The room looks and smells not too different from the library in the middle school I attended while growing up. Walls lined with books. A floor covered with short, blue looped carpet. Encouraging posters dominated by animals reading books are pasted to any wall without shelves. Florescent lights buzz overhead. The room smells like books do when the humidity from hot Chicago summers seeps into their pages and yellows them. Missing are any of the trappings one finds in school libraries these days. No computers or technology of any sort. A typical, old school library; except this one isn’t in any school building. It’s on the lower level of a juvenile prison.
It’s a Saturday night and a large area at one end of the room has been cleared of its tables and chairs. A group of people are seated in an elongated semi-circle waiting more quietly than you would expect. The 30 teen boys sitting on the floor had all been caught committing some crime that made a judge think they needed to be off the streets. Among these boys are scattered 10 or so college students. It’s a Saturday night and we are at the end of the second day of a three day retreat taking place at the prison.
Most of the lights overhead are turned off, music starts and out comes a large woman with a clown face. She bounces in carrying her tote bag and stops at the open end of the circle, seeming to suddenly notice that she is not alone. It is clear from her surprised expression that finding herself in front of a group of people has caught her off-guard. An introduction must be made. She wordlessly points to the name on her shirt and then points to herself. She is Locket.
Locket is a child at heart and is thrilled to have an audience. She makes a big production of unpacking her bag and showing off her things. A small blanket for a picnic is laid on the floor. She excitedly takes out the sweets she has brought. Before placing the yummies on her blanket she shows them off to her audience and then hugs them to her chest. Finally she pulls out a small stuffed animal friend. It is her toy bunny and she loves him. The look on her face is that of a child being handed their lovey – joy and relief at being reunited. She playfully shows him to her new friends and then places him on his spot on the blanket to share in the impending feast. Once her bunny is carefully arranged just so, Locket is ready.
She picks up and prepares to enjoy one of her precious treats before it seems to occur to Locket that perhaps this isn’t the best place for a picnic. And it’s rude to eat in front of people when you’re the only one who has anything to eat. But she’s so hungry. And she really loves treats.
She tries to turn away from the crowd. Perhaps removing us from her line of sight will allow her to enjoy her sweets in peace. But she knows we’re there. She keeps looking back at us and can’t seem to bring herself to dig in with her usual gusto. Finally, she takes the treat in her hand and brings it over to a boy sitting watching to offer him. At first he refuses to take her food (although real sweets are a rare commodity in prison). But her hesitation is gone and Locket insists on giving him her treat. She wants him to have it. It makes her happy to share. The boy takes his unexpected loot and Locket looks pleased as punch with herself. Back at the picnic blanket, the same mini-drama plays out with her other treat. This time she is much quicker to share this treat than the last one. Another lucky boy receives a treat as well.
Locket is so pleased with herself for sharing that her hunger has been temporarily forgotten. She gathers up her tote and blanket and bunny. When she glances up at us her expression changes. There are still so many of us. She can’t give two people something and not offer anything to anyone else. Buoyed by her pleasure at having shared her food, Locket gives away what she has– her blanket and tote. She’s not thrilled to be letting go of all of her things, but her desire to give is too much to be resisted. Yet there are still so many of us just sitting there staring at her.
Now Locket looks at us and then at the precious bunny she is holding. He is all she has left. She hugs him close like a child, resisting the idea. He’s her friend and comfort. And yet she can’t shake us or her great desire to give and connect with these poor people sitting there with nothing – no lovey, no comfort. With tears and a smile, she finally resolves to give her bunny to a new friend to enjoy. She hands him off to another boy in the circle. When he takes it Locket’s face lifts. She has overcome her own desires in order to make another happy and that is something any child’s heart can take pride and pleasure in. Until she looks around again and sees that she’s hardly made a dent. She has given away everything she had – that which was most treasured and loved by her – and still, there were so many of us who she had given nothing to. And now there is nothing left to give.
Despairing, Locket buries her hands in her face and weeps for a moment. As she pulls her hands away, she sees that they are now smeared with face paint and an idea is born. Starting at one end of the semi-circle, Locket stops at each of us sitting on the floor of that old library and smears a little of her face paint onto each cheek. She is still crying, but these are no longer tears of hurt or loss or frustration. They are holy tears. The tears of someone who has given and suffered for it but would not think to do it any differently.
Soon most of us – juvenile delinquents and earnest college students alike are in tears along with her. Some of these boys had never been given anything – not even love – by the people who were supposed to care for them. Some knew that they had broken the heart of a mother or grandmother who loved them sacrificially. Some knew what it was like to give when it hurt or regretted never having been willing to do so. Some couldn’t escape the fact that they deserved – or thought they deserved – nothing from Locket or anyone else.
I hate crying. I have little tolerance for sentimentality of any kind, but most especially sentimentality designed to elicit tears. I would rather shove wasps up my nose than cry in front of people. So I hold out until Locket reaches me. She drags her thumb across her chin and then along my cheek. Leaning in, she hugs me and whispers, “I love you.” And even though I have never met her before in my life, I believe her. Even now, writing this 20 years later, I have tears in my eyes.
*Locket is Jolene Nelson, a talented artist and truly exceptional human being. Several years after first encountering Locket, Jolene befriended me and walked with me through a time of great difficulty. She remained a close friend throughout my 20s. It would be difficult to overstate the influence that this remarkable woman had on me. I would not be the person I am today were it not for the wisdom, faith and openness she shared with me. Recently Jolene has made her first public forays into the online world. You should go check her out!