Category Archives: Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

Reflections at Dawn (Part 2): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

[Read Part 1 here]

Note: Portions of this blog post are published in the memoir, Embracing Dawn: Two Women’s Stories; Brought Together by the Prison Education Project. The book was written by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez (under the name, Marie Rodriguez) and Tessa McCarthy (whose name was changed in the book and here to protect her anonymity).

Writing my story and reading Tessa’s story freed something in me. I let go of the shame of my past. Tessa was so kind when she read my thickly coiled words upon the page and offered me the forgiveness I had yet to give myself.  

Tessa was barely an adult when she committed murder. She was given a long sentence. (I am being deliberately vague since Tessa’s story is hers to tell, not mine.) As for me, I was a teenager when I almost died from overdosing on alcohol. 

“I remember going into convulsions and throwing up vodka. I remember the feel of the cement on my knees as I bent over and spewed vodka out of my nostrils and mouth.” (Marie Rodriguez, Embracing Dawn).

I struggled until I was 24 when I began to turn my life around. Then I found teaching, which gave me a reason to stay sober and care for others. Tessa also found sobriety and a connection to God. 

She wrote: 

“My heart stopped when I heard the date. I couldn’t believe it. I felt my face get pale, but Angie and Chap were too busy talking about the baptism to notice. The sound of their conversation faded as I drifted into my thoughts. The date that Chap had picked had special significance to me. Six years prior, on that exact day, I had made the worst decision of my life. So many lives had been torn apart by my selfishness that day, and I would give anything to be able to go back and undo it. But I knew I would never be able to take it back. I had spent every anniversary of that day entrenched in a deep pit of self-loathing and depression, and now Chap had picked that very day. My stomach sank as I realized that I was going to be baptized on the anniversary of the day I had committed my crime.” (Tessa McCarthy, Embracing Dawn

As I transcribed our book, I knew we had done something worthwhile. Looking back, I am amazed at how much trust and faith we gave one another. I am so grateful for Tessa and her courage to tell her story. The experience changed me forever as I discovered my authentic self by writing my story with another woman. 

I asked Tessa to reflect on her journey. She wrote, “As time goes on, I feel more and more grateful to PEP for gifting me such a wonderful opportunity. I am still amazed by all the hard work that my writing partner Jackie (Marie) and I put into it. What’s more, is that … so many people have come forward to share how our writing has touched them. I am so humbled by the fact that Jackie and I were able to use our journeys and struggles to help others. I now know that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, and can now embrace my past with love.”

I hope to see Tessa in person someday. We lived for a year writing pages of memories. We could not live the rest of our lives here — we had to move forward to a warm forgiving place of sand rather than stone. But we are bound by our journey from stone to sand, forever. 

Reflections at Dawn is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 1.


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

Reflections at Dawn (Part 1): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

Note: Portions of this blog post are published in the memoir, Embracing Dawn: Two Women’s Stories; Brought Together by the Prison Education Project. The book was written by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez (under the name, Marie Rodriguez) and Tessa McCarthy (whose name was changed in the book and here to protect her anonymity).

When I volunteered for the Prison Education Project (PEP) and signed up to facilitate the Introduction to Autobiography class, I had no inkling that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship; a friendship with teaching, writing, myself, and my student Tessa. 

Tessa, my first student as a volunteer teacher with PEP, is incarcerated at a prison in California. As a longtime teacher, I knew how to build trust with students in person. How could I build trust with Tessa via email? 

When I wrote to Tessa, I was nervous. It was 6 am on a Friday. We were only allowed to write on Fridays per the prison’s guidelines. I wrote, “Assignment 1 Autobiography: Write a 1-page Biography; Why is your life’s story compelling? Why is it unique? Greetings Tessa, this is Jackie, I will be your new writing instructor facilitating the writing of your story. I look forward to working with you to write your story. I am so honored to be able to hear your story. I hope you are well and you find joy somehow even through these times.”

Tessa wrote me back and responded to the writing prompt. We wrote to one another, responding to the prompts, for seven weeks. As I read her story, I felt deep within that God’s providence was somehow to be found in it all. 

