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.