“Hi, I’m Chanteel. It’s nice to meet you Susan,” she said as she shook my hand and sat down.
Immediately a few of the other women chuckled and shook their heads. One of them took a piece of paper, rolled it up into a ball and threw it at her. “Oh, really now? Now your name is Chanteel? Where the hell do you get these names? You got a book or something?”
More of the women started laughing. Chanteel just smiled, took the ball of paper and smoothed it out.
I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I ignored the interruption of the class. “It’s nice to meet you too, Chanteel.” I handed her some materials. “We are just getting started, so you haven’t missed anything. We are on page three, so just open up your book there and jump in.”
She smiled and nodded. She was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful women I had seen. She was blonde with deep blue eyes and cheek bones that went on forever. Her hair was pulled back, but it was thick. She wasn’t wearing make-up because when you are in jail, it’s not something you are very concerned with. Your basic concern was surviving each hour, each day and each week until you got out. Some never knew when that would be as all of the women I was working with were in custody waiting for trial.
Some had been waiting for two years. All of them were overweight and lethargic from the food and being in their cells 23 hours out of 24. None of them slept because of the constant noise and stress and many spent most of their time lying in bed and crying. If they weren’t crying, they just laid there, staring up at the ceiling or the bunk above them.
This was a new group of incarcerated and battered women I had been given to help. I was there to teach them about self-respect and learning how to get along better with people. Yes, it was a lot to do, but I found most of them receptive, needy and quite pleasant to work with.
Let’s face it. Life doesn’t get much worse when you are in jail and have lost your children to foster care. Any and all help is appreciated and it was a very rare occasion when anyone of them gave me any trouble. Those that did were usually just too stressed to do anything else but sit and cry.
Chanteel looked to be in her mid-30’s but I found out later she was only 23. This was her third time in jail and her probation officer had pushed hard for her to get into my program. There was just something about her that made you want to help her even though you knew when she got out, she would most likely revert. He wanted her in the program so it would look good for the judge when she went before him. I don’t even remember the charges that were pending against her but she was not violent. Just stupid.
She was as pleasant as could be until I started talking to her after class. She hung around to talk with me. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to listen.
Within three minutes I could see she was way out of touch with reality. Her conversation with me jumped from one topic to another with no rhyme or reason. She would be mid-sentence and then start another conversation about something completely different.
But I sat and listened and became quite fascinated by her. She was a dichotomy of complete brilliance in her thoughts and observations and insane from the life she had led.
She was only 23, but she had been through more tragedy and heartbreak in those few years than anyone else I had known.
I worked with her as best as I could during the next few weeks. She was always pleasant and kind. Each week, she would tell me she had changed her name. I always made sure to call her by her new name. The other women would just snicker. This never seemed to bother her.
I asked her one day why she changed her name so often. She bit her lip, looked down and gave my question quite a bit of thought before answering.
“No one has ever asked me that question before. They usually just laugh at me.”
“Well, I’m curious, so tell me why.”
She smiled. It was a beautiful smile. “Because I am trying to figure out who I want to be. I hate who I am and what I’ve done, so I want to be someone else. I try on different names to see if I like them. So far, I haven’t liked any of them.”
This made sense to me. “Yes, I wish I could do that sometimes myself.”
I eventually got in contact with her Probation Officer because, quite frankly, she fascinated me. I never ask about a persons past when they start my program. It is not relevant. What is relevant is today and maybe tomorrow.
There wasn’t much he could tell me but I was able to gather from him and my contact at the facility that this young woman entered the foster care program at the age of 6 months and it has been all she has ever known.
She tested highly on her IQ and she was literate and able to read and understood what she read.
That is all I will say about her, but trust me – you don’t want to know. It broke my heart.
After one particular night with her, I left the facility sad. When I got home, I called my Mom, hoping she was still up.
As soon as she answered the phone, she asked if I was OK.
“I’m fine. Just wanted to say hello.”
‘You’ve been in jail again, haven’t you?” she asked.
Ah, my Mom knows me so well. “Yes, I was there tonight.”
“Yes, I love you. Yes, you’re welcome for having a wonderful childhood. No, you aren’t my favorite child. You all are.”
This made me laugh. “There was something else I wanted to say.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“I’m proud of you. I’m proud of what you had to overcome and I’m proud of you for not raising us like you were raised.”
“You’re welcome. Now get some sleep and don’t start crying. I’m proud of you too.”
I never saw Chanteel after that. She had been released but had asked for my cell number. We don’t give these out but the Program Director told me about it. He had told her he couldn’t give that out and said she started to cry as she walked out the door with her suitcase and nowhere to go.
“If she calls again, give it to her,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “You sure Susan?”
Every few months, I get a phone call from her. She told me the last time I talked to her that she settled on a name (which I am not going to say) and I liked it. It fit. She always lets me know how she is doing but never tells me where she is. That’s OK. I don’t want to know.
‘Do you know why I call you Susan?” she asked the last time we talked.
“I have no idea.”
“Because you helped me and I’ve stayed out of jail since then. You like me just the way I am.”
Yes I do.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”