BY MAX ABRAMS You can count on one hand the number of black men who have both gone to jail for armed robbery and been a guest at the White House at the president’s behest — and still have a few fingers left over. Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. is a member of that exclusive club. Greene started disc jockeying in jail and eventually grew to national acclaim for his radio and Emmy Award-winning television show, becoming a progressive and seminal voice of a generation and a movement. Petey Greene dropped out of school in 9th grade. When he was 16 he enlisted in the army and went to war for six years, in far away Korea, and served as a medic. After returning from the war Greene went home to Washington D.C. and wound up serving 10 years in prison for armed robbery. For most men — especially African American men in the 1960s — this would mark the end.
But Petey Greene was not most men.
Greene got himself released from prison early for good behavior after talking a suicidal prisoner down from a water tower. Unknown to prison authorities, Greene persuaded his friend to fake a suicide attempt so he could “save” him, and it worked. After his release, Greene used the skills he learned in prison to pave a road that would eventually lead him to become not only a famous DJ and television performer, but an authority on civil rights and racial issues. After the MLK assassination, Greene’s voice and wisdom played a big part in defusing the mass riots that were plaguing the nation. If you are interested in learning more about Petey Greene’s remarkable life I recommend Talk To Me, the 2007 biopic starring Don Cheadle.
Petey Greene’s trajectory may be one of extremes — his is a rags to riches story like no other — but the possibilities it hints at are some of the driving forces of American life. Greene’s prison-to-presidents trajectory marks the unlikely potential of social mobility in America in much the same way Michael Jordan — who did not make the cut for his high school basketball team but — went onto become one of the all-time greats of the NBA. It’s unheard of. The word unlikely doesn’t do it justice (no pun intended). Even today, more than 50 years after Greene went to jail, the forever dooming label of ‘felon’ smothers any hope for success, opportunity, or personal growth. This is what the Petey Greene Program seeks to change. Named after Greene and his inspiring life by long time friend Charles Puttkammer, the program places volunteer tutors (mostly college aged) into correctional institutions to provide the incarcerated with an education. Basic math and English are focuses here, but the end goal is something much more: GED’s, high-school diplomas, college, a work ethic, a distraction, an opportunity, a chance. You get the picture. Instead of wasting time just waiting to be released, the program offers those who seek self-improvement and a better future a realistic chance to do so.
My own involvement with Petey Greene started with a course I took my sophomore year at Temple. Titled “Visualizing Urgency”, it focused on the state of the public education system in Philadelphia. Here I was exposed to so many issues and topics of debate I had never been aware of, and it became clear that the whole system was and still is a mess, no matter how you look at it. We took almost weekly trips to different schools all around the city- charters lacking any sort of real leadership or plan, public schools that couldn’t afford nurses, schools more than decades old, full of promise and history, boarded up- we were given a close up view of all the issues we usually talked about only in the abstract, and it really was troubling.
After the class and the tours ended I felt like I was introduced to an array of problems with no solutions. I was left with this feeling of a distant but persistent uneasiness- that something could be so obviously wrong for so long and still have no end in sight. By fate’s weirdly coincidental hand, an email from The Petey Greene Program, asking for volunteers willing to teach English and Math to the incarcerated. Two training sessions and a few forms later, I was driving about three hours round trip every Thursday to The Glenn Mills School.
The campus is about small University size and is located right outside of Philly (the town itself is called Concordville). It houses and teaches Juvenile Delinquents from around the country, their crimes varying from misdemeanor to felony size. I’ve heard mention of Grand Theft Auto and selling pot but, obviously, these things aren’t really discussed during tutoring sessions. Each kid stays for an individually set period of time determined by a judge, some stay for 3 or 4 months while others are assigned to a year or more. The school itself is impressive, with a well-kept golf and football field, tall brick and dark stone buildings, and 13 dorms rooming a total of about 420 students.
The tutoring sessions are about an hour and a half long. I work with the same student for the entirety of it, and I work with the same kid every week until he either gets discharged and goes home, or gets in trouble somehow and loses his privileges to come down. I have had both these things happen. Students here, unlike some of the other tutoring sites, are only in the classroom if they asked to be. They are not forced. This is extra help outside of the class to come down from the dormitories and study. For the most part, they are willing, if not exuberant to learn the math or what-have-you but they almost always have this quiet determined air about them. They listen when the tutors speak and they ask questions and are undeniably more humble than I was when I was 16 or 17, admitting their mistakes and saying when they are lost.
The whole thing is, quite honestly, pretty easy. I have only had one night where my student wasn’t cooperative, and not in a belligerent sense but in a sullen and withdrawn and un-communicative sense that had no reservations in telling me he wasn’t listening. I had been working with him for a few weeks and I didn’t know how to respond to him ignoring me. I was trying to teach him whatever lesson we were on and he’d be staring down, picking at his fingernails and looking like he was half asleep. When I was done talking, he took the better part of 10 seconds until he realized I was waiting for him to start the problems or at least acknowledge me, and then he was obviously just as lost as he was when I started talking. It isn’t my job to be confrontational, to chastise. Nor would I ever really want to, so I repeated myself three or four times until our session was almost over and, frustrating for both of us I’m sure, we were still on the same lesson.
