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Lessons from an ex-convict

| Friday, September 29, 2017

I was 15 years old when I learned I had been living with an ex-convict.

It all started when my mother informed me a friend of hers named Marina would be watching over me while she was out of town. My objections were immediate — in my mind, I was an adult more than capable of watching over myself. But my mother insisted, and, as usual, my juvenile protestations bore no weight.

Marina stayed with me for five days. During that time, I was introduced to the most genuine person I have ever met. She quickly became more than a “babysitter” — she became a friend.

It wasn’t until two months and countless “babysitting sessions” later that my mother told me the truth:

Marina was an ex-convict. She made a regretful mistake as an 18-year-old by engaging in an industry she has known since the age of three: the drug trade.

She received a sentence of 17 years. She served 14 of them.

I was angry. How could my mother withhold something so significant from me? How could she elect a former felon with an irrevocably flawed past to watch over me?

And then I realized: She was teaching me a lesson.

It is an undeniable truth that, growing up, I viewed the world in black-and-white. I used to frown upon my mother’s profession as a criminal defense attorney, questioning her judgment and belief system. How could she defend criminals, I would think. How could she morally justify advocating for convicts — people who had done unlawful, bad things?

And yet — intersecting the incessant flow of chaotic thoughts was a paralyzing, voluminous reality that followed a trajectory strikingly unfamiliar in my mind:

Marina is the kindest person I have ever known.

And knowing her had shattered my black-and-white world.

And now? I am ashamed.

I am ashamed of my adolescent ignorance and inability to perceive the multifaceted layers of human essence. To look at a person and see beyond their background. To ponder, rather than judge, their questionable decisions and wonder: Why would they do that? What led them down that path?

It is that moment that inspired my current pursuit of journalism. And in many ways, it is what led me to Notre Dame and its dedication to seeking and sharing the truth.

Marina made problematic decisions. She trekked a flawed path. I am not blind to that.

But I also recognize that she is so much more.

She attends church daily to expand her ability to love. My mother cites her as the hardest-working employee she has ever had. She is the easiest person to talk to, is the most attentive listener and is loyal to a fault.

She knows her past will follow her no matter where she goes or who she encounters. She knows employers will think thrice before considering her. She knows the world is filled with people like my 15-year-old self, who will unabashedly peer at her from eyes of self-righteousness — eyes of privilege. She doesn’t blame them.

“That place — prison — taught me the hardest lessons in the cruelest of ways,” she recently told me. “But life out here … as hard as it can get is a walk in the park.”

Convict: a word of negative connotation. One that can prompt extreme implications when taken the wrong way. She bears that word with a resilient courage we would all do well to learn.

Which is why I no longer hesitate when I tell people: Living with an ex-convict was the greatest lesson I have ever had.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she currently resides in Badin Hall and is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Film, Theater and Television with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.

Contact Kelli