© Copyright 2022 by Thomas Turman
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
“Is this T.L Turman?” a tired and gruff voice demanded.
“Are you the department chair of the architecture department at Laney?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“I’m Devon Mitchell, Oakland Office of State Corrections. I’m Willie Alexander’s probation officer.” He said this with the air of a partner in crime.
I hadn’t seen any students yet for the coming semester and since I didn’t recognize the name, I said, “How can I help you?”
“Damn! He hasn’t talked to you yet?” he shouted. “I told him to get to you this week. Damn!” He was getting louder and louder as he rambled on. He was frustrated and angry and taking it out on me. He must have realized what he was doing, though, as there was a pause, and he then continued in a softer tone. “Sorry, Willie’s one of my cases. He told me drafting interested him and that he was going to go to Laney. I haven’t heard from him since.”
“Well, classes don’t start until next week, so there is still time for him to sign up.”
“Let me fill you in, Mr. Turman. Willie is on probation for two years and a condition of his probation is that he prepares for then gets a job. He has to stay away from the old crowd in East Oakland, go to school, and get a job or he goes back in for the rest of his sentence.”
Curious, I asked, “What did he do?”
“Can’t divulge that to you at this time. If he shows up in your classes, though, you and I will have to arrange a method for me to monitor his progress. Sorry to spring this on you like this, but I thought he’d already signed up. I’m just too much of an optimist for this job, I guess.”
“Well, you’d have to be to stay at the job you’ve got. I’m probably just as much an optimist, though, so if he does show up next week, how do I get in touch with you?”
“I’m glad you got faith in him, ‘cause I’m loosing it by the minute. If he attends class he is required to tell you of his probation conditions and will have a form with my number on it. This form is a kind of a contract between him, you and me. Good luck. Keep in touch.” The line went dead.
I forgot about this conversation until after the first class ended the next week. I was gathering up all the extra handouts, textbooks and roll sheets, and heading for my office, when I looked up to see a student still sitting at his desk. “You after me?” I asked.
I motioned him to follow me into my small office and gestured to my visitor chair surrounded by my display of student’s architectural models.
He sat down but instead of looking at me, he began studying the models. This gave me a chance to put all my stuff down and study him. He was tall, maybe 6’ 4”, thin and gaunt looking. His scraggily hair and beginnings of a beard gave him a scarecrow-Jesus look. His bright yellow tennis shoes added a humorous touch. The dark skin showing below his shirtsleeves bore tattoos I couldn’t read. He finally turned and set his deep-set eyes on me.
“I’m Willie Alexander. You can call me Willie. Mitchell told me he already talked to you.”
“Yeah, he did.” I paused, not wanting to get into forms and probation and such just yet. I studied him for a few seconds, and then asked one of my standard questions of first semester students, “What do you want to do with these classes, Willie? Where do you want to go with what we offer here?”
He relaxed in the stiff chair and seemed relieved that I didn’t jump right into the legal stuff. “See all this?” he said as he waved his hand over the models next to him. “I want to do this. I want to draw, make models and design.” He began to talk faster, “I used to make models when I was a kid, and draw too.” His eyes lit up and I knew he was in the right place.
I described the two-year program we have at the college and gave him some information on transferring to four or five year colleges. This was my standard introduction talk to students who ask for career counseling.
He just stared at me when I finished and then said slowly, “I didn’t finish the 7th grade, T.” He’d apparently decided to call me “T”. It either stood for teacher or Turman. Either way, if this nickname relaxed him it was OK with me.]
I shrugged and said, “I’ve seen worse. Let’s just see how it goes, OK?” Now it was his turn to shrug.
We got his probation officer’s paperwork out of the way and I assured Willie that the information was confidential. No one else needed to know. He studied me intently for a few seconds, nodded and left.
Willie did well, dominating his classes with me, while creating some great critical discussions about the work all the students were doing. He was one of those natural class leaders. He always wore his yellow shoes. His shoes really stood out when he was drumming with other musicians in the college square in front of the student union.
Each week, I’d get this gruff call with no pleasantries that began, “This is Mitchell. You got any problems with Willie Alexander?” He was always in a rush due to his enormous caseload.
I’d tell Mitchell that Willie was doing great and there were no problems.
One day a student ran into the drafting room and shouted, “Mr. T, did you tell that guy he could take books from your office?” He was pointing out the window to a man hurrying away with an armload of my books.
“No,” I said and took off after the thief. I ran through the door and was about 10 yards behind the book-nabber near a concrete staircase down and out of the campus, when a flash of scraggily hair and yellow shoes came from the robber’s right, cutting his legs out from under him. The books went flying and Willie was up and on the guy, his fight fist ready to strike, when I huffed and puffed up to stop him. I just shook my head “no”. Willie stared long and hard at me and then at the guy on the ground. He jerked the buy up and tossed him down the stairs. We began picking up my books. When we got the books back into my office, he said, “Don’t tell Mitchell. It’ll just be a lot of paperwork for everybody.”
Willie missed class only once, and called me at home to admit that he’d been hanging out with his old crowd. He said he was sorry and begged to keep this probation violation from Mitchell. We agreed to keep it between us with the agreement that it would be the only time.
Willie loved to draw. He would come and tell me that he couldn’t wait until he ran a company where he could draw all day and listen to music. I could see his absolute love of the skill of drafting and guided him toward computer-aided drawing. He took two classes, saw the advantage, but wanted to go back to drawing with a pencil. Secretly I was proud, as I love to draw with the “old tools” too. His main worry was that without degrees he wouldn’t have “those letters” to put after his name. “Look at Mitchell’s card,” he’d say, “impressive bunch of letters, T.” I told him the letters don’t always mean a lot and that we’d figure something out.
Willie stayed with our department for the full two years, taking every class we offered and then some. He did very well and Mitchell called less and less. He rejected the idea of transferring to one of the architectural programs in the state and graduated with an Associate of Arts Degree in architecture/engineering.
A few weeks after our graduation ceremonies, I was walking to coffee with the Dean of the University of California’s Architecture program. Willie came striding up to us, yellow shoes flapping on the sidewalk, and thrust out a business card. The Dean took a fearfull step backward. “I’m in business, T. What do you think?”
In black ink on a brown card it said,
William Alexander, Ex. C.
Designer, Draftsman, Drummer
Call for appointment
I introduced him to the Dean, smiled, and stuck out my hand. He pushed my hand aside, wrapped me in a big jug, and then flapped on down the street. I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t speak.
The Dean waited for me to gain my composure and until Willie was far enough away to whisper, “What does Ex. C. mean?”
I gripped the card tightly, turned to watch the yellow shoes of this Ex Convict disappear and said, “Excellent Citizen.”