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Writers' Fortnight 2019: From Fear, to Family, to Reality - The journey of Martin Suarez’s path to teaching

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Writers' Fortnight 2019: From Fear, to Family, to Reality - The journey of Martin Suarez’s path to teaching

“I never thought that I would change the world, but I would change the life of one, two, three inmates.”

It all started when Martin Suarez, now a High School science teacher at UWCSEA, aged 16 at the time, was taken to an Argentina prison by his Spanish teacher. Having little knowledge of what it’s like inside prisons, Mr. Suarez was surprised to find such a large disparity compared to his perception of prisons, and how it was in reality as he walked into the room – facing even more astonishment when he found deep values and lessons that would be shared from these individuals.


As Mr. Suarez walked into the room where the inmates were having a math lesson, he was taken aback. “If you go to prisons, you find human beings, you think you find animals, but you find human beings,” he said. Although the initial appearance of the prison - “100 inmates, tough people, tattoos” - was somewhat overwhelming, he noticed that the inmates, towards the math teacher, had unexpected behaviours: all were “very quiet and respectfully listening to the young woman.”

The sight he was seeing was almost hard to imagine. He expressed he would have “never expected to find so much respect to a teacher.” At that moment he realised he had to go back again and teach them. “Looking back, I realised it was the reason why I started teaching,” he said. Just from that first encounter, he was moved by the inmates.

From that day on, Mr. Suarez would visit multiple times again, each time being able to feel the same amount of respect and love that these inmates had towards teachers and each other. What action would you take in this situation? After his first visit, Mr. Suarez had “went home and thought, ‘what can I do for these people?’” His first action had been bringing a coloured TV to them. He genuinely wanted to help them out in some form of way.

Values and lessons

When he turned 23, he decided to volunteer as a math teacher to teach in this prison.

At first, it was a bit of a challenge, but as more and more inmates started to come to his lessons, the more he saw how different the inmates were compared to the image that was created of the prison.

As time passed, Mr. Suarez was able to strengthen his relationship, much like a family, with the inmates. “It was an environment of love and respect inside a prison. While everything around that room was darkness, was violent, was awful, inside the room there was like this magical love happening," he said.

Mr. Suarez explained that it was something about the inmates and something about the way they shared such important values that made Mr. Suarez want to help them to succeed in their education and after their release. They would be able to teach him things only they could teach him from their mistakes, their actions. He wanted them to have a future, use those special features that they hold once they were released, and hope they live a fulfilling life. The one way he could help them, was through education.

When asked ‘What surprised you the most?’ he responded with the values he found from them: “Strength, intelligence, leadership, loyalty. You know there are some incredible features you find.” He tells us he would come out of the prison in tears at times. They were so respected and respectful inside the prison, yet so feared beyond the bars. He needed to know how to change this.

Sharing many similarities, yet so different

During his time teaching, he met many inmates that made an impression on him, but there were two individuals that he could not forget about. Mr. Suarez describes they were similar to him, as both were close to his age. “I didn’t see much difference between them and me.” The two inmates were so similar, shared so many of the same values, but because their upbringing was so different, it reflected on their following actions.

One of the inmates named Gaby had killed many policemen and as a result, was sentenced to 25 years in maximum security. Gaby was feared, but had respect from all inmates as the strong leader in the prison. Mr. Suarez thought, “I knew that if I could reach him, and connect with him, I would probably be able to connect with more inmates, because leaderships in prisons are very, very important.” By reaching out to Gaby about how education could immensely help them, he knew he could reach many more

The other, German, was sentenced to 11 years due to a mistake while being involved in a large band which forced him to choose prison over confessing his involvement. Mr. Suarez noticed these two inmates shared values of strength, intelligence, leadership, loyalty, and resilience, yet their background and pasts were completely different.

Mr. Suarez found that these values an individual obtains “doesn’t have anything to do with economical backgrounds”, explaining that although one had much more opportunities and love while the other struggled with hardships during their earlier life and received little to no support, both were able to gain these values and have respect from many others. He found this intriguing, but while he noticed the backgrounds didn’t impact their values, it would somewhat affect their mindsets of wanting to take another path.

Mr. Suarez used them as an example; Gaby being the individual who had struggled during his earlier years before coming to prison – “Gaby had no education, he came from a very tough background, very poor, street boy.” Mr. Suarez went into more detail, “Things that you could not imagine, things you would never, you don’t even see a story in a movie.”

German, on the other hand, was loved by his family, came from a middle class background, and was healthy, and quite educated. He took these individuals as a challenge: “If I could change these two, I could change more.”

Power of education

One important thing that Mr. Suarez learned from this experience was the reality of upbringing and education. With Mr. Suarez’s teaching, Gaby was able to complete his high school education and 90% of his degree to become a lawyer during the years in prison. It showed Mr. Suarez the capability of how much education could impact an individual. Gaby succeeded in becoming one of the best students in the prison, even obtaining a reward.

But, Mr. Suarez would realise the reality and the limit of how much education will be able to help after being released.
One thing that Mr. Suarez stated really pulls us down to reality: “Education has a big power, but not enough sometimes to overcome all that struggle they had when they were a kid.”

Sadly, although Gaby showed fast improvement during prison, after he was released, it is uncertain which path he took, but Mr. Suarez guessed he went back to his ways from before.

German however was fortunate and successful after his release. Mr. Suarez implied that despite the education Gaby was able to receive, because of his upbringing and the lack of love he got as a child, Mr. Suarez suggested this had an impact on his actions and decisions even after prison.

For German, Mr. Suarez explains, “He’s happy, he’s happy of what he’s doing, he’s successful.”

The bittersweet outcome

Some have asked Mr. Suarez: Do you think this has helped reduce the number of crimes? Unfortunately, he believes that “Statistically, I think it’s a big failure.” Mr. Suarez’s actions were unable to impact the number of crimes in Argentina, mentioning the increase in number today's recently due to the worsening of the economy. Currently, the level of crime in Argentina is 73.44, showing a very high rate, and increasing gradually in the past few years.

But for him, he expressed, “It was a learning experience. It was not that I felt I was the teacher, I was learning.” He believes what was most important was how he was able to impact a few significant individuals. “If I focus on the individuals, it’s a huge success.” The fact that he was able to reach a few inmates with education had pushed him forward to the path of teaching.

Although looking at the larger picture, this may not have been as significant, but from his point of view, he stated, “I know individuals, not everyone, but some individuals came out of crimes.”

In the end, he concluded: “I did it for myself. The values you find from these inmates: I saw loyalty, resilience, honesty.” He added: “I learned more from them than they learned from me.”  The significance of education and background was the biggest lesson he had taken from this.

The sight he saw within the inmates was beyond his expectation and something you could only experience in a special place like an Argentinian prison.


Flipboard - UWCSEA East Writers Fortnight student writingTo explore more of the Writers' Fortnight-inspired student writing, please view our Flipboard.

22 Apr 2019
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