The instructor with a long, graying beard stood before a white board that had that day’s algebra lesson written on it: “Solving Systems of Equations by Elimination.” As Ismail Abdurrashid, attired in traditional Muslim dress and skull cap, wrote equations on the board, 11 inmates bent over their desks, scribbling.
Talk segued into the quotation of the day, from Marian Wright Edelman. It began: “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”
Some of the students at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston spoke, softly. “I got kicked out of school for fighting,” said one. “I made it to the 10th, then thought there was something better than school,” said another.
Abdurrashid, 46, had his own taste of the streets, and so carries street cred with his students, who call him “Ish.” He also carries scars and other physical reminders of how he almost didn’t make it — but for the grace of God, he believes.
Abdurrashid knows that his jailhouse work helps him as much as it does his students. “This has afforded me the opportunity to do some of the most powerful work I’ve done,” he says. “This is a team effort here.”
Every weekday, Abdurrashid teaches men and women, in separate classes, math, reading and writing. As the program coordinator and lead instructor for the College Connections program at the nonprofit College Bound Dorchester, he’s there to help them pass the tests for admission to community and four-year colleges.
The classes began 18 months ago at the medium-security prison, where inmates are serving sentences of 2½ years or less. Most are drug offenses. The men serve an average 12 to 14 months, women 6 to 8 months. They range in age from 17 to 27, and many have families they need to support upon release.
“The question is, how do you want them to return home?” says Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins. “I’d rather have people home with their families and taking care of their kids than having the kids come here and see their parents in jump suits. Education is key to improving their lives.”
That’s where Abdurrashid comes in.
In 2001, Abdurrashid started teaching GED students part time at the former Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses, a multiservice organization. His natural teaching skills caught the eye of his bosses and when the agency morphed into College Bound Dorchester in 2010, he signed on full time. The nonprofit is based in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden.
“We take the ones that get kicked out of other programs,” says Abdurrashid.
They’re “the Core Influencers,” neighborhood leaders who engage in disruptive behavior, leave school and join gangs. “We try to get them to use their skills not for the negative, but for the positive. A lot of them live the way they live because no one has yet shown them a better way,” says Abdurrashid.
The inmates, dressed in brown or green prison outfits, some with tattoos and scars, have a mix of education: a high school diploma, the equivalency, or neither. The jailhouse classes serve as a sort of gap year for the underserved to get up to speed academically before pursuing college.
The first group of 15 who went through the pilot program enrolled in community college and within two weeks, nearly all had dropped out. “Getting them there is one thing, getting them to stay is another,” says Michelle Caldeira, senior vice president at College Bound Dorchester.
Abdurrashid gets it. Their story is his story.
When he was 4, growing up in Jackson, Miss., his father was murdered at home, and the boy found his body. The crime was never solved.
Raised by his mother, a teacher, Abdurrashid ran the streets with friends. His neighborhood group fought with rival factions. Still, he was smart and got a full scholarship to Boston University’s science and engineering program. All he had to do was maintain a 3.0 grade-point average.
“But I was getting distracted by all types of stuff,” he says. “Gang-banging was becoming an integral part of the culture in Mississippi.”
His grades dropped, and he lost his scholarship. He returned to the street life, this time in Dorchester. Asked about an arrest record, he simply says: “Certain things were seen as ‘rites of passage,’ and arrests were one of those.”
One night, he witnessed a man slapping a woman in his apartment building and intervened. The abuser fled, but returned with five friends. Abdurrashid was stabbed in the spine and paralyzed from the waist down. He was 20 years old.
On his 19th birthday, he’d been given a copy of the Koran, which he began to read. After the stabbing, he made a deal with God: “If you see fit to give me back the use of my legs, I’ll change the direction of my life.”
Today, he laughs: “Be careful what you ask for.”
He says he could feel the nerves repairing and within weeks, was walking again. “God answered my prayer,” he says, “but he left me with a reminder.” A quarter-century later, he still walks with a limp.
Abdurrashid moved to Brookline and worked two jobs to support his wife and young son, eventually becoming a GED teacher for the Urban League through contacts who knew him at his mosque.
He is also associate imam at the Mosque for the Praising of Allah in Roxbury, and he has seven children ranging in age from 7 to 19. As he speaks, he exudes a preacherly bearing, sometimes settled into a zen-like calm, other times gesturing and raising his voice to make a point.
The mosque recently emerged in the news in connection with Usaamah Rahim, who was shot and killed by federal antiterror investigators in Roslindale in June after allegedly lunging at them with a knife. Rahim, who periodically attended the mosque, had been under surveillance as a terrorism suspect.
Officials at the mosque, including Abdurrashid, have been quoted as saying that Rahim had been devout in his religious practice and that they saw no signs to support allegations that he had been radicalized.
Islam, Abdurrashid says in an interview, “is grossly misunderstood. People have made a sweeping indictment of us all. There is nothing un-American about being Muslim. Islam literally means a practice of peace.”
While he credits Islam for his personal turnaround, Abdurrashid doesn’t talk religion in class. He’s there to teach. Back in the classroom he and his students talk about the future after the math equations are solved. “Having this sentence is not the end game,” he tells them. “Eventually, you’re all going home.”
Some of the students open up, revealing their hopes and plans.
Joseph Smith of Lawrence has nearly completed a 2½-year sentence for assault and battery and resisting arrest. Since 2000, he has served five different jail sentences, but says this is the first time he has “put a sentence to good use.”
Smith earned a GED in 2007 but needs more academic help before applying to Northern Essex Community College, near his mother’s house where he will be living. “To support yourself and better yourself, you have to have an education,” says Smith. “I’ve tried every other route, the negativity in the streets, and I’ve had enough of that.”
Three students, former AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball players, want to recruit at-risk teens to join a basketball team to counter the pull of the streets. Each player must be in good standing with his school, and a case manager would work with teachers and parents.
Abdurrashid still needs his own college diploma. He is taking classes at Harvard Extension School, hopes to earn a degree in education, and open his own school in Boston. Meanwhile, he loves teaching the inmates, offering something that few have ever had: hope.
“I tell them it’s not the end,” he says. “It should be the beginning of something new, something good, something positive.” The class is over, and he leaves South Bay, limping slightly.Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.