"Searching for Normal" Op-Ed by JonPaul Heinz

“Searching for Normal”
By: JonPaul Heinz

During my incarceration, I have searched for certain feelings to get me through my time. More times than not I have ended up disappointed only because these feelings when I fain them are short lived. Some of the feelings I search for are feelings of normalcy, freedom, and being loved. Out of these three, the one that I long for the most is to feel normal. Most people in today’s society might say that to be normal is outdated; to be unique is what sets you apart. While most might say that, they are not here incarcerated where you feel less that human on most days. Over the past seven years I have sought these feelings quite actively. I have learned that love will come and freedom comes closer each day that I complete here. I cannot shake this feeling of wanted to be perceived as normal. These last three years I have found where I feel most normal more often. This feeling though, is not because of anything I have done; it comes from the way that I am treated by people around me. Washing University’s Prison Education Project (P.E.P. and Prison Performing Arts (P.P.A.) have afforded me the chance to feel normal by being treated as a human not as an inmate.

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I was accepted to Washington University in May of 2017. Being accepted into the P.E.P gave me hope. I now had a chance at a college degree that would open more doors for my future which was uncertain for me.

One of the first fears I had was that I would be judged by the teachers and aides because of where I was. The first class I had was Eric Strobl’s Fundamentals of Writing. I can honestly say the nerves her felt were probably worse than mine. All my fears of being judged easily disappeared by the way he spoke to us. What he said that day has been said by almost every teacher that I have had since then. He said, “I will grade you just like I will a student of campus. I will not judge you off of what you are here for. I do not care to know what you are here for. I will not go out of my way to find out. You guys are my students.”

Right away I felt a weight lift instantaneously. Each Professor, Teach Assistant, and Volunteer has made me feel nothing but welcome. Listening to concerns and being able to sympathize with us is amazing. When they walk in and interact with us, the look in their eyes towards us is something quite unexplainable. Being so used to being looked on with contempt and disdain, the way I am treated by the people of the P.E.P., I know they care deeply and I feel as if I can call each one my friend. Every time I walk into a classroom I look forward to it, because for those three hours I am free and judged at all. I can be myself. I am a student, a normal Washington University student.

As of late, the closer I get to going home, feeling of wanted to be normal has been on my mind a lot. I am several credits away from receiving my Associates. I plan on having my Bachelor’s Degree by the end on 2021. Professor Thomas, Professor Ake, Anna Preus, and Elyse Kupfer spend all their time here helping us prepare for this future. Focusing talks on out interests and areas to focus our education on. They do not have to do any of this; they take time out of their already busy schedule to help us. At times feeling tired, not wanting to be here, they always show up. They way in which they treat us, you would never know if it was true or not. The P.E.P. staff is helping us set the path now that will transition into our better future. For me, I have not had many people who would take time of their day to do this. But P.E.P. does this by leaps and bounds. I cannot thank them enough. I now know that I want to help children who are in Foster Care. If I can help just one child onto a better path, I know I am doing for them what my Professors and other P.E.P. staff have done for me. To give hope for that better future.

Before I was accepted by P.E.P., I was the Institution’s cameraman. I would take pictures for the inmates to send home to their family or keep them for their own personal use. I also would take pictures for all of the other programs that would happen such as G.E.D. graduation, weddings, private speakers, and baptisms. In 2016, I was allowed the opportunity to take pictures for the Prison Performing Arts’ production “Of Father’s and Kings”.

Having never ever heard of PPA I was unsure of what I was going to walk into. I saw some of my friends walk in; they were in dress clothes. I was floored; how could we be allowed to have such niceties in a place such as this? They were able to speak their mind, act of their frustrations with the life they were living. The people that were there watching their performance, they did not see inmates; but everyday humans. No judgment was being placed. For brief moments, my friends were normal everyday citizens. Knowing at that moment, where I wanted to be.

In 2018, I joined the PPA family, participating in their adaptation of Alice in Wonderland’s Through the Looking Glass. The program was headed by Jerry McAdams, who recently passed away, and Christopher Limber. When walking into the classroom anxieties ran high, worrying about how Chris and Jerry would act towards me. I was worried that they would look at me as an inmate, not as a person. Jerry and Chris had us complete exercises that put our fears out of commissions. The way these activities worked made us all vulnerable at the same time.  We were all on par with one another. In mere moments, we were laughing and joshing with everyone in the room. We would also complete writing exercises that would do the same as well.

Every time that I walked into the classroom, I loved seeing Chris and Jerry. They became a huge part of my life and still are. Each moment that I was in there with them, I forgot that I was here and felt normal and free. When it came time for our performance for the audience, I was not overwhelmed with fears like I previously thought that I would be. I had on a nice dress shirt with a tie and a nice pair of dress slacks. I cannot tell you how long I just looked at myself in the mirror; I saw a part of me that was long in the past. I felt like the JonPaul I know I am. A feeling of undeniable ecstasy washed over me. Ready to embrace the challenge that was in front of me. I had people in the audience that I knew cared for me, but I also had people there who did not know me at all. After the performance, these people came up to me and congratulated me on my performance. they told me how it opened their eyes to the plight I was going through. Here I was, in prison, having people who never met before, caring.

This time around, we do not have Jerry McAdams, his memory will always live on in our performances. He gave us so much of him that I cannot begin to explain. Still having Chris is a blessing. This time around, we have two new people in our PPA family: Sophia and Jaclyn. Fears of the past always have a way of creeping up on you. Once again I was scared of being judged. Sophia and Jaclyn are amazing ladies, who need not have been feared. They came in ready to accept, ready to work with us, and ready to learn who we are as people. They were invested in the performance, just as we were. Several weeks ago I had the experience to see just how much they cared when they read an article I had published. Jaclyn told me how proud of me she was, as well as excited. Sophia cried as she read what I had wrote and told me how much it moved her. The feelings that washed over me in those moments gave me exactly what I have been striving for, to feel normal and to feel loved. I am loved by the people of PPA. There is not a single part of me that does not consider them family.

I have found what I have been looking for in these programs. I know that I will not be fully satisfied with everything until I go home. What I get from P.E.P and P.P.A is enough to get me through until I am home. They are the family and friends that help me the most.