Lessons from jail

| December 2, 2011

Two weeks ago, I went to jail.

The experience plays in my head like a gritty medley of palpable moments: hard surfaces, harsh lights, sour smells, heavy doors, clanging locks, trembling hands.

I’m not supposed to be here, I say to myself, as I’m led down a hallway wearing the soft pink sweater dress, leggings and high-heeled boots I’d changed into after doing the morning’s installment of WHAS11’s “Great Day Live!”

I had changed into the outfit just before heading to The Voice-Tribune, where I’d worked with my head down until the early evening, trying to forget the required trip downtown to Eighth and Jefferson.

Impossible.

The first moments inside the jail are still fresh: We pause outside of yet another thick metal door waiting for it to unlock. Then, I’m ushered inside and told to sit down on a hard, wooden chair, which I do wordlessly, shoulders slumped, head bowed, arms wrapped around my torso.

I close my eyes for a few seconds, trying to stave off tears that want to fall, lift my chin and look with unblinking eyes across the table at the 17-year-old man-child on the other side.

The sight of my godson in a jail-issued jumpsuit almost makes me vomit. His face is harder than I remember.

He is thinner, his hair fuzzy and unkempt, a fading bruise visible on his right cheek. He sits quietly as we both take it all in, but when he catches my eye he brightens.

“How was your day, Godmommy?” Terry smiles, and suddenly I see the silly 10-year-old he was when we first met.

I had been his mother’s English instructor at a local college. When she brought her two young sons to class the first time, it was cute.

They were well behaved and eager to participate. When she did it a second time, I pulled her out of class to remind her that she was violating school policy.

Her response stunned me. My eager, A-and-B student had to bring her boys, she said, because she lived in a homeless shelter and couldn’t leave them unattended, nor was she willing to abandon her education.

The assistance of a number of caring individuals in this community allowed Sheila and her boys to secure public housing.

Ever proud, she asked me to move them — quietly, discreetly — from the shelter to their new home.

On a warm summer afternoon, we packed their few belongings in garbage bags and placed them in the back of my Trailblazer.

As Sheila stepped back inside the shelter to ensure she had everything, I watched Terry’s older brother, Tyrone, reach into his pocket and hand over a quarter to a disheveled man who’d been pushing a grocery cart along the street. I walked over as the man shuffled on.

“Do you have any more money?” I asked, knowing I’d just watched Tyrone hand over every bit of money he’d owned.

The gangly 11-year-old shook his head. “He needed it,” Tyrone mumbled.

Days after the move, Sheila asked if I would consider being the boys’ godmother. The answer was easy.

Over the next few years, we went to church and out for pizza. We played air hockey and went to see the WWE. We went trick or treating at Shively Christian Church, which didn’t once make mention of the boys’ advanced ages and let them marvel at the holiday tradition they’d never participated in before.

They taught me the latest dance craze and I emulated their word choices, using slang like “so dope” and “fresh,” much to their mortification.

At the end of each visit, we’d hug and I’d tell the boys I loved them. “We don’t say goodbye,” Terry gibed as he mocked what I’d told them again and again about disliking the finality of such a parting, “so I’ll see you soon.”

Week after week, I collected the poems and drawings they’d created and reveled in their silly banter as they sat in the backseat as I drove.

I watched incredulously as they seemed to grow taller in a day and quizzed them often about their studies, their friends, their dreams.

I smiled as they alternated between calling me “Miss Angie,” “Miss Fenton” and “Godmommy,” and felt relieved that they still talked candidly with me.

When necessary, I tersely scolded them in a way that seemed to evoke surprise and, sometimes, shame, a response while heartbreaking to witness, I knew was so very necessary.

But I started to worry when Terry outgrew his big brother and began to walk around with an attitude I didn’t recognize.

He was no longer embarrassed or ashamed when he behaved poorly. His grades started to slip — while Tyrone’s stayed steady — and he just shrugged his shoulders.

He was caught lying and stealing but didn’t seem to care whom he disappointed. No amount of discipline seemed to make a difference, nor did yelling or tears. “All I can do at this point is love him,” his mother told me, exasperated and exhausted. I agreed.

By the time his big brother Tyrone graduated from high school, moved out of the public housing complex, got a job and enrolled in college to pursue his dream of becoming a chef, Terry had already had multiple brushes with the law and serious discipline and academic issues at school.

An incident involving him, a so-called friend, a gun and running from the police landed him on house arrest. Then, one night, Terry disappeared.

For several weeks, we didn’t know where he was. Messages on his Facebook page went unanswered and Terry’s friends offered no information.

Each time a news broadcast about another shooting in the West End aired, I held my breath, fearing the worst.

Then, Sheila called one evening and said Terry had been taken into custody by the police. “He’s in jail,” she said. “Will you visit him?”

The night before Terry was to be shipped out to a state-facilitated boot camp program that attempts to rehabilitate troubled youths, I went to jail. For an hour, I sat alongside his mother, grandmother, brother and older sister — who is also in college — as we made uncomfortable conversation.

At the end of the visit, the guard allowed us to get up from the table and embrace.

“I love you,” I told Terry, “but this is last time I’m going to jail.”

I pulled away and looked in his eyes. “I mean that, Terry.”

He nodded his head almost imperceptibly, ashamed, finally.

“I’ll see you soon, Godmommy,” he said.

Tags: , ,

Category: The Dish

About the Author (Author Profile)

Angie Fenton
Angie Fenton is Managing Editor of The Voice-Tribune, a Blue Equity company. She is also an entertainment correspondent for WHAS11′s new morning show, “Great Day Live!”, which debuted August 22 on Louisville’s ABC affiliate. Additionally, Angie is an entertainment correspondent for the Saturday Morning Show with Ron ‘n’ Mel Fisher on 84WHAS (840 AM) and has served in the same capacity for Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks; Breeders’ Cup; and Circuit of the Americas during the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix in November 2012. Angie also serves as an emcee, host, voiceover professional and on-camera commercial talent.

Angie has a bachelor’s and master’s in English from Central Michigan University and began her career as an adjunct professor at her alma mater. She is the youngest of five — four of whom were adopted, including Angie, and none of whom are biologically related. She is also a Michigan native who moved to Kentucky in June 2002. Angie is owned by two dogs — Herbie and Yoda — and feels lucky to have loved and been loved by many more, including Pooch, Jessie, Onyx, Jack and Big Bud, who took his last breath on Christmas Day 2012.

Comments are closed.