We were both souls in search of forgiveness and on a path to finding the light and love within. Our book was written during the time of the pandemic shutdown. Before we wrote our chapters, we engaged in written small talk. I shared stories about my dogs. She shared what it was like within stone walls. On Dec. 3, 2020, she wrote:
“I have been helping in the unit a lot because the regular volunteers got quarantined, plus I took over decorating the unit for Christmas…we’re on lockdown (which is fine by me! I get more done!) we’re supposed to get off lockdown on the 10th, but I’m sure they’ll put us back on around Christmas until after the new year.”

We connected by sharing our everyday lives. But I was riveted by the words of her life story. Friday morning at 6 am, I read her first words:
“Although I’ve never met him, I’ve been haunted by my brother my entire life. He’s always managed to show up somehow, even before I knew he existed. Sometimes he’d come in the guise of a friend who was “like a brother to me,” other times he’d appear in my dreams. When I was a young child playing make-believe games, I’d almost always pretend to be a boy. As an adult, I would come to understand that I was pretending to be him.” (Tessa McCarthy, Embracing Dawn)

I saw multiple connections within our lives. One year later, this seven-week course birthed the co-authored memoir of our lives with the help of PEP. All proceeds from the book are donated to a victim’s scholarship fund and PEP.

Reflections at Dawn is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 2.


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

Are We Together (Part 2): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

[Read Part 1 here]

We continued our creative writing class with The Prison Education Project (PEP) at Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa. We had gotten to know our writers and even to hear some of their story ideas. In the third class, the writers were invited to read a piece they worked on for homework.  

“Who wants to come on up?” Helin asked, “Don’t be shy.”

“I will read mine,” said a man I will call Ali. He had a shaved head and dimples.  His smile was as bright as his yellow smock and pants. We all sat and waited as he walked up to the screen.

“This goes out to Queen Jackie.  It is a letter of hope and love from across the seas…” How I wish I had the letter to me as it combined Ali’s love for America and boxing with his crush on me. We snapped when it was done, and I tried not to blush. 

“Thank you, Ali, interestingly Ali, I write to people I admire all the time,” I said. 

“Do they write you back?” asked Ali. 

“Yes, my favorite author, Mary Dorian Russell, wrote me back. Read The Sparrow gentlemen if you can get a copy,” I said. They all nodded and wrote the name of the book down. 

Helin and Los called me Queen Jackie in jest for the rest of the class. Names were important. PEP encouraged all teachers to use the writers’ names as much as possible during classes so they would feel seen and heard. It worked. We were all connected, a circle of writers sharing with one another our stories. One of the ways we were able to connect with the students was by sharing our own stories. Helin, Los, and I were all authentic, speaking of our lives and struggles. I discussed my sobriety and the grace it gave me to write. Some writers nodded and I recognized kindred souls. Los discussed poetry with the writers and told them about his favorite poet, a Portuguese man named Fernando Pessoa, who wrote poetry under at least 81 names. Helin brought her cat Khaki up to the screen and he became the official mascot of the class.  The men always asked about Khaki.

“Say hi to Khaki.  Tell him we miss him,” the gentlemen would say right before we logged off. 

In our last class, all the writers read a piece of their writings. Many of the gentlemen sang songs to us or quoted biblical scripture wishing us health and peace. At ten pm, the guard said we had to log off. We did not want to go. The hope in the room was intoxicating. We could all feel it and wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. 

“We hope you come in person to Africa to teach us in person, we will be waiting,” said a young man who looked all of sixteen years old. 

PEP succeeds in working within prisons because we work within the system. PEP works with correctional facilities in a collaborative manner and follows the rules and policies within the institution, without questioning or challenging them. Yet it is still troubling to see these redeemable men behind prison walls. With the pandemic ebbing it is my hope that PEP will resume in-person classes within the prisons of California and the world. PEP will then have teachers journey to Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa to teach in person. My dream is to journey to Uganda, meet my fellow writers, and hear their stories face to face. 

Are We Together is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 1.

Further Resources:
For more information on the Prison Education Project’s work with Luzira Maximum Security Prison, please watch this documentary: PEP Uganda.

