At the beginning of each semester, I start the first class by trying to connect with my students. I want them to feel that my classroom will be a safe place for free expression. We sit in a circle and I often find myself crying even on the first day. Something about teaching makes me emotional.
As I mentioned in my previous article Ceci, My Teacher, I like to do mini interviews with each student during the first class. At the end of each interview, I like to ask them to tell me their craziest wildest dream. I tell them not to think too much before they say it.
Sometimes, the students are at a loss for words. They get nervous or self-conscious. Others say they can't think of an answer. I’ve learned to be patient with them. I stay present with them as they slowly relax, start free-associating, and then, the dream comes out. Traveling the world is the most common response and for many of my first-gen, immigrant, and financially challenged students, they say they want to buy a house for their mom or familia.
As we approach the end of this semester, I told my journalism students they need to start making a dream list of the stories they want to cover. It can take decades to develop an intense piece of reporting, but a story list can act as a guiding map.
Many dream stories from my journalism wish list came true this year. I am proud of myself for never giving up, which is a key reason why I ask my students to say their dreams out loud. When you say it you are closer to manifesting it, and subconsciously you commit to never giving up on that sueño.
What dreams came true for me in 2021?
The audio documentary I’ve been working on since 1993 finally became a reality. It's called Suave and it follows the story and my relationship to David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, a man who was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was just a teenager. This podcast was recently nominated for an IDA Award. I never imagined this story would get recognized at such a high level (the IDA Awards are like the Oscars of documentaries) and yet here we are. Making an almost 30-year long journalism dream come true.
I met Suave in 1993, just as he was beginning to serve a life sentence at a max security prison in Pennsylvania. I initially reported his story for NPR, but we stayed in touch; I started sending him Xmas and holiday cards because he was just a teenager who, at the time, thought he’d be spending his entire life in that prison. The least I could do was send him cards. I mean, I knew his forever address.
I started diligently recording all of my calls with him in 2015 when the journalist in me realized that the Supreme Court was looking into these cases. The argument was finally being made that it was cruel and unusual punishment to incarcerate a juvenile for life.
Futuro Media is reaching a new level of journalism, in part because of our work on the Suave podcast. We’re helping to change the narrative surrounding incarcerated individuals while also suggesting new ways that journalists can work with their sources. Just a few weeks ago, Suave signed a contract to join the Futuro Media team as one of the producers for the second season of the Suave podcast!
For the record, producing this story over the last two decades didn’t come without its headaches. Suave is a source. He is also someone with an emotional relationship to me. Besides his brother, I’ve been in contact with Suave for the longest amount of time. Our relationship was primarily built off of phone calls Suave made to me whenever the prison gave him the chance. I don’t want to give away too much because it is a wild and dramatic story, but Suave is out now and we have continued to document our particular kind of relationship.
Unfortunately, throughout the shutdown Suave and I have fought more frequently than ever before. I raised my voice at him when he refused to stop working outside his house during the height of the pandemic. I’ve cried in disappointment over some of his choices, and he’s been frustrated with me as well. It's been a real test of the strength of our friendship. I wasn’t used to calling it a friendship, but things have changed. As Suave said to me recently, this is what real friendship looks like: Not walking away when things get hard.
Suave is one of the great dreamers in my life!
His mother had a rule: No one was to declare that her son would never come out of prison in front of her. She helped this dream come true posthumously. But Suave had another dream once he got out: He wanted to work in an academic setting.
Illiterate when he went into prison, Suave got his GED after 7 tries, taking him 16 years to get his BA from Villanova after that. But he did it. After working severalunsteady jobs due to the pandemic, Suave finally got his dream job in 2021. He was recently hired by the Community College of Philadelphia to teach and run their program for formerly incarcerated people who want to be students. Now Suave can make another dream come true. He’s going for his Master’s degree!
There is a great lesson that comes from getting older. It’s the realization that some dreams don't come true in days or months or even years. Some take decades. Suave was in prison for 31 years, but he kept on dreaming of liberation. And the older I get, the more committed I am to my dreams. It’s like the ones you hold on to the longest that are often the most worth it.
*Thanks to my Suave team of Maggie Freleng, Julieta Martinelli, Marlon Bishop, Audrey Quinn, Erika Dilday, and Deepa Donde.