I registered for the class titled "Justice for All," which was to examine the history of prisons and how we arrived at our present state of crime prevention and detection -- not knowing that I would learn a bigger lesson.
When I sat down in class that first day, I looked at Professor Ralph Spinelli, assuming he was a lawyer or something of that nature. As a matter of fact, I was comparing his looks to my grandfather's and figured he was around the age of 70. As he began to speak, he shared with the class the story of his life. That is when I heard the word "felon."
Everyone in class, including me, went silent and looked utterly in shock. The professor was not what I thought a felon would look like. He was not what I was taught to be skeptical of. I was not intimidated nor was I scared. I was interested. He answered every question the class asked with openness and positivity. This man was humorous, intelligent and strong.
After class, I went up to him to discuss my disability, a routine ritual on a first day with a new professor. Unlike the rest of my professors, he did not settle with the basic questions, he encouraged me to tell more of my story and I wanted to tell him. Then I heard him say, "Keep going for your goals. I did not stop with mine even though I have Stage 3 cancer." He continued the conversation of what he still needs to accomplish, why life is beautiful, and how happy he is to have achieved what he has despite multiple obstacles.
At that moment, I thought to myself, society has led me to fear a felon. We as children are taught that anyone who has been in jail or prison will make it nowhere in life, is nothing but a thug and a gangster, lacks intelligence, and steals or harms people to get what he wants. We are taught to avoid felons and to treat them as inferiors. Jobs, educational institutions and businesses have sections on their forms that felons have to mark with no explanation.
Society taught me to label and I did. I judged others without knowing them, simply due to a label. I was naive regarding how hypocritical people can be. As a society, we can be cruel. Yet in religion we are taught to treat others the way we would like to be treated, to apply the golden rule in every situation.
My heart was broken every single day when I listened to this amazing man, knowing how much we judge and label others. People make mistakes. Every person has a story as to why they are the way they are. Listening to my professor made me realize the mistakes and opportunities I have made by accepting society's labels.
A bond was formed with an absolute stranger simply because I chose to ignore society's foolish claims. This man I was supposed to fear became my friend and role model. He taught me that nothing can stop me from completing my goals in life. Perseverance is key and to always stay strong and to keep my head up.
With all of his wisdom and experience that he shared with me, I learned one of the most important lessons in life: Never judge a book by its cover because you never know what is written on the pages.
Randy Geer, a prison guard, stated, "No one should be defined by the worst day or the worst act of their life." Society has the option to continue judging or to stop and do what has always been the plan, to love your neighbor as you would love yourself. I encourage everyone to overcome the obstacle of listening to labels.
If I had conformed to society's expectations, I would not have grown as a person. Nor would I have been able to meet such an amazing person. This man who is labeled a "felon" taught me valuable life lessons that will make me a better, well-rounded person, and in my eyes his only label will be "friend." Never again will I judge a book by its cover.
As for Professor Spinelli's health, what was diagnosed as prostate cancer in 2003 was thought to be dormant for a few years but had metastasized throughout his body. Last year, there were hints of cancer again, including the fact that he lost 84 pounds within the year. After multiple scans, the doctors found that he had cancer in his rib cage and throughout his entire backbone. The treatment that his doctor suggested is one my professor does not want for various reasons.
"I am going to die anyways and I am not afraid of death," he told me. "What matters to me is that I spend the time I have left with my sons and my granddaughter and that I continue to teach. Teaching allowed me to make an impact on several people's lives and allowed me to be a positive influence to others."
"I could not have asked for anything more," he added. "I now know that when I die someone will say, 'Hey! He was a good guy!' No matter what happens to me, I have had worse days. I do not feel sorry for myself and I am happy; nothing is more valuable than your liberty."
Editor's Note: Madison Mooney, a Pleasanton resident, is a sophomore at St. Mary's College. Adjunct Professor Ralph Spinelli, 73, earned his bachelor's degree at University of San Francisco on his 61st birthday and went on to earn an MFA in non-fiction writing at St. Mary's College. He is currently studying for his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, and is a criminal justice and prison-reform activist. He has been sentenced to prison twice.
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