POWERHOUSE GLOBAL MAGAZINE (PGMAG) INTERVIEW WITH:
BETH DEACON (BD)
PGMAG: Beth, welcome to today’s interview with Lady Anita.
BD: It is such an honor to be interviewed by you. Powerhouse Global Magazine offers great insight to its readers on such a variety of topics and I am grateful to have this opportunity.
PGMAG: Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am a person who is passionate about teaching. I would love to use the gift of your platform to speak of my most recent work as an author and coach, but I cannot do so without paying homage to my roots.
Although my book Seven Doors In, where I share my experience of teaching in a maximum security prison is part of the reason I have been asked to be here today, I could not have gotten here without all events of the past. The time I spent teaching in the prison emboldened me to live and teach by a new motto, “be brave enough to make a change.” But, none of that would be possible without my Midwest upbringing and core values that my parents instilled in me; treat people with respect and kindness, always have a strong work ethic, get a good education and take risks.
I grew up in the small town of Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My father worked in the copper mines, and my mother stayed home to take care of my four siblings and me. This small town was a safe place to grow up. We never locked our doors or worried about getting hurt in any way. We lived a life filled with family cookouts, enjoying the outdoors and working hard at home and at school. I believe this is why my introduction to my students in the penitentiary, was such a shock. I was sheltered and naive of what was really happening outside the bubble of my bucolic life. Although my parents instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic and good education, they didn’t tell me those opportunities were not afforded to everyone. On weekends, my father would have my siblings and me outside working by 8am. We spent time on projects like fixing the roof, painting the house, working on our vehicles and shoveling snow. Unlike many of my students, we were not dodging bullets or fists. We were not looking for our next meal or worried about where we would sleep at night. I am so grateful for the way that my parents raised me and for what I learned about life, but I am even more grateful that they challenged me to keep getting an education and to take risks, which is what brought me to my career as a teacher - a teacher with a classroom filled with students of all ages, races and abilities.
I take each opportunity and try to make something positive from it. Changing the teaching environment at the prison brought students hope that they would succeed in school.
As we worked together, they learned about accountability, teamwork, leadership, kindness, helping others, and understanding that sometimes we need to step up and help others even if the person sitting next to us may not be someone with whom we want to associate with. I learned many lessons from my students throughout my 29 years of teaching and even more from being a wife and a mother of three. My kids are proud of what I am doing and they are encouraging me to write a second short book called “Seven Doors Out'' which speaks to parents, students, and teachers about the many obstacles kids face in school with some ideas of how to move past them. School should be a place to learn, develop social skills, and make great memories. This book will give suggestions to help navigate through high school and begin to look for a vision for their future.
My family supports the idea to turn all of this into a business called, The 7th Door LLC. This is where I can continue to help others, especially focusing on coaching teens. I named it the 7th Door because I had to walk through seven secure steel doors before finally reaching my prison classroom, where my life and my focus were changed forever by the strength of my students. I want to reach more students to help them uncover that strength and potential and help them to be brave enough to make a change.
Lastly, the story of my book has offered me invitations for speaking engagements, both here and abroad, asking me to share my motivational stories and the importance of connecting with students in and out of the classroom, helping them to be “Be brave enough to make a change.”
PGMAG: You received the Sanford Award for Inspirational teacher in your state. What is your message for teachers who struggle to engage their students in loving the subject (maths)?
BD: I think most teachers would agree that the actual teaching of the subject area is the easiest part of our job. It is indeed the engaging part that is the most challenging. I have a wonderful colleague who coined the phrase “when the walls come down, learning begins.” It is our challenge as teachers to find out how to get those walls to come down, so that we can begin to build a rapport with students so we can find that path to success for both of us. If we can’t connect, how can we teach? My recommendation, or perhaps what worked best for me, was taking the time to learn about my students so we could have some fun and I could reach them on their levels. For this, I was inspired by my own children. Whenever I walked into their rooms, I would find them with music playing and they were always singing. I decided to adopt this and now when anyone walks into my classroom, there is always music playing and my students find me singing.
