Monica Bennett-Oakley: In Cognitive Intervention class, persistent Windham teacher helps woman change life choices, change destiny
Tears streaming down her face, Monica Bennett-Oakley took an unexpected phone call after delivering a speech in San Antonio. She had just publicly praised a prison teacher from her past, when a member of the audience phoned the now-retired correctional educator. Overcome with emotion, Oakley found it difficult to speak when she was surprised with a call from her mentor.
"You have changed my life forever, Mrs. Bohne," Oakley told her former Windham School District teacher, Pam Bohne. "What you told me in class changed my life. What you taught me was, 'If you change your choice, you can change the reaction to everything that is going on in life.' You even made me write down goals in our Cognitive Intervention class to finally make changes. I have mentioned your name in magazine articles and in every speech I've given, and I've been looking for you for about six years just to tell you this: Thank you so much!"
Oakley, formerly incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), had just shared her inspiring – and sometimes shocking – life story with correctional educators from four states in a Region V Meeting of the Correctional Education Association. Beginning with her parents' "bitter divorce" when she was a little girl, Oakley survived a series of tragedies that fueled rage and rebellion and led to years in prison. Molested at age 10 by her babysitter's son, she reached for alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs in the next few years to deal with anger, despair and "loss of control and dignity." She ran away from home by age 15, tried crystal meth at 17 and was pregnant at 18. Oakley was in self-destruct mode.
After marrying a man who later became violent, Oakley found herself again pregnant. She got a divorce and gave birth to a third daughter, so her mother ended up raising all three girls. While working briefly in construction, Oakley tried to stay sober but again married an abuser. She was back on the path to divorce, depression, and drug abuse, and before long, she was homeless, shocked by her own sad state of living. Oakley ended up being arrested for prostitution, writing hot checks, and petty theft, and she did time in county jail.
She tried sobriety once more before turning to selling drugs. At this point she made the bad decision to drive to Houston with a man who was going to rob a liquor store. Oakley ended up with an eight year sentence, and she realized six previous sentences in county jail were nothing compared to TDCJ.
Isolated from outside influences, she began to read the Bible and enrolled in Windham School District's Cognitive Intervention Program (CIP), led by teacher Pam Bohne. Oakley says her instructor told her to stop blaming her mother for everything bad in her life.
"Ms. Bohne told me, 'You're projecting everything that goes wrong onto your mother, and it isn't her fault,'" Oakley says. "She told me, 'You have choices, Monica. You can choose not to get angry.'"
"For the first time, I realized 'choosing' meant I could change," Oakley says. She wrote out a five-year plan of personal goals, including earning college degrees, and decided to change her life. She was released from prison in 2008.
Oakley began to study for college entrance exams, and after release, was able to enroll in college classes. In May 2012 she earned an AAS in Drug and Alcohol Counseling with a 3.9 GPA, Summa Cum Laude. She has been married again for more than two years, established relationships with her grown daughters, taken a role in parenting her young stepsons, and enjoyed being a grandmother. She is now a full time college student working on a degree in Process Technology with Lee College and a part time employee with a weekend rental business near Winnie, Texas.
"It's the education I learned in the Cognitive Intervention class that changed me," she says. "I learned to change my perspective. If I change the way I see things, I can change the way I react to things; I can change my destiny."
Oakley summarized her new lifestyle in the phone conversation with her former teacher: "I've won many awards and honors in college, and it's all because of the goal you made me write in our Cognitive class," she told Bohne. "I love you, and I thank you for standing on my toes. You stood up to me, showed me you cared about me, and you changed me. I thank you for everything you did for me in that class. Because of you, I tell my story openly."