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From Surviving to Living
From Surviving to Living

I began my job in General Assembly the end of November 2011. Also called Rubber, it was housed in a large warehouse building shared by several educational and industry job opportunities.

There were 2 main jobs – ring inspections and cutting rubber. Rings were actually gaskets needing quality control inspections. Cutting rubber involved trimming excess rubber from molded car parts. The room was divided in half, each with its own supervisor and leads. I was assigned to rings.

Base pay was 50 cents. It was an industry job though, and one could do “pie work” (work at non-prison wages) at $4-$6 per hour! I was eager for that privilege.

Danielle was determined to get fired for bad behavior. Her new supervisor seemed determined that no amount of bad behavior would get her fired.

Working rings started by retrieving a tub of gaskets and returning to your desk. You examine each for flaws, removing small imperfections and rejecting ones with cracks. Slowly the tub would empty, rejects and perfects identified.

I was just getting settled when Danielle arrived, launching her new career in rings to my right. Danielle didn’t want this job. Why didn’t she take a sick every day until she was fired? “Sicking out” is an option.

Danielle was determined to get fired for bad behavior. Her new supervisor seemed determined to keep her here. A bizarre power struggle unfolded. It soon became clear Danielle was a veteran in this type of war.

Danielle employed several awesome bad behaviors with drama. She’d arrive at work and slap herself into her desk. Dramatically. Danielle was tall, in her 20’s with long brown hair. Tossing her coat to the floor she’d stamp over to grab a tub of rings, much heavy sighing and shoulder heaving added for effect. Returning to her desk she’d begin a vigil.

I was learning that guards can be people who care about people.

She slept at her desk with blue prison coat tucked under her chin. Snoring was an option. She occasionally awoke. Waiting to catch her supervisor’s eye, she’d toss rings high into the air ’round the room like candy at a parade. Gaskets bouncing and rolling across the floor she’d continued to empty her tub of rings faster than the rest of us.

Interested (and outraged) I waited for our supervisor’s response. I thought she was awful. Gaskets rolled past my feet as I examined another one of my own for tiny cracks and set it in the perfects pile. I considered throwing a few at her back.

Officer Mike was the guard who ran our half of General Assembly. Mike would occasionally have a talk with Danielle. I would have preferred these talks be stern lectures and threats of discipline. They were not. It appeared Officer Mike was trying to help her. I do not remember the outcome, what happened to Danielle as relates to that job. I took this all in though. I was learning that guards can be people who care about people.

Can you relate to dealing with a difficult person? Have you been a difficult person at one time or another?

The other half of the room was run by a guard named Officer Kim. Miss Kim was small and intimidating. She didn’t take any crap. She ran General Assembly much like the classrooms at the private school I grew up in. Stern. She missed nothing.

No talking, and there was no talking. People were afraid to talk and if they did it was in hushed whispers. She could still hear you and would come out of the office to chide the room. She sent an inmate to seg once for having a pen. To be fair, she commanded the inmate to turn over the pen. Three times. The inmate refused three times.

Miss Kim was small and intimidating. She didn’t take any crap.

The third time Miss Kim demonstrated her seriousness by placing a hand on her walkie talkie, showing that refusal to comply would mean arrest and discipline. The inmate had the pen tucked behind her ear like a backup cigarette. The inmate’s response was to slowly reach up, dislodge it from her ear and let it tumble to the floor. The inmate waited, daring Miss Kim to bend over and pick it up at her feet.

Miss Kim shook her head sadly and hit the walkie talkie, calling for backup. Soon the inmate was surrounded by several guards, handcuffed, arrested, and being walked to segregation. I tried to imagine the conversations that would later take place in segregation as everyone shared what tales of derring-do they had committed to deserve their placement…”Fighting”…”drugs”….”I wouldn’t give a guard a pen”…. What a proud moment it must have been for that inmate.

One day as I was inspecting rings I glanced over at Miss Kim’s side of the room and noticed Rebecca standing near her desk. Rebecca was another interesting inmate. She’d recently been assigned to this job and her heart wasn’t in it. Her heart wasn’t in much of anything. She was friendly, but not a high achiever.

Miss Kim certainly would have every reason to discuss the poor work Rebecca has done. That’s not what she did.

Rebecca had been assigned to cutting rubber. She was not good at it. I cannot say whether she was actually trying and simply unable to do well, or rather performing poorly on purpose. The result was the same – lots of ruined parts. She was also extremely slow.

On this particular day I looked up to see Miss Kim approach Rebecca and meet her at her desk. Miss Kim certainly would have every reason to discuss Rebecca’s poor work. That’s not what she did. To my surprise she said, “Rebecca, I want to tell you I’m impressed with your self-discipline. This job starts early and it’s full-time, long hours. It’s clear that you do not enjoy it and find it difficult. Most women choose to ‘sick-out’ until they are fired. You continue to come here every day on time! That’s very unusual, so I want to ask you – how can I help you? Let’s make this work.”