I finally said, “Come on, man. You can do this stuff, it isn’t as hard as you’re making it. You just gotta listen.” When I talk to the students I sit in a desk that is pulled up to theirs, sitting sideways so I can face them. He responded, voice subtly laden with frustration, still looking down at his hands, “Man, I hate this shit. None of this is important, it’s not gonna help me with anything. Not actually. I’m done after Christmas anyways.” It was early December, and one of my last tutoring sessions before the winter break, which meant I had maybe one other night with him, if he even asked to come back again. Temple’s break lasts until January, so I would be returning by the time he was back home in Cleveland.
I didn’t know how to respond. Not really. I wasn’t clueless enough to try to give him some kind of inspirational speech, like something out of Stand and Deliver, “You have to want it. Desire. Ganas.” No. Those clichés are like a slap to the face once you step out of the movie theatre. Nor am I self-righteous enough to lie to him about how this is important, how these silly little math problems we’d been doing for the past few weeks actually have the power to change anything in the real world, one he would be returning to very shortly.
The only thing I thought to say was, “Yeah, you’re probably right”. I thought this would surprise him but it didn’t. It didn’t even seem to elicit a response. We sat then and just talked idly about small things-where he was from, what sports teams he liked, etc. He told me he was from Cleveland, that he loved basketball and LeBron James (something I was quick to rag on him a little bit for, I myself not the biggest fan of LeBron). He played basketball for Glenn Mill’s team and wasn’t looking forward to going home, where his school didn’t even have a team. I am a tutor, not a teacher. I am only a few years older than these kids, and I feel the glacier-like progress we make just as much as I’m sure they do. I’m not there to chastise or inspire.
With only about 10 minutes before I was going to leave, however, he started talking to me about his future. He told me how he was going to go home and get his GED, how he wanted a job, how he wanted to go to Community College, and that changed everything for me. I looked at him and cut off what he was saying. I made sure to make eye contact and said, “Look, if you want to go to college then this is something you will need dude. It might suck but you have a long way to go, and if you aren’t willing to put in the work to get there then you won’t get there, it’s that easy. This stuff seems pointless, and honestly it pretty much is, but you won’t get to college if you can’t do algebra because this stuff will come up again and you will have to know it.” I pointed my finger a lot when I talked, at the computer, at our notes, sometimes even at him. I had an odd feeling the whole time, like I was trying extremely hard to push what I meant on to him and have him accept and understand it. Like I was shoving my opinion in his hands. I felt somehow very old and very young.
And that was basically it. He left that night right before I did, getting picked up by other students and escorted back to the dorms. When the students see their friends they usually just walk out with no goodbye or a thank you, and not in any rude or unthankful way. The night was just over. See you next time kind of thing, its implied. And tonight was no different. As it turns out I didn’t see him the next week. Every Thursday night a different dorm or two have meetings in their buildings, and of course that night was his. So I went home for Winter Break and he was discharged. Those were just about the last words I ever said to him.
I have no reason to believe that anything I might have said meant anything. It would be pretty naïve to think that what I taught him — all those fractions and quadratic formulas and line equations — actually made a difference in any long term significant way. I’m also not allowed to find out how he or any of my other students are faring after they are released. I’m not sure I would want to know either. I don’t think my little speech inspired the next Petey Greene, that what I tried to make him understand marked some pivotal moment in his life where he decided that his success might be contingent on his education and how much he applies himself. It would be delusional to think these things.
Still, I come back every week. I drive though the 2 hours of traffic thinking what, if anything, I might have actually accomplished. I tutor because it is one of the few things that I feel like helps me stand on solid ground, where the earth isn’t falling away like sand, one grain at a time. Solid. Education is a key to life, to transcendence. I can say this with confidence. This is why I stay in College, why I willingly swim through my debt, head just above water. Tutoring gives me agency. It gives me the opportunity to act on something I believe in. In these ways, it might be a very selfish thing that I do after all.
Even after feeling frustrated, after sitting for an hour and a half and trying to explain over and over matrices and absolute values and never being sure if my student is actually getting it. And that means actually getting it, not guessing or taking forever to get it but having it come easy and confidently the way it should, being able to take it away with him and know it in the future, when it comes up on a test and he actually has to know it. I always have this feeling when I get in my car to drive home, like I just drank a few beers. It’s this tipsy feeling where if anyone else is in the car with me I’ll talk quickly and loudly and maybe for too long about what I taught and how my student made progress, how he high-fived or pounded me after we got on a roll. Going on a roll is another feeling entirely, where I don’t even have to talk anymore but my student just flies through a succession of problems without even checking answers with me before submitting them, because of course they are right. And of course I say it would be naïve to think I was working with the next Petey Greene, or that something I might have said, or this whole tutoring process in general, really did change him. That it changed anything. But when I’m driving home, tipsy on Algebra and Grammar and actually getting it, I think to myself that I will never really know that for sure. If that’s not hope, it’s close enough.