Dynishal P. Gross
what educational institution in the city are the best teachers
found? The question is impossible to answer without considering
the needs of the students being taught. Though Martin Villa attended
a respected Manhattan private high school, with a highly credentialed
teaching staff, he did not encounter the teacher who changed his
life until entering prison at the age of 21.
Martin’s early life was rich in educational resources. As a sixth
grader, he joined Prep for Prep, a program that prepares minority
city students to attend independent schools. Two years later he
was a scholarship student, one of the few brown faces at a predominantly
Jewish private school. “I was educationally but not socially prepared,”
he says of his high school experience. To Martin, the many differences
between his family’s working class existence and the lives of
his classmates were glaring. “It was like, they go on vacation,
you go to Brooklyn.”
When it was time to select a college, a comfortable social environment
was as important to Martin as academics. He settled on Pennsylvania’s
Lincoln College, a historically black institution and the alma
mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Unfortunately,
Martin was unable to strike a balance between partying and studying
and left Lincoln after only a semester. Back in Brooklyn, the
street beckoned and at the age of 19 Martin “caught a case,” when
he stole a car.
This was Martin’s first offense, and with his strong academic
record and potential, prosecution may have meant probation alone.
However, with his mind on instant gratification, not on his future,
Martin missed court dates and soon found bail-jumping added to
his list of offenses, eliminating probation as an option. In August
of 2000, Martin was convicted and began serving a one-year sentence
on Rikers’ Island.
Ironically, it was at this institution of correction that he made
the personal connections to a teacher and to learning, which had
been absent from his experiences in school. George Taite was the
teacher who finally reached Martin Villa.
Taite teaches a College Prep program for young men, one of a number
of courses offered on Rikers’ Island by LaGuardia Community College.
The class allows inmates to develop critical thinking, reading
and writing skills through a curriculum built around the themes
of personal responsibility and community. “He calls the class
the ‘university of life,’” recalls Martin. “Every class was a
learning experience, so I felt like missing a class was the worst
thing I could possibly do.” In fact, Martin missed only one class
during the eight months spent at Rikers, a standout achievement
in a revolving door program.
Adult prisoners in New York are not required to attend academic
classes, so an instructor must be creative to lure inmates out
of the dorms and into the classroom. “Mr. Taite spent time around
young people, getting to know them,” Martin observed, “so he could
find that avenue to reach them.” While a great teacher can do
a lot of good, Martin feels that mandating participation in educational
programs for inmates may be another answer. “Lots of dudes are
begging for help, wanting to go to jail because they feel backed
into a corner. Prison may be the only chance they get to earn
Since entering Taite’s classroom, Martin’s perspective on life
has changed. Now his dreams have education at their center. “I
don’t want to be a career criminal, the smartest dude out of everyone
on the island. I want to start a business to give back to the
community. I want to write poetry, fiction and short stories.
I want to study English and Black Studies, maybe help a kid like
Martin was released from Rikers’ on March 16 of this year, and
is back in Brooklyn, living and working. He plans to return to
college shortly, through the CUNY Catch program for ex-offenders.
As he moves forward, he remains grateful to the teacher whose
classroom was a haven. “I can’t say enough about Mr. Taite,” Martin
shared. “I thank him for asking me to look inside myself and see
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