“Winner of the Los Angeles Film Awards for “Best Documentary Feature,” produced/directed by Dr. Renford Reese, this documentary takes a look at one of the most fascinating prisons in the world, Luzira Upper Prison in Kampala, Uganda. David Goldblatt from the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated that “Luzira is the home to the world’s most elaborate prison football league.” Beyond soccer, Luzira is an intriguing place where prison guards have no weapons, where inmates hold hands with each other and occasionally with the guards as they walk the yard. This film captures the amazingly tranquil and healing community in this prison. PEP-Uganda volunteers traveled to Luzira from California to teach but they learned substantially more than they taught. The volunteers witnessed the essence of brotherhood, sisterhood, culture, community, and humanity.”  (Youtube Description)


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.

Are We Together (Part 1): Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez

“I look deep into the lion’s eyes. It was me or him, so I stab him with my spear.  Chack, chack, chack, whumpf, whumpf,” said the writer as he grasped an imaginary spear and puffed out his cheeks to make the sound of the spear hitting the lion’s flesh. Helin, Los, and I were open-mouthed as we listened to our fellow writers as they sat together in white plastic chairs with their journals and pencils in hand, telling their stories via Zoom in our final creative writing class. 

During the pandemic lockdown, I decided to start volunteering with the Prison Education Project (PEP). There are times when one feels compelled to do something. For years, I dreamed of teaching in prisons. I could have easily been in prison if I had not gotten sober and found teaching. I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” This is not me being trite. PEP was the answer for me as it was the largest volunteer-based organization in the United States committed to expanding educational opportunities for the in-custody population. The last class I taught was from December 2021 through January 2022. It was a five-week course on creative writing. 

Two other writers taught the class with me. Helin was a working writer and Los, was a poet who just finished law school. The course was held online via Zoom as the writers were incarcerated in a prison in Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa.  

Luzira Maximum Security Prison houses both men and women.  It is the only maximum-security prison in the country. According to the Human Rights Reports by the Department of Justice in 2020, there are human rights issues involving citizens who are arbitrarily arrested or detained in Uganda, Africa. There are also political prisoners in Luzira. Some prisoners spend years in prison awaiting trial only to have the court find insufficient evidence to justify their detention. 

The all-male class of students was dressed in bright orange and yellow smocks. The one guard in the room was always friendly and helpful. He stood to the side in his green uniform and beret. We taught the class at eight pm on Sunday nights. Across the world in Uganda, it was ten am on Monday morning. The classes lasted an hour and a half. 

At the beginning of the first class, students introduced themselves.

“Greetings gentlemen. Are we together?” I asked as I put my hands into the shape of a circle. Everyone put their hands into a circle and held it up to their chests. This was a cultural reference from the country taught to us by PEP and we used it to connect. 

“Name a place where you would like to set a creative writing piece. Share out your name and the setting of your writing piece,” I said after Helin, Los, and I introduced ourselves and welcomed the writers to class. There were around fifteen men in the room, and they all took turns introducing themselves and their story settings. Most of the men set their stories in their villages in Africa or in the prison. Many wrote of the struggle before their time in prison. They wrote of struggling to eat and searching for work in the cities. Others wrote of love lost and betrayal. Their stories flowed naturally embedded with figurative language and metaphor. The Zoom connection went in and out so we had to keep waiting for them to log back on. By the end of the hour and a half class, we had learned all the writers’ names and something about their stories.    

During the second class, we discussed origin stories. “We always want to know our character’s backstory. An example of this is a superhero’s origin story,” said Los. 

The creative writing class morphed into a writing workshop where the writers responded to prompts and shared their writings. Most of the classes were spent listening and offering bits of input on the use of dialogue and imagery. 

This is how the last few classes would typically go. Helin, Los, or I (we mixed it up) would ask students to share their writings from the homework the week before.  Numerous hands would pop up and we would smile and laugh together. We would let each writer read their stories or poems for three to five minutes. After they finished, we would state what we noticed and ask questions. The writer would furiously write down the notes and thank us with a nod of his head with his hands clasped together. We got to as many people as possible and then started again the next week.  It was hard to stay within the time limit. 

These men were bursting with stories, with tales they needed to write and speak to the world. During these moments spent online I felt like I was overseas sitting in a room with writers in Africa, not at my computer in Palm Springs. The reality was these men were incarcerated. Some were facing the death penalty or life in prison. Their society may have put them behind stone walls but their voices were strong, vibrant, and alive.

Are We Together is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 2.


Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives. 

Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.