This post is from 2012, two jobs and four years ago. It was originally published in Living Lutheran, but I see it didn't make the archive cut. I've always liked it so I decided to keep it alive here.
Plus I've been thinking of my mystery guest lately because of an upcoming event I'm working on (see video promo below), with guest speaker who founded a theater project for women incarcerated. More info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1891966661030966/?active_tab=posts
The curious office guest
by Terri Mork Speirs
She telephoned me to say she needed to interview someone for her community college class on nonprofit organizations. And so we agreed to meet in my office, where I did communications and other duties as assigned for a small interfaith agency that runs a network of 12 food pantries.
She entered my office a few days later. My colleagues were all out to meetings and I’d been working in solitude until my guest appeared. Reluctantly, I set my deadlines aside and we sat together at a bistro-sized table in the corner just a few feet away from my desk. It was quiet and we were alone.
Her frame was skinny. Her voice was gravely. Her complexion was potholed. All as if she'd smoked cigarettes since she was a baby. Her hair was overly blond and kind of stringy. Yet she was well presented with a long skirt and a pretty top. We opened with chit chat. To understand her, I had to listen intently because she didn't enunciate in a way I'm used to hearing. It was almost like interpreting a heavy accent, maybe the accent one talks when they've lived hard. She seemed so earnest about fulfilling her school project.
I thought stupid, patronizing thoughts like how great it is that people like her could go to community college. I remembered how much I loved teaching community college. She ended the small talk, pulled out her notebook, and asked me questions.
"What's your mission?" she asked. I answered.
"Who do you serve?" she asked. I answered.
"Where do you get funding?" she asked. I answered.
And on with all the typical nonprofit questions, until she got to this question: "Do you have interns?" Yes, I answered. Not a lot but sometimes, I said. What are your interests? I asked.
That’s when the conversation shifted. She put her notebook down. She put her student persona down. She put her pretenses down. The energy between us changed.
"I'll tell you what my interests are," she said, looking straight at me, talking with confidence and conviction that she didn't exude a few moments earlier. Suddenly I could understand her words perfectly. I no longer needed to strain my ears to pick up her words and sentences. Her appearance became irrelevant because her personal power abruptly stood up tall. It was like she transformed before my very eyes.
"My interests are women who are doing prison time and who shouldn't be," she said. "I'm not saying all of them, but I'd say at least half the women in Mitchellville (nearby women’s facility) shouldn't be there. They were victims. They were defending themselves. They did drugs to escape. They shouldn't be there and there are no services for them when they get out. They get sent to a halfway house but they don't need a halfway house, they need a chance. They need to get back into the world.”
She talked like she knew her subject matter intimately. I forgot about her assignment and my deadlines. A hundred questions rolled through my head. Did you do time? Were you abused? Did you use? How did you protect yourself? How did you get to community college? What’s your story?
She talked with such passion that I felt moved to shut up and listen. She continued: "But I can't do anything until I get my education, that's what I'm focused on now." And that’s what I decided to focus on too, my education. I paid close attention to what she was saying instead of injecting snoopy questions.
She told me she’s working towards her associate’s degree, then her BA in Human Services. She said she wants to improve the system. Maybe start her own nonprofit.
She was finished with the interview. We shook hands and she walked out of my office. I gave her my business card but after she left it occurred to me that I didn't even ask her name. For all I knew, she didn't really exist and I'd simply imagined her. Was she an apparition?
It’s about eight months later, as I write (four years later as I post) and I still think a lot about this meeting. This woman had such a clear vision of personal transformation, I admire her even as I do not see her again. But I do Google search “incarcerated women.” All sorts of reports, stats, and stories come up that you wish were apparitions for the real horror of it all. They tell us to believe that God comes to us in forms we least expect. That Jesus came to set us free. That the Holy Ghost is mysterious and powerful. Are we to take that literally?
She, my curious office guest, seemed to appear to bring me a message. But what?
Here's the video we made to promote our event. I like the way it turned out: