Education Saved My Life

Cory Matters’ story as told to Kelsey Timmerman. Read here by Christian Pullings. 

I was one of the highest paid prisoners. I got paid twenty-two cents an hour, working on the mop crew at night. I slept in a crowded dorm–seventy beds on one side, and seventy on the other. You could just look out at the horizon of people in cots. It wasn’t safe to sleep at night. Anything could happen. There were only two guards who couldn’t get there fast enough to protect you. So, while other prisoners slept, I ran the six-person mop crew.

One of the perks was that we got an extra meal and had access to leftovers. I’d give the food to people who needed it.

Food isn’t just food. I gave a bologna sandwich and a couple of oranges to a man who was emotionally malnourished. He sat on his bed, in the dark, and didn’t say anything. You haven’t heard a man cry until you’ve heard the pain that comes from a man whose wife died while he was in prison.

I felt privileged to be able to put that food where it needed to be.

I slept from six in the morning until two in the afternoon. There were more guards during the day than at night. While everyone was up having to do other things, it would be silent. I would be safe. There would be guards watching.

I was eleven when my parents split up. That was the first time I ever saw food stamps. It was a new thing for me, not just “is there anything in the kitchen that I wanted?” but “where was the next meal coming from?” Food bankruptcy contributed to the emotional bankruptcy that felt its way through stomach pains and made it hard to focus in school. I stole a six-pack of snickers once. I ate one on the elementary school roof. I can’t remember the other five, but I hope I shared them. Going days without food has a physiological effect, but the doubt it introduced into my life had an even bigger psychological one.

It wasn’t only food; it was also shelter. When we lost our house, I probably lived in ten or eleven different apartments. There were different schools. Different friends.

It wasn’t just food insecurity; it was insecurity.

My criminal history with substances started way too early. I was fifteen, going to a school dance, looking forward to breakdancing. You know, I once got a standing ovation from an audience of four-hundred for a breakdance routine I had choreographed. Anyhow, at the school dance, they said I smelled like marijuana. I didn’t have any marijuana on me, but they put me on probation for “possession by consumption,” which isn’t a real thing.

So, I decided to quit school. I filled out the papers and stopped going, but they said the papers didn’t go through. They put me in a children’s home for truancy. I went through a lot of things, a lot of trauma. I developed substance use issues trying to deal with my feelings.

Things got really out of hand. My life was constantly in jeopardy by my actions and decisions. I went through twelve different rehab programs, which probably is not an exaggeration; some of them court-ordered for up to six months.

Rehab didn’t work. I’m not going to talk about the specifics, but I landed in prison, and experienced the diamond pressure of life there. That pressure crushed a lot of people. There were a lot of issues that people were not able to overcome.

My son was born while I was in prison. I realized that if I wanted to meet him, I needed to find a way to live and get out. In prison there’s a lot of gang warfare, a lot of power plays. There’s the Aryan Brotherhood, there’s white supremacists, there’s groups based on religious affiliation. There’s the Bloods and the Crips. It’s all gangs, religion, and race.

I didn’t belong to any of them.

I didn’t answer the race question on the paperwork when I came into the prison. On my youth baseball team, I had been the only person of color. I was always an outlier, alienated by cultural norms. That’s part of who I was. Because of my skin tone, I could’ve been from any country. People in Muncie thought I was from elsewhere, even though I was born and raised here my entire life. In prison I grew a long beard, and sometimes I would speak with an accent to keep people guessing. I became really pale. So pale that the Aryan Brotherhood approached me about joining them. I told them they would have to kill me where I stood before I joined anybody, because I’d always stood on my own.

But by that point, I had helped so many people from so many of the groups that nobody would allow anybody to mess with me for anything.

I had helped people get their GEDs. And if you got your GED, your time in prison would be cut by six months. I had helped people write letters to their families and lawyers. I had helped people file appeals. I had even developed a curriculum and began teaching a class on philosophy.

Most of the rehab programs I had been through, including AA, focused on character defects. I embraced the idea of developing character assets. I had my own library: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Gandhi. I had been asking myself:  How do I build these character assets? How can I invest in myself?

I helped others search for these same answers and gave them the philosophical tools and resources to find them.

I had to prove to them, and to the world, that I deserved to exist. I was safe because of the education I had sought out. I was safe because of the education I gave to others.

Education saved my life.

When I sold drugs, I gave people what they wanted and enabled people to destroy themselves. But I came to realize that investing in people is giving them what you know will nurture them.

When I came home from prison there were more issues, and more relapses. But once I realized that I couldn’t sacrifice a relationship with another one of my children, I really began to change.

My purpose became bigger than my problems.

I went to Ball State and I just smashed every course. I now have a Master’s Degree in social work and am a practicing therapist at Open Door, a federally qualified health center, which means that people with no insurance can be seen. The population that needs the most access is served there. And that’s why I wanted to work there.

Food insecurity is connected to so many other types of insecurity, and malnourishment. You can’t separate mental health, nutrition, or housing. They all have to be addressed. I think that’s a lot of what Second Harvest does with their overlapping programs.

If you have the intellect and savvy to get through a system and thrive, you’re almost obligated to try to pass that on. If I could get this education, then there are other people who can, too.

Now that I’m in the position to give back, I’m sure never to look down, but to look evenly in the eyes of my fellow humans. Because when we look down on those in need, it shames us all. We need to plant and harvest enough opportunities for everyone.

Ever since we lost our home when I was eleven, I always wore shoes inside the apartments or dorms I lived in. I felt like I always needed to be ready to go, to run. But now that I have a secure home and purpose, I come home, and take off my shoes.

Enjoy your next meal, home, friendship, and the security required to walk barefoot.

I’ve learned that Cory matters and so do you!

This story originally appeared in Facing Resource Insecurity, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Second Harvest Food Bank of East-Central Indiana.

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