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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

February 28, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Lessons from the cell block inspire Cleveland students

When schools talk about “mentoring,” they typically refer to well-meaning adults who seek to provide wayward youth with direction or motivation — shining examples of attainable success.

Willard Jimerson is not that kind of mentor. Now 33, he spent the last 20 years in state prison for killing a 14-year-old girl in 1994, when he was only 13, and he has been free only weeks. Yet he does embody an unexpected version of ambition attained.

Photo by Claudia Rowe / The Seattle Times.

Willard Jimerson talks to students at Cleveland High School. Photo by Claudia Rowe / The Seattle Times.

On Thursday, Jimerson spoke to a crowd of students at Cleveland High School about the power of mentoring, the value of a relationship forged on nothing but hope, with no strings attached.

“Jobs are going to want to use you, other people may have an agenda for you,” he said. “But with mentors, there is no ulterior motive except to see another person succeed.”

This was Jimerson’s second visit to talk with the school’s Youth Ambassadors, a group of teenage counselors working to redirect their peers at risk of dropping out. But he had been thinking about this moment for more than a decade.

He imagined it as a 16-year-old sitting in solitary confinement at the Washington State Penitentiary. He thought about ways that his story might be of use. He often told visitors that he now needed to live for two people — himself and Jamie Lynn Wilson, the girl he killed.

“I went away six weeks after turning 13, so I didn’t get a chance to finish middle school,” he told the students arrayed before him. “But before I knew any of you guys, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I am committed to it.”

It is difficult to overstate the unlikeliness of 13-year-old “L’il Willie” inspiring high school kids to be more caring, to give without seeking gain. Jimerson himself was born in prison — his pregnant mother’s first cellmate, as he told the students. His family is well-known to Seattle law enforcement.

Yet during his own incarceration, Jimerson earned a GED and read everything from algebra texts to self-help. Now a student at Bellevue College, he hopes to transfer to the University of Washington with assistance from staff at the Post-Prison Education Program.

Illustrating the power of mentors a bit more quietly was Gregory Shideler, an oil executive who has known Jimerson for more than two decades. They met when Shideler worked as a Big Brother, biking south from the University of Washington campus to visit young Willie in the Central District. And they kept in touch as Shideler built a career overseas while Jimerson saw his world shrink to the size of a prison cell.

“I’m a hardcore capitalist — you could say one of the elite — and he’s coming from the ghetto,” Shideler said. “We disagree on a lot. But we can meet on one thing: Let’s get you to UW.”

Bridging vast divides, relationships without agenda — these were large themes. But they were not lost on the students at Cleveland.

“It really opened my eyes when you told us how big of an impact we can make,” said a girl named Devon. “Even if it’s just a small bit at a time.”

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