“Professor Unruh …” I called on my teacher, my political science instructor. I was an undergraduate student at Fresno Pacific University.
“Please, Richard,” he gently corrected me. “Just call me Richard.”
This was a very cool thing: Mr. Unruh, or “Richard”, made himself personal to us, his students, by offering his first name instead of his professional title. I’ve never been fond of using professional labels to address people that played significant roles in my life. It’s difficult for me, unless the person is a stranger. Major points for Mr. Unruh! But as much as Mr. Unruh inspired me to be humble in my professional identity, I had an opposite response to my students when I became a professor. When one of my students asked me how I’d like to be referenced, I answered, “Please, call me Professor Paz.”
In 2017, I had the privilege of creating and teaching a course for the Masters Degree in the Ministry, Leadership, and Culture program at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. The name of the course is Forming a Community of Mercy, Justice, and Peace. This course is designed to equip students to think critically about their theological anthropology and its relation to the reality of social injustice in their local context—namely around the intersectionality of racism, classism, and sexism. This course also introduces students to a few community organizing frameworks that can help them form the kind of faith community that is committed to justice and peace.
This was my first time teaching as an adjunct professor for a higher learning institution, and I had made up my mind not long after my encounter with Mr. Unruh that if I ever became a professor, I’d prefer students address me by my title “Professor” rather than by my first name. This conclusion had nothing to do with propriety or humility, nor with what seemed more professional or personal. This conclusion was rather inspired by my ambitious dream to attain what many would consider an impossible goal–becoming a professor–and to stop the mouths of my critics and adversaries, including the ones who live in my head.
Let me share a little story …
In 2001, I sat down to play chess with a wise, Muslim brother named Abdul Mohammad. We were both inmates in Fresno’s County Jail, awaiting our prison sentence. I was facing over 20 years of charges for gang related violence, though I was ultimately sentenced to 8 (five in prison and three on parole).
Abdul moved one of his pawns and then asked me, “What is your plan?”
“Plan? What do you mean?” I retorted. “I can’t tell you my plan, otherwise, you’ll beat me.”
Abdul moved another chess piece and said, “I’m not talking about chess.”
“You got heart,” Abdul said. “You got what it takes to make it, more than these fights you get yourself into. But you gotta have a plan. What’s your plan, little brother?”
I was taken back! I never had anyone speak to me with such depth, provoking me to think about my future. For most of my life, up this point, I thought a lot about the past and the present—the things that happened to me, good and bad, and the things I needed to do “today”, maybe tomorrow, just to survive. But the future? Hardly. I didn’t like to think about the future because most of what I saw there waiting for me were two options: prison or death. And I was obviously already bound to the first; the second was swift in coming. Thinking about the future was something I reserved merely for fantasizing about a comfortable life. And that’s about it—pure fantasy, imaginary hedonism, momentary escapes from reality. So the best thing to do, in my mind, was to avoid thinking about what seemed unavoidable—prison and death—and enjoy the fantasy, as well as moments of peace, until death arrived.
Abdul changed this. He provoked me to think clearly. He challenged me to pull the curtain back and peek into my future with hope, yes, even from a hopeless cellblock. And I did. What I discovered was a future with more options than just prison and death. I saw a future filled with opportunities, but available only if I began to prepare now, today.
Inspired by hope and later by a dream that God would send me to college, I picked up a few books and began to re-educate myself, studying everything from basic math to political science. I fell in love with learning and came to the conclusion that becoming a professor was part of God’s plan for me, even though my starting point to that goal was in the California Department of Corrections.
For most of my life, I doubted myself. When I was a kid, my second grade teacher told me that I could become whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, and I smiled with overwhelming joy. But it didn’t take long for poverty, my dad’s deportation to Mexico, and the challenges that come with both of these to change my heart. I lost interest in dreaming as a kid, but for whatever reason, I believed this dream as an adult—the dream that I would go to college and someday become a professor!
“Look where the fuck you at, bro!” One of my older, inmate friends once told me. “You’re in prison, and the world ain’t even trying to hire us to clean their toilets and now you want to become a professor? I ain’t trying to be a jerk, but I just don’t want to see you create false hope for yourself.”
Those that know me can tell you that I’m a pretty stubborn guy. So while these words bothered me, they only provoked me to push harder. Hence I kept studying, reading, and writing essays. I even finished my GED (General Equivalency Diploma), since I didn’t get to graduate high school before going to prison. I was determined to pursue my dream … until I met Sergeant Hernandez.
“Who you run with?” Sergeant Hernandez asked me as I stood naked in the middle of the cellblock with my arms stretched out horizontally while two rookie officers searched me and my clothes. I had been moved to a prison yard (or campus) where no one knew me, and when I first arrived, I told the officers I was not part of any gang, even though on record I was still associated with my old gang and categorized as a Bulldog gang member. So when this inconsistency caught the attention of the officers, they dragged me out of my cell at midnight and interrogated me in the middle of the cellblock, in front of everyone’s doors.
“I don’t run with anyone, sir.” I responded.
“Everyone’s gotta run with someone,” the sergeant responded. “You’re in prison.”
“I know. I just run with Jesus,” I replied. “I’m just trying to do my time so I can get out and go to school.”
I opened my mouth too much.
“School? Like college?” The sergeant asked with a doubtful expression on his face.
“Yes, sir,” I answered with a little joy in my tone. “I’m gonna go to college to become a professor.”
And then it came …
“Hey, fellas!” Sergeant Hernandez shouted loudly. “You hear this guy? Mr. Paz here is on his way to become a professor … with a degree from Avenal State Prison!”
One officer chuckled. The other just grinned. Then Sergeant Hernandez lowered his voice and said, “We gotta take this guy in. He might be a ‘torpido.’” A ‘torpido’ is a secret agent from a gang who hides his/her identity and affiliation in order to enter enemy territory and eliminate the target. The officers concluded that as a possible torpido, it was best to put me away. So they handcuffed me and escorted me to a new cell block in “ad seg” (administrative segregation), what most people know as “The Hole”, that is, solitary confinement. The officers opened the cell door and threw me in as Sergeant Hernandez chaffed, “Welcome to your new study room, professor.”
I was humiliated beyond measure. I should have just kept my mouth shut! I don’t know why I allowed myself to skip in circles and tell the prison world about my goals. It was stupid! I can assure you, however, that this experience really put me in check. And from that point on, I never shared with anyone again. Why? So they can laugh at me?
But God is faithful.
It’s been over a decade since then. And a lot has happened, including my teaching role at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. This role may be a part time, adjunct position, but it’s still a position in teaching at a higher learning institution. It’s still real, and it has become the kind of position that is connected to the kind of story that I could turn around at Sergeant Hernandez, the critics in my past, and the adversary who still lives in my head, and say, “I told you so.” The funny thing now, however, is that I don’t have to say that, or anything at all. Why? Because my students and colleagues knowingly or unknowingly remind me every time we interact that I am victorious … that I am Professor Paz.
God is good.