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Punishment, redemption, and hope

Sophia Mielke '25

Last Monday night, Mercersburg Academy hosted poet and activist Ian Manuel as the speaker for the 2023-24 Jacobs Residency Lecture. 

As a teen, Manuel attempted a robbery with some of his friends. During the altercation, he accidentally shot a woman. For the offense, Manuel was sentenced to life. Manuel’s story was one of many included in last summer’s community read, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. 

Manuel’s court-appointed lawyer told him to plead guilty and accept a 15-year sentence. Manuel pled guilty, but instead of 15 years, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for attempted murder and attempted armed robbery. He was only 13 at the time. Manuel spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement. 

However, in 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative won a ruling from the Florida Court of Appeals, which terminated the practice of the sentencing of life in prison without parole to juvenile offenders. The State appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court denied the State’s request for review. As a result, Manuel’s life-in-prison sentence was vacated and he was re-sentenced, which led to his eventual release in 2016.

Since that time, he published a memoir titled My Time Will Come, which elaborates on his journey as an imprisoned juvenile and highlights his determination during this time.

The lecture was not the standard hour-long talk. Instead, Ian Manuel was interviewed on stage by Kaiya Hoffman ’25. 

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into it. It was more of a conversation, which was nice,” Hoffman said.  She collaborated with school minister, Rev. Will Whitmore, to create questions to ask Manuel. A form was also sent out a week prior for students to add their questions. 

“I loved it,” says Hoffman about the evening’s structure. “I think most of them [students] thought it was really interesting. And I think most of them were overall pretty engaged.”

When asked which he prefers—a keynote speech or a chat—Manuel says, “I can do both; I prefer the fireside chat because it’s like doing a Q&A for the whole session. It stimulates the audience in a way that it helps you become comfortable enough to ask questions.” 

Manuel likes to connect to his audience and ensure that they are engaged in his story. He was open in answering questions and explained his experiences and resulting life philosophies. Because he spent most of his early adulthood in solitary confinement, Manuel turned to poetry to find himself. Manuel agreed to perform two pieces of original poetry. He enjoys educating people about his experience and loves it when they ask questions.

Caroline Hobbes, an aspiring writer, had the privilege of enjoying dinner with Manuel along with other students and faculty.  She said, “I was amazed by his poetry. My jaw was dropped during both of his poems. He faced such adversity through his life especially in his developmental years and he is still so in touch with his emotions. His story was truly inspiring and his creativity was breathtaking”. 

Overall the lecture was well received by the faculty and students. It gave the school an inside view of life for a teenager charged as an adult. Students were given the opportunity to purchase Manuel’s book, converse with him in another Q&A, and participate in a poetry workshop the following morning.

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