart began to race and my lips chapped as I held my breath. It turned out release day was about waiting. Waiting for her to get clearance. Waiting for her to gather her belongings. But it was familiar — I had been waiting for her in one way or another all of my life.
I thought about all the times I had visited her, when I had taken off class or lied about my weekend. I stared at the door with the square plexi-window for what seemed like hours.
Then suddenly I could see her through the small window hole, and she was almost skipping down the stairs. She had on a sweatsuit, a cross between mustard yellow and gold. She was all smiles and happy, her usual self as if it were just another day.
Anxiety filled me with each step she took. I was unsure if we would need to repeat this process in six months. I put on a fake smile and prepared to welcome her back into my life. She smiled, swung open her arms and gave me the warmest hug I’d ever received from her.
We exchanged smiles and kisses. The officer told her: “Okay, Valerie, we better not see you here again! I need you to sign these papers and know that you have a check coming to you. It is not very much, but it’s for the work you did while you were here.”
She replied: “You might as well keep it. It won’t be all that much, probably only $12. And you don’t have to worry, you won’t be seeing me again, I am going to get my life back, and my kids back, too.”
And with that declaration, we left.
My mother went to live with her sister, and I went back to campus.
I graduated two months later, boldly walking across the stage to accept my bachelor’s degree and shake the hand of the president of Bard College. My own declaration that I’d made it.
My mother was there, sweating profusely in her borrowed pink outfit, a gift from my grandmother on my special day. My mother missed my high school graduation, and for this day I practically held her hand and guided her just so she could be there. Just so I could say she was there.
A high school dropout herself, the importance of seeing family cheering me on in the crowd was lost on her. When I walked offstage, I felt a kind of peace. I finally had accomplished something all on my own, for me, and for the future I dreamed of. No one could take this away from me, no cop, no judge, no nonexistent parent.
Underneath the large white tent sat my mother: a recovering drug addict and a convict unsure of how to save herself. I knew she looked on with a kind of uneasiness and pride. I wondered if she had the same dream of a college degree for herself. Or if that dream lived only in me.
The existence of the Bard Prison Initiative gave hope to women and men who missed out on the opportunity I was living — to get a college education. The program, while I could not volunteer, gave me hope that my mother would want to educate herself — to dedicate herself to something no one could ever take from her. My mother never got the chance to rehabilitate herself, she passed away in 2007, four months after giving birth to her fourth child.
This November, BPI will release a documentary film on PBS, “College Behind Bars.” It’s a four-part series following three cohorts of BPI students as they journey through academia as inmates.
BPI and programs like it give people the ability to rehabilitate themselves armed with the power only an education can provide. And for people like me — who both loved their incarcerated parent and often felt let down by them — it offers a sense of hope that change is possible, that change is coming.
Nikkya Hargrove is the program director for Harboring Hearts, a nonprofit organization that offers financial and emotional support to heart surgery patients and their families. She and her partner are raising their three children, and she also is writing a memoir about self love and acceptance as she raises her mother’s youngest child as her own.