09/05/2014 02:43 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Why "Ban the Box" Is Not Enough

In the early 90s I received an AIDS diagnosis. I stopped working and went on disability; I also received two viatical settlements from insurance policies I had long held. For a few years I lived well -- I travelled to Europe, went to circuit parties in Montreal, Boston, New York and Miami, popped up to San Francisco and over to Denver. I stayed productive, writing screenplays and almost getting one produced. (Two directors died on me, one of AIDS, one of lung cancer.) I wanted very much to leave something behind when I died.

In 1991, I'd lost my gay brother to HIV; in the three years that followed I buried seven truly close friends and scores of acquaintances. I battled periodic bouts of AIDS-related ailments as my T-cells plummeted and my viral loads went sky high. Oddly though, because of human growth hormone prescribed to battle wasting syndrome, I looked great on the outside. I went back to work bartending, just as the crystal-meth epidemic in Los Angeles burgeoned in the gay community. The drug gave me energy, sexual stamina and allowed me to forget how soon it would be before my friends and family were arranging my memorial service. The numbers were simply against me, overwhelmingly so.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the hospice: the new meds started working. It took several years before any of us trusted that the drugs would stick. Speaking for myself, I wasn't sure I wanted them to. It's hard to convey how completely my thinking changed when I started living on the two-year plan. When the prospect of have a future became real again, the disorientation was intense. I was a decade behind where I would have been if I'd stayed at my last job. The settlement money was gone, and my finances became tight again just as my addiction went way past recreational.

Drug-dealing was great fun at first. I was good at it -- within a year I was making more money than I ever had. I felt no more guilt than I had as a bartender. In my mind, I was servicing consenting adults who had a right to do what they wanted with their bodies. But there was no way around how dangerous it was. I resolved to get sober and leave the business many times; but the meth had me by the throat. And now I also had an addiction to fast cash and getting away with things.

After my first arrest in 2003, I wove a very tangled web to get out if it, including a forged death certificate. Word to the wise: if you successfully fake your own death, you need to move, even from a two-bedroom for which you pay $750. Eventually my ruse was discovered, and I was re-arrested. This time I was sent to prison.

Thank God. Finally separated from the meth, sanity returned. I realized this was the second act curtain I needed to replace the hatchet that never fell. In prison, it was also glaringly clear how lucky I had been in life. None of the men I was in with had had any of the advantages of my education and a supportive family. I started to document my experience of prison and my sister typed up my letters in a blog. By the time I was released, I was a writer again.

I got sober and put my life back together. I continued to blog, volunteer and found freelance work. I also started motivational speaking, and realized how much I loved the teaching dynamic involved. So I decided to get a Master's degree to compensate for the gaps in my resume. I took heart in how often job applications limited their inquiries to the past "7-10 years." I student-taught. As part of my coursework I was a teaching assistant in three writing and literature classes, two at a community college where it was common for a student to have had experience with the criminal justice system, either personally or in his or her family. I loved teaching this population and the feeling was mutual. But these were internships, no jobs.

It didn't take long after graduation to realize how firmly the doors are closed to a felon who wants to teach. The public high school system makes it very clear that anyone convicted of a drug offense need not apply. It took a little longer to get a clear answer from community colleges, but after spending untold hours applying (I'd graduated with honors and excellent recommendations) I decided to ask if I was wasting my time. I received the email yesterday:

"Unfortunately, there are certain penal codes violations that prevent employment at the community college, they include most drug offenses. Therefore, it appears you would not qualify for employment at the District."

As you can imagine, private schools are at least as strict. It's hardly surprising. What headmaster could not imagine the wealthy parent of a problem student threatening to sue the school for hiring a teacher with a record? "Ban the Box" bills have been introduced in many states -- in California, AB 218

"would prohibit a state or local agency from asking an applicant to disclose information regarding a criminal conviction, except as specified, until the agency has determined the applicant meets the minimum employment qualifications for the position."

This is a good thing. It would mean applicants could at least get through the door. But it still wouldn't allow someone like me to teach.

Admittedly, I'm not typical. Very few college graduates end up in prison in the first place -- the reason I detailed my particular history was to show how it could have happened to someone like me. But I'm not just advocating for myself. I was in prison with many auto-didacts, voracious readers who would have been getting a degree if college courses hadn't been ruthlessly cut when "rehabilitation" became a dirty word in the landscape of "three-strikes" political posturing. Some of those inmates would make great teachers, singularly suited to get through to the very kind of kids they once were. Instead of being used as a potential resource, they face dead-end jobs upon their release. It's a myth that one "pays one debt to society." A record is like a credit-card with a never-ending balance.

It certainly makes sense that a criminal record would be taken into consideration when it comes to a profession as sensitive as teaching. But shouldn't the primary consideration be whether or not the offense was violent? Is it so hard to believe that someone who sold drugs over a decade ago would no longer present the any risk to students? My redemption is well-documented: over 100 Huffington Posts, thousands of 12-step meetings, a Master's Degree in the Humanities. Or you could just ask the students I've already worked with.

My life experience has actually provided me with layers of insight unavailable to someone who has not faced terminal illness, incarceration and recovery. It would be hard to find a student going through something that I could not empathize with. Someone like me should be able to make the case that he would not only be a good teacher, but a great one.