Walking into this college classroom, one student was already seated, a full half-hour before class would start.

He was quiet and respectfully reached out to Deb, my escort for the day, thanking her for this program she had started almost a decade earlier. We seated ourselves in the back of the room where we would observe.

As students meandered in, one thing stuck out — their genuine desire to be there, at 8 a.m. on a Monday — that is not how I remembered college.

Steve Moro, now teaching at UMaine Rockland (UROCK), and a Camden Hills High School teacher for decades, came over to formally introduce himself and engage in conversation about mutual connections. Many students made their way over to “Mr. Moro” and “Deb,” all with the same polite message: “Thank you for being here.”

Deb, Steve and I didn’t have to “be here”; here was the Maine State Prison facility in Warren.

Sitting next to us was our prison liaison, stoic but openly supportive of what was happening; student inmates greeted him respectfully, including him in conversation.

The class: Public Speaking. The assignment: Persuasion. As 18 students entered, they placed their names on the whiteboard in an open slot for their 5-minute public speech. The engagement with other students was reserved but evident. Most engaged “Mr. Moro” with small talk, all happy he returned to teach them after a couple of weeks' hiatus.

The two one-page assignment sheets laid out “Public Speaking Rubric.” It was concise: Choose a topic and turn it into a thesis. Next, develop a line of reasoning and take a stand citing three supporting points to persuade your audience.

First up, a Somalian immigrant. He told about being a “child of war,” speaking softly, with pregnant pauses creating multiple crescendos. When he spoke about his mother sending him off with his grandfather, who would shepherd his departure for America and a better life, the classroom went silent. You could “hear a pin drop” as he took us into his world.

The structure was for Mr. Moro to lead a debrief after each speech; the students’ job was to break the speech down. The feedback was poignant; thanking the speaker, telling him this was his best speech to date, and judging him on 12 points laid out on the one-sheeter.

Honesty, respect and hope emerged as one speaker after another shared a personal story and listened to his peers’ constructive critiques.

Another speech was about asking for help. The speech laid out the difference between asking for help and expecting others to do the work. The message of “catch me a fish and I’ll eat for a day, teach me to fish and I’ll eat for a lifetime” was my takeaway.

Another speech was about a problem with prison computers; the speaker relied on audience participation to show how those with updated computers were only 11% susceptible to losing data, compared to the group with older computers where 75% of users had lost work. His solution included writing to administrators, reminding his audience to be respectful and not angry. My takeaway: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

The most animated speech was about fishing, and the message was, when you get a snag, don’t yank. It was a metaphor of life speech, riddled with humor and grotesque imagery when the part about the eyeball meeting the hook came.

Even though the speaker had his audience enthralled with riveting storytelling, the teacher respectfully interrupted, reminding the speaker of the “pause,” asking him to rewind 20 seconds.

The speaker took a breath, and the effects were numbing; the audience had closed eyes in horror, now feeling every moment of the “hook and the eyeball” meeting.

The takeaways from the day centered on respect, hope and redemption. The eight speeches before break were outstanding; far better than one would expect from any intro college class. The feedback was inspiring, helpful, honest and encouraging.

How negative feedback is constructed can be telling. On this day, a student offered the speaker these words: “I loved your speech but your vocabulary is a little too strong for your audience. I was able to follow and your points were well made, but I didn’t know several words you used.”

When you start and end with respect, you forget most of these students were in the middle of serving decades, many for horrific crimes. In this room, they were students. In this room, life was about hope and what it might look like to be on the outside again.

I wrote recently about 20 graduates who came from this program and how the math and humanity works. The general populace of prisoners has over 70% recidivism rates while inmates who have come through the college program have returned less than 1% of the time.

Annual costs to taxpayers for a prisoner are about $45,000. The investment in keeping them on the outside, by providing education inside, is Commonsense 101, the ultimate no-brainer.


I have learned this: it is not what one does that is wrong, but what becomes as a consequence of it.— Oscar Wilde, author (1854-1900)