I took this a step further when my youngest daughter asked me to take her to see Ed Sheeran. I sheepishly asked who that was and was immediately educated as to the popularity of one Mr. Ed Sheeran. The idea came to me that if my daughter was excited to go, perhaps this was the incentive I needed to light a fire under some of my high school students. You see, the standardized tests were coming up, and the school at which I took a position after leaving the prison, had some of the lowest scores in the state. So, I hatched an idea and told my students that if they worked hard to improve their scores, I would get them to that concert. That promise took a whole community of support, and so when the kids reached their goal, it was with the help of administrators, teachers and a few calls to centers of influence in the community that we were able to procure 55 tickets for the concert, funding for a bus and food for our students, as well as t-shirt identifying our group, and creating memories of a lifetime. This was not done by me as one teacher, but instead involved the entire school community. It was an incredible way to connect, and it just took an idea and a little bit of risk taking.
Taking risks and trying new things with my students is always central to my teaching. In my book I share what I did to inspire men who were to spend a lifetime in prison.
Here, I want to share how we can help kids avoid that life by letting them know we care. I remember years ago, I needed to reach my geometry students, so I brought them together with the idea of trying out for the popular game show (Deal or No Deal). Together we made a video to submit and we asked students interested in videography to help do the filming. We even asked the administration to be part of the video. Word got out that we
were working on this outside of class and suddenly we were receiving monetary and cheerleading support from the community. Although we did not get on the show, we did grow closer as a community with so many excited to have been a part of the production. I had the pleasure of chatting with some of those students from twenty years ago, when we talked over Christmas break. Their excitement still shines through when they talk of it and they light up as if it was yesterday—what a fun way to connect with students and the school community.
PGMAG: Please tell us more about your book (Seven Doors In).
“Seven Doors In” walks the reader through the steel security doors and into my classroom in a maximum security prison. Through the stories of the students who walked through that door, the reader will see what really happened behind Door 7 when someone took the time to genuinely believe in the men, sometimes for the very first time in their life.
I walked into the penitentiary with no judgment or expectations. I left, having been gifted a new appreciation for life and with a better understanding as to why justice reform is so very important. It is my hope that people read my book without judgment and see what I saw behind Door Seven. No one in this world is perfect; we have all made mistakes. I believe some people can learn from those mistakes and be an asset to society. Not all are capable of living in the free world; however, some are, and we can’t forget about them. Those who walk in through steel doors are not always the same people who walk out and it is for that reason that justice reform is so very important. How can we incarcerate someone, ask them to go to school, learn a skill, change their ways, repent and grow and yet not give them the opportunity to use their reformation out in the world beyond prison walls?
PGMAG: You are a powerhouse woman to have been able to work in a maximum-security prison as a ‘classroom teacher’. What was it like helping the inmates earn their diplomas?
BD: The men were my students, and I was their teacher. That is the mentality I had from the day I walked through Door Seven. It doesn’t matter the age of my students or where the classroom is located; it was my job to help all my students reach their potential. Before teaching at the prison, I worked in adult education for a couple of years teaching General Education Diploma (GED). I would teach my high school students during the day and then spent my evenings teaching adults. I learned quickly that adults appreciated the help much more. Adults attended school because they experienced life without education, whereas kids went to school because they were told they must. My teaching style never changed, no matter the age of the students. It has always been important to me to teach not only subject matter but about life also. In every classroom, teamwork, accountability, leadership, successes, failures and being true to one’s self were important principles to teach.
I remember my first-day teaching at the prison. A student raised his hand and asked for help with math. I sat next to him. He had headphones on as he was listening to music as he worked. He removed one headphone from his ear and seemed to half-heartedly listen.
But after I explained the problem to him, I asked him to go over another with me. Through questions and answers, he made his way through the problem successfully. Soon after completing the first problem, he removed the other headphone. He looked at me and said how he could tell I wasn’t scared. He reminded me that I was sitting among murderers and rapists and hardened criminals, yet I didn’t seem scared. He asked me to explain. I addressed him yet knew the other students listened intently. I let them know I believed I had no reason to be scared. I was only here to help. He was my student, and I was his teacher and nothing else mattered to me. I said that happened in their lives before that day was in the past. We were now looking forward and I would push them, encourage them and teach them all so that they could reach their goals.
