Sitting in the graduates’ staging area just minutes before he was about to collect the proof that he had in fact completed high school, Ryan State was busy fidgeting with his mortarboard and the tassel dangling in front of his face.
Things had to be just right for the moment last Thursday afternoon when he walked up to the podium to get his diploma.
That day, State, 27 and 10 other inmates at the Alexandria Detention Center each received their General Equivalency Diplomas after passing the requisite exams earlier this year.
No, it wasn’t your typical graduation ceremony a cadre of sheriff’s deputies spread about the jail’s gymnasium was one hint, the five dozen or so audience members with “PRISONER” emblazoned on their backs were another.
However, the emotions of the moment and what it meant to the men and one woman who earned their degrees could be found at any commencement event.
“I feel great, like this is the first day in the rest of my life,” State said after the ceremony while others in the room were chatting with family and eating cake. “I still got a lot further to go but this is the first day, the first step.”
The day was the realization of a long-standing objective for Melvin Parks, a Southeast D.C. native who passed the test on a whim of a first attempt.
“It’s an accomplishment,” he said, flanked by family and friends following the proceedings. “It’s a goal that I reached and I set out for.
“It means a lot to my family. I’ve got three boys and it’s hard to tell them to do something you haven’t achieved.”
The class of 11 set a record for the city’s jail, according to Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne.
Police Chief Earl Cook provided the keynote speech, commending the inmates for their efforts at self-improvement.
“The graduates here today took the time to say, I’m going to recommit myself,'” Cook said. “I think that’s the first step towards something in a different direction.
“I admire the fact that you didn’t have to, but you elected to do this.”
The GED-recipients who had family and friends sitting behind them posed for photos and shared hugs with their loved ones after the conclusion of the ceremony. Lawhorne said at least one inmate told him he took the test just to be able to hug his mother again.
Parks said he has already begun to make moves toward a more constructive future.
“I already put in an application at a community college while I’m in here, so I’m waiting on that to come through so after that I can try to go to college,” Parks said.