A Walk Down Misery Street

Mrs. Terri handed me my diploma. She was the administrative assistant director, the same one who asked me a year earlier “why are you going into this field?” and warned me strictly about drug use on the premises. The students liked her and treated her with respect. They felt that Terri understood them, and forgave her strict approach, as they themselves knew that they needed this discipline and could not be left to their own devices. During the ceremony, students gave her a lot of flowers.

Barbara was one of the last students after me to take the microphone. She was a short, stout Puerto Rican woman. She didn’t stand out throughout the whole school year, didn’t say much, and preferred to stay in the shadows. She hadn’t been a drug user, but because she had been in prison the students considered her one of their own. Barbara particularly did not like to share and didn’t make public declarations of dramatic stories from her life. The group did not have that much interest in her.

When she took the microphone, many faces expressed “What a bore!” Now they would have to listen to this boring Barbara, who likely would not sob or sing or run out of the auditorium in tears. It would be better if she refused to talk at all.

Barbara was quiet for a moment, looking through the window. Then she began to spea

k quietly, pacing thoughtfully throughout the auditorium.

“My husband was a drug dealer. He sold a lot of drugs, and I helped him. My husband was shot and I picked up his business.” As she spoke, Barbara continued to walk slowly from one side of the auditorium to another, staring ahead as if she did not see the flowers or the shiny balloons. “The FBI busted me. They confiscated all the cocaine and methadone I was selling. The prosecutor asked for the maximum: twenty-five years by the Rockefeller drug laws, but the judge took pity on me and gave me fifteen without the right for parole.” She kept pacing, and her speech floated through the hushed, somewhat startled auditorium. “I was angry, despite the judge giving me such a lenient sentence. I started selling drugs in prison. I saw how people were killed over drugs and some died from overdoses, but I didn’t care. I didn’t use myself. I shot dope a couple of times out of curiosity, and I smoked pot rarely. One day they tested me for HIV and it came out positive. I went to the prison yard and sat there for a long time. I understood that this was God’s punishment for all the evil I had inflicted on others. I decided to kill myself. The day I was going to carry out my plan, they called me to the medical unit and repeated the test. It turned out I was negative! There was an error. They’d just mixed up my prison number with another woman. Since then, I ask God for forgiveness every day.”