PGMAG: Please tell us about your projects and how we can support you.
BD: I am so proud of my book 7 Doors In, and getting that book out to the public is very important to me and to my supporters right now. I want to share with the readers how the offenders, as my students, are proof of just what it means to believe in someone and the difference it can make. I want to be a voice for those men. Their stories need to be heard. Many of them told me that if they had someone in their lives that had believed in them, and had shown them that they could succeed in life; their choices would have been different. It was actually the offenders themselves who encouraged me to go back to the high schools to teach. They wanted me to reach the kids before they made bad choices in their own lives, before they did something that couldn’t be undone and brought them behind steel doors. I decided to do just that, and so after writing the book, I have been focusing more time and effort on Teen Coaching. With a little compassion, I believe these students can make better decisions and stay focused.
This new passion was sparked by my own daughter who struggled socially in school. She was born with rheumatoid arthritis and at the age of 12, developed epilepsy. When our family moved from Michigan, it was very tough for her. I was teaching at the prison while she was in high school and would learn that she had trouble making friends. To make matters worse, she had several grand mal seizures at school and it scared those around her and sent her deeper into herself. My offender students learned some of this, and to my surprise, shed tears over her struggles and wanted me to get back with younger students so that I could share my daughter’s story as well as their own. I don’t want to see kids struggle as she did and so I want to be there to help inspire them to shoot for the stars and embrace their differences and yet always be reaching a hand out to help someone else.
PGMAG: What is your message for world leaders?
BD: What I would tell the president
Dear Mr. President,
I am afraid that you have assumed the mantle of leadership in what qualifies under the old curse as interesting times. It is with profound hope in my heart that you help lead our nation and our world beside still waters. The recent history of our nation has been tumultuous. Divisions between races' ideologies and classes have been exploited and widened. Never in my lifetime has the phrase E pluribus unum seemed to hold so little truth. Instead I find myself thinking of Lincoln’s famous speech, quoting the scripture of Matthew that a “house divided against itself shall not stand”. It seems that we are more a house divided, we are a house fractured. Everyone has become a single issue person and that issue is uncompromisable. The ability to listen, to reason and treat those with a different point of view with compassion and respect seems to have waned in these tumultuous times. The nation and the world need you to address our divisions with calm and steady resolve. We don’t need tweets, sound bites or new emojis. We need leadership and a vision for a better future, a future where lives matter, where injustices are corrected and justice is reformed and where we work towards One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for All. Good luck Mr. President. Our prayers are with you.
PGMAG: What are the top three books that changed your life?
BD: When rummaging through my memories to identify three books that have impacted my life, I have been shocked by the revelation how long the simple if slightly vain joys of isolating myself from the clamorous noise of life and immersing myself in a book have been absent from my life.
My quiet time to read has been slowly supplanted by the joys and demands of career and family. While this epiphany of lost connection to contemporary literature has been a jarring awakening, a couple of books from my simpler times do come to the forefront of my memories. Sometime in my middle school years, I read The Diary Of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank. This simple diary by a girl of my own age suddenly bridged the separation between my own teenage struggles and the horrors of World War 2. That Anne was able to do so much more than just survive under those circumstances for two years was an inspiration. To remain optimistic not just in herself, but in humanity while those atrocities surrounded her, helped me see brighter days ahead.
The second book that made a lasting impression is also an autobiographical account of another young girl’s life. It opened my eyes and my heart to childhood experiences that were a different world from mine but with such directness that I was able to empathize with the character. I felt closeness with Maya as I read her story, not the detachment one often preserves when learning the story of someone else. Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, opened a portal in a world so different from my own upbringing in a small homogenous northern town. The care and support of strong, loving family members and the heartbreak that can only come from those closest to you were both known to me. The depth and breadth of the racism she experienced were beyond imagination. My sheltered world had not prepared me for her story. Having two grandmothers that were both just as comfortable speaking in their separate native tongues as in English, I thought my worldly view was wide enough to encompass our nation if not the world. Through Maya’s writings, I quickly gained insight into a much wider view.
