LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.
Unidentified Woman: I believe in family.
Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.
Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failures.
Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.
Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.
HANSEN: For our series This I believe, we hear today from Michael Oatman. He penned this essay for a writing class in Cleveland. Oatman is one course away from a Masters of Fine Arts. Ten years ago, a master's degree would've seemed out of the question for Michael Oatman and anyone who knew him.
Here's serious curator, independent producer, Jay Allison.
JAY ALLISON: Michael Oatman told us that until recently, he worked at jobs he didn't like and wasn't good at. Like pumping jet fuel, or as he called it, a gloried bouncer at treatment centers. Oatman describes himself as quote, "menacing, 320 pounds, dreadlocks, and the shoulders of a line backer." But it was in the aftermath of writing a poem that he came to his belief as you'll hear in his essay for This I Believe.
Mr. MICHAEL OATMAN (Playwright, Producer, and Director): I believe that education has the power to transform a person's life. For me, education was the rabbit hole through which I escaped the underclass. I squeezed my 300-pound frame through that hole expecting others to follow, and instead I find myself in a strange new land, mostly alone, and wondering at this new life.
For instance, these days for me, dramatic plays at local arts centers have replaced strip pole dancing at the local sleaze huts. I haven't fondled a stripper in years because now I see the stripper through eyes informed by feminist theory. It's hard to get excited when you're pondering issues of exploitation.
I still wonder what happened to that happy-go-lucky semi-thug that used to hang out with drug dealers on dimly lit street corners. Well, I'm in the library parsing a Jane Austen novel looking for dramatic irony, while many of my old friends are dead or in jail. I was lucky because I didn't get caught or killed doing something stupid. When I was on the streets, I never felt I was good at anything, but I wrote this poem about a girl who didn't care about me, and it got published. I knew nothing about grammar or syntax, so I went back to school to learn that stuff, and one thing led to another.
It's odd to educate oneself away from one's past. As an African-American male, I now find myself in a foreign world. Like steam off of a concrete sidewalk, I can feel my street cred evaporating away, but I don't fight it anymore. Letting go of the survival tools I needed on the street was a necessary transaction for admittance to a better life.
I am still fighting, but in different ways. I've learned the benefit of research and reading, of debate and listening. My new battlefields are affirmative action, illegal immigration, and institutional racism.
I believe I am the living embodiment of the power of education to change a man. One day soon, a crop of fresh-faced college students will call me professor. I may even be the only black face in the room, the only representative of the underclass. I may feel the slight sting of isolation, but I'll fight it off because I believe in the changes that my education has allowed me to make.
ALLISON: Michael Oatman with his essay for This I Believe. Last month, Oatman told us he ran into the girl he wrote the poem about and he thanked her. And 20 minutes before we recorded this essay, he got a new job teaching play writing to young people at risk.
We invite everyone to write for our series. You can find out all about it at npr.org/thisibelieve or call toll free 888-577-9977. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.
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HANSEN: Next week, for the monthly online edition of This I Believe, an essay for "Father's Day." It comes from listener Chris Huntington who teaches in a men's prison in Indian and believes in adoption. This I Believe is independently produced by Jay Allison, Dan Gediman, John Gregory, and Viki Merrick.