Wow! Years later I became an Adult Basic Education (G.E.D.) English tutor at the prison (still incarcerated – we are just fast forwarding a bit). Our teacher would often have students work in groups. A student named Felicia had recently been added to the class. She appeared extremely depressed. She rarely did her work, even when put with a group where she could simply copy the answers from them. She wouldn’t ask for help and rarely spoke at all. She sat frozen, hugging herself, rarely talking, rarely moving, never smiling.

She appeared to breathe for the first time in months. If you know what I mean. I learned some things from Mike and Kim.

After a few weeks I bought a blank card on canteen and told her how glad I was to have her in our class, with reasons. I started, “I want to tell you I’m impressed with your self-discipline. It’s clear that you do not enjoy coming to class. Most women choose to ‘sick-out’ until they are fired. But you continue to come here every day on time! That’s very unusual. You are respectful to the teacher and do not disrupt class. You are very honest and that shows when you refuse to turn in work you did not do yourself. I am glad to have you in class. How can I help you better?”

I mailed her the card. She never made mention of receiving it. But a few days later she arrived to class for the first time ever with all of her work completed. She joined her group and worked with them. She raised her hand to ask for help. She did not smile, but she talked. She shared. She cried. She started to live again. She appeared to breathe for the first time in months. If you know what I mean.

I think it was no accident Danielle was seated next to me. Nor was it coincidental that despite Rebecca being across a busy room I happened to look over at just the moment Miss Kim was heading over to have a talk with her. I learned some things from Mike and Kim.1

My mother-in-law appeared to be heading down the nearest walkway to Broker! I stopped, absolutely shocked.

I was about to meet someone else important. Strolling towards Tubman where I lived I did a double take! My mother-in-law appeared to be heading down the nearest walkway to Broker! I stopped, absolutely shocked. This seemed impossible for several reasons, not the least of which was she didn’t even live in Minnesota, let alone engage in criminal activity, and yet… but it was just a glimpse and the woman was gone. I shook my head and moved on, laughing at myself. “Impossible!” I snorted.

A week later Laura, my pseudo mother-in-law, was sitting in front of me in General Assembly. The similarities were stunning. I’d known my mother-in-law for 20 years, and they had seen our relationship in many stages. Right now our relationship was pretty poor.

Laura spun in her chair to introduced herself. Leaning forward and resting her arms on the desk between us she tossed out, “Hi, I’m Laura! What’s your name?” Her green gaze penetrated mine as she waited for a response.

Not allowed to talk at work, the room was hushed as a library. Also, my mother-in-law’s name wasn’t Laura. Several small conflicts took place within me. What rose to the top of the emotional pile bizarrely was, “Me?? You talking to me??”

I didn’t say that out loud, but acted it out like charades. I froze, project in hand. General Assembly was laid out like a classroom. Laura and I were in the same row. Raising my eyebrows questioningly I slowly turned to the left (and even though I was the last person in the row) and looked over my shoulder to see who Laura was making new friends with.

No one behind me and no one in the row to my left. Returning my gaze to the front, Laura is still staring at me! She makes no mention of my curious behavior so far.

Still a bit off I decided to check my right side for Laura’s new friend who’s certainly not me. Another slow swivel with similar results. Feeling a bit silly I return my gaze front and center. Nonplussed Laura finally answers my unasked question, “Yes I’m talking to you. What’s your name?” Oh.

Laura became a wonderful friend! She was so much like my mother-in-law that I could not remember to call Laura by her actual name. I always called her by my mother-in-law’s name. For months. She got used to it. She started answering to it. What can you do?

By this time my husband had moved to Washington with our children and was living with his parents. This was very hard for me to even think about or imagine. I hated that they were so very far away. My relationship with him and his family was very strained. In my heart I was very bitter. I wondered if God had placed Laura in my life to soften my heart in this area. Laura was very easy to love, and she was a daily reminder of how easy my mother-in-law had been to love.

My heart began to thaw little by little and bitterness started to leave me.

“One of those who listened to us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in fabrics dyed in purple. She was already a worshiper of God, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Acts 14:16

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the passage, Holly encounters difficult individuals like Danielle and Rebecca. Have you ever dealt with challenging people in your life, either at work or in personal relationships? How did you handle the situation? Are you dealing with a difficult situation today?
  2. Miss Kim praises Rebecca for her self-discipline despite her poor performance at cutting rubber. How important do you think it is for leaders to recognize effort and commitment even when the results may not be stellar? Can you recall a time when someone acknowledged your effort rather than just the outcome?
  3. Holly shares an experience of reaching out to a depressed and withdrawn student, Felicia, with words of encouragement. How can simple acts of kindness, like the card Holly sent, make a significant impact on someone’s life? Have you ever experienced or initiated such an act of kindness?
  4. Laura, who initially appears to be Holly’s mother-in-law, turns out to be a new friend with a similar demeanor. How do preconceived notions and assumptions influence our perceptions of others? Can you think of a time when you misjudged someone based on initial impressions?
  5. Holly reflects on the strained relationship with her husband and his family, expressing bitterness. How does Laura’s presence in the Holly’s life contribute to her emotional transformation? Can you recall a person or experience that helped you soften or change your perspective on a challenging situation?


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