As I compose my answer to your question, I am struck by how both of these books are about strong, young girls becoming women about their struggles and triumphs in two worlds so different and menacing from my own. The power of a well-written story is the power to let the reader learn and grow.
It is hard for me to bring forth the third book that has deeply affected me without sounding conceited and self-serving. “Seven Doors In” is my first book, and it’s currently at the publisher and it makes my list because it has changed me. My vocation is an educator, not an author. When over the course of three years I had a lifechanging experience, I knew I had a story to tell. I started writing my book with a childlike optimism, how hard could writing a book be! People do it every day. I am an educated successful woman, I love solving problems and I enjoy calculus.
Writing a book has been the hardest thing I have done. When you write about yourself, you have to take long, hard looks within. There are no superpowers.
I realized that I am not a superhero, perhaps arrogant enough to consider small triumphs as heroic but more often when recounting opportunities lost, stands not taken, and wrongs not righted, villainous by omission. The desire to tell my story is an attempt to admit my frailties and acknowledge my success is due to the support of those around me.
My eyes have been opened to the inequalities in our society. Not only do I better understand the advantages I have been given, I see the nearly insurmountable obstacles that are set before so many. I admire and strive to emulate the courage and optimism that I read about in Maya Angelou’s and Anne Frank’s writings and that I saw every day in the prison where I taught.
PGMAG: Who would be your ideal dinner date, and what would be the topic of discussion?
BD: Not so much as a date but I would love to have Oprah Winfrey over for a dinner conversation. My half of the conversation would be a bit of an introduction and would go something like this.
I’m delighted to meet you. I have long admired you, your gracious success and your altruism. I am sure you are constantly beset by requests for your support. Instead of asking, I would like to offer. Is there a project, task or enterprise that you believe in but have been unable to fully support due to all of the other demands in your busy schedule? If so, I would like to offer my services to help advance your cause.
I am willing to work for you on any effort that needs attention. The primary causes that resonate with me are justice reform, racial equality, and education. In order to understand the skill that I am offering, I will need to apprise you of my qualifications.
I grew up in a small northern Michigan mining town. I am the mother of three beautiful children aged 20, 17, & 15. I am the fifth child of third generation immigrants. My undergraduate degree qualifies me to teach all high school math and science classes, although my love in mathematics. I have a master degree in school administration. Relatively late in my career, a co-worker asked for some help in our evening local adult education classes. My first class opened my eyes. I started teaching a whole new class of students, students that realized the need and value of a high school diploma. Some were my former students that had made poor choices, retired and one young man who got a work release from the local jail to study for his G.E.D. This was some of the most rewarding teaching I had done in my career.
In 2014 our family moved to southeast Iowa. I saw a posting for an adult education teacher at our local maximum-security prison. That began the three most formative years in my life. My views on race, redemption, opportunities, and the hope within the human spirit have been forever altered. My work at the prison and all that I learned from the prisoners and staff is the subject of a book I have written, due to be published this summer.
That is a brief glimpse into who I am and what drives me. If you believe that there is anything, I can contribute to advance the causes that you hold dear, I would be excited to help. Hopefully Oprah and I would find some common ground between the main course and a decadent dessert.
PGMAG: Finally, what would you say to your younger self?
BD: You will meet opportunities and adversities. You are strong enough to handle both. Even though you find it difficult, it is good to pause and savour the good moments. These will be lost, some of which you will not be ready for and some you will recognize in its time. In forty years, you will be a stronger, better person than you are today. And just like your dear mother, your hair will turn grey early. Deal with it.
PGMAG: It’s been great having you on today’s interview – Thank you for your time.
BD: Thank you for your time and the contribution that your organization has made to society worldwide.