the letter

There are days, Thursdays. Thursdays in juvie, where I am not sure I have the strength. Today was one of those days. I came tired. They made me wait.

I was impatient with the system. There was a lack of staff. Do I really make a difference? I impatiently text my friend: “I want to work in a bank.”

My wise friend said: “You can’t.”

Sometimes it doesn’t go exactly the way we want, this group of girls is getting the better of me. A few of them don’t want to come. It’s hard to compete with the pool on a hot day (yes, they have a pool). I wonder which is better Citi Bank or Wells Fargo? Who would give me better benefits?

My friend texts me: “When you see the girls you’ll be fine.” She then got a stream of silly, desperate exasperated texts from me…

“Breathe, Nomi, breathe” she texts back.  The class was actually fun – my friend was right. Thank god for my village.

It is the end stretch of the 10 weeks. We are getting ready for the show. It is exciting and creative. A few weeks ago one of the girls gave me two books to read. Books that haunted me. Books that described her life. Books that helped me understand.

I emailed the author, I told him this girl admires him, could he write her? He rose to the occasion. I cried when I read what he wrote.

When the class was over today, I called her over and told her I have something for her. She looked surprised, I handed her a crisp white envelope.

“I brought you a letter.”
She is baffled. Who could I possibly know that would send her a letter?

She takes out the paper and carefully unfolds it. I wish I had a camera, so you could see her face. I wish I had a camera, so I would have her face for every moment I have doubt. For every time I think I can’t continue.

She screams, “Get out of here!” and runs to the bathroom.

I give her a moment alone, I want her to have time to read the amazing words this man wrote her. I walk over and gently knock on the door.

“Can I come in?” She is sobbing.

This is NOT a girl that cries. She is wiping her tears on her shirt. She can’t speak.

“Ms. Ms. No one has ever done anything like this for me! EVER! How did you do this?” she asks and blows her nose on her sleeve.

“I wrote him,” I say.

At this point she is so hysterical, I start to cry as well.

“I write people. They never answer,” she says.

“Well, I told him about you. I told him you gave me the books and that I thought you could learn from him. I told him you were special and you have a chance to change and that I want him to help me, help you, and see that.”

She is hugging me and kissing me.

“I love you,” she says.

This is NOT a girl that says I love you, definitely not to a white woman – like me. And oh my god, we are both crying.

“Do you understand that the door is open?” I ask her. “You can walk through it, you can.”

She looks at me.

“You know what,” I tell her, “when you get out I will take you to meet him. We will go together, and we will meet him.”

She is too overwhelmed to really say anything. She is so happy she skips out of the room. This is NOT a girl that skips. And as she is skipping out she yells to me, “Hey Ms. you know the song I hate, that you want me to sing at the show? Well, I’ll sing it …yaaa, I'll sing it!”

I smile. It is hard for me to prove tangible outcome of my programs. The numbers of girls I serve is not big. When I fill out grant applications I struggle to explain. How can I explain a girl skipping? How do I measure a full heart?

There are days, Thursdays, Thursdays in juvie, where I am not sure I have the strength. And then one of my girls sees the door open, and I hold my breath, and suddenly I have all the strength in the world.

Come on, walk through the open door, please. Walk through the door. I’ll be on the other side. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.

Because really? The bank would never hire me anyway!