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.
“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.