Success — Who Can Judge?

Success — Who Can Judge?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Success — Who Can Judge?

While awaiting sentencing, I decided to give stand-up comedy a shot. The judge had suggested I get my act together, and I took him seriously.

~Tim Allen

In September 1997, I coordinated a project to bring a group of motivational speakers into prison for Make-a-Difference Day. The warden had given me a list of specific criteria each speaker needed to meet in order to gain entrance to the prison for that program. The first item on that list was: “No criminal record.”

I had volunteered in this prison for the past five years, and when I decided to coordinate this program, I had immediately thought of many potential speakers — including several former inmates. I had been especially excited about inviting one in particular to speak — Rick.

Rick had spent most of his adult life in prison. It appeared he was on the in-and-out plan. First he would be in, then he would be out — released just long enough to get himself sentenced to be in again. But two years earlier he had been released, and he had not returned. He had finally found a way to become successful in society. I was proud of him. I believed his story could help make a difference to the current inmate population in a way no other motivational speakers could. After all, Rick had been there, and now he was a success — on the outside.

So I asked the warden to make an exception. “Obviously, he has found a way to live successfully and responsibly,” I pleaded. “I’m sure his message could move these inmates like no one else’s.”

“Tell me the name again,” the warden requested.

“Rick,” I said, and I gave his full name.

“But Rick is in Booking right now — he was brought back in last night.”

I felt my heart drop. I must have been wrong. Rick wasn’t a success after all. He had been out of jail for two years — but now he was back. And probably for life. Hadn’t the judge warned him at his last sentencing? If he was arrested and convicted again, he would be sentenced to a life term as a habitual criminal.

I was beyond disappointment. Part of me felt like chucking it all. Make-a-Difference Day? Hummphh. Apparently, nothing made a difference. But I kept working at the arrangements anyway — halfheartedly.

A week later, I ran into Rick at the weekly meeting I sponsor in the prison. I was both happy and sad to see him. I greeted him with my standard big hug, and I told him how I felt.

“I was so sure you had made it! I was certain you were a success! What happened? I’m so disappointed.”

Rick’s answer surprised me: “But Tom, I am a success. In forty-four years, this is the longest time I have ever been out of jail. I was responsible! I paid my electric bills and phone bills — for two years! I have been clean, drug-free and sober for all this time. I did a stupid thing, yes. But that is nowhere near as stupid as the stuff I used to do. And I’m only sentenced to four months for a parole violation. Me? I can still walk with my head held high. I am a success.”

I’m not ashamed to tell you that the next thing he said brought tears to my eyes. “Please don’t be disappointed — so much of my success is because of you! The way you always showed up, week after week, and helped us put this program together. The way you always greeted me with a smile and genuine concern about how I was doing. The way you believed in me even when I couldn’t believe in myself. Maybe those couple of hours every week weren’t such a big deal to you, but to me, they were everything.”

He was right. He was a success. He was a success because he saw himself as one. Rick had changed.

The funny thing was, now that Rick was back inside the walls, I didn’t need any special permission to make him a speaker at the Make-a-Difference Day program. Maybe his parole violation actually served a greater purpose, after all. And as I listened to him, the truth dawned on me: Rick didn’t need to wait the four months of his sentence to regain his freedom. His perception of himself had already set him free.

~Tom Lagana

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