Over the months, as Mike’s boxing skills improved, so did his physical strength and mental capability. His coach was impressed with his progress and thought he was ready for a fight – ‘let’s see if he can take a punch’. Mike was registered to fight in a competition near Chicago. The build up to the big event was exciting as Mike became a symbol of achievement and hope in the institution. On the night, the tension was unbearable; I’m sure I could smell fear and anxiety as I sat in the audience waiting. Mike’s fight finally came. He delivered some well placed hits but his lack of experience showed as his opponent pelted him with punches. Mike certainly proved he could ‘take a punch’. After that, he lost interest in boxing and focused more on getting his high school diploma. Although Mike gave up boxing as a sport, the training and discipline gave him confidence, recognition and physical and mental strength. It gave him his life back.

Except in institutions, Mike hadn’t been to school since he was first locked up at 12 years old. He earned his high school diploma while at Geneva and (again with much advocating) was enrolled at a Junior College in Aurora. Several times a week, he was allowed to leave the institution and attend classes in the nearby community. But the story isn’t all good news and wonderful.

For a few days, I’d noticed Mike was listless, moody and unmotivated. He hadn’t come to my office like usual and other staff were beginning to be concerned. I finally went to his room and asked him what was going on. My question unleashed a deep seated anger, and most of it was directed at me. After a few minutes of angrily ranting that nothing was wrong, leave me alone, he flared at me. “Why did you ever make me think I could be something other than what I am? Why did you make me think I could be better? What right have you to mess with my mind? I would have been happy to die in the gutter with a needle in my arm but you think I can be someone else.”

I don’t remember my response to Mike but I’ve never been able to answer those questions to my own satisfaction. Did I unfairly impose my values on him? Did I use my influence and power in my role to create an unrealistic expectation that would only lead to disappointment and self-loathing? Did I make his life harder to live? As professionals in the ‘helping’ careers, where do we draw the line when we have influence and power over others? Do we use a Christian ethos as an excuse to convince ourselves that we must ‘save’ others that we define as ‘less fortunate’? After 40 years, I still can’t find an answer that respects people’s rights and that I’m certain is totally, morally true for me.