By SHARISSE TRACEY SMITH
Right after graduating from college I went to jail for shoplifting. I charged the four storage bins in my shopping cart but left two packs of boys undershirts tucked underneath the last bin on purpose. Adrenaline convinced me that my plan and excuse of it being an “honest mistake” would work to get me out of the store or out of trouble, if I got caught. I was no stranger to stealing but had vowed that I’d stop since becoming a college graduate from a two-year school. As a twenty-five year old African American, single mother of two, receiving public assistance, my degree didn’t feel real yet. I still had the low self esteem of the troubled high school dropout I’d been.
I was trying to get out of an abusive relationship. The psychiatrist I saw weekly prescribed Zoloft for my depression but I flushed the pills. I feared the medication would make me zone out since the first time I took them I’d almost crashed by driving through a red light that looked green. I smoked three cigarettes to calm my nerves then drove to the liquor store to buy two cartons of Benson and Hedges. One carton was never enough. I feared the combination of the drugs and therapy would be too much to handle. I convinced myself that I was in control. I’d already dissected in therapy the repercussions of being abused by my father and why I’d cheated on my ex-husband. I believed I was making progress.
I found solace in shopping, stores soothed me and leaving with a new piece of clothing gave me a rush. The items needed for my high increased but my welfare amount didn’t. Having spent so much money in that store and only having the cash for four things when I needed six, I somehow felt owed. The cashier scanned the bins. She never asked if there was anything else. No alarms sounded when I walked out the doors. No red lights flashed. I thought I was in the clear. The crisp cold air of freedom was all I felt until a very large man with a gun and badge grabbed my right arm with an, “excuse me, we need to see your receipt.” My story didn’t match what we reviewed on the security footage. I’d deliberately hid the other items in the last bin and it was obvious I’d planned it.
I called my friend Denese, who called my mom. My mother lowered her head as I was placed in the police car. She’d just watched me get a diploma for the first time. Now she had to go home to her grandsons and call their father to pick them up because their mother was going to jail. I’d sworn the last time I was in a cop car at age sixteen would be my final ride. I should have learned my lesson then but I hadn’t been grateful enough. Instead I kept taking chances with my life, my freedom. Now at twenty-five and a mother, I was sick from my own actions and questioning why I kept being so self-destructive yet not fighting hard enough to recover from my past and fix myself. I thought of my sons and my mother on the drive to the station.
I was scared while locked up for what felt like eighteen hours, but it only turned out to be six. Denese and I spoke on the payphone. She was four years older and talked me out of my frantic state. She assured me I would not go to prison. She kept my mind occupied with soap opera gossip. The rest of the time I made a mental plan on how to get my life together and be a better example to my sons.
The judge asked me on my appearance date, “why are you in front of me, Ms. Smith?”
Before I could say the word “stupid,” he sentenced me with three years probation and a small fine.
After a second graduation with my bachelor’s degree, I applied to the phone company. I needed the job because I wanted to be rid of welfare to support my boys, but I failed to disclose I’d been convicted of a misdemeanor. I thought I was safe once my probation was over. After successfully passing the pre-employment testing I was disqualified for lying on my application. I was told that I could never again apply to that utility establishment. “In the eyes of this organization you are a liar and a thief,” the reviewer said. It was a true mistake, that time.
My political science professor explained the legal process of expungement to me. I applied to have my case sealed. To my surprise, I was still obligated to mention an expunged conviction, too. I felt betrayed by the system. I blamed my father for abusing me, even though he was dead. I was upset with my mother for not protecting me. I never considered that I was a mom myself and had no excuse for stealing. I’d gotten used to acting on my impulses and not considering the consequences until it was too late. That same behavior drove me to the stores when I didn’t have money to spend. It was my fault, alone.
When a dream job opened up at a local college I was afraid to apply. I feared my past would keep me from my future but I forced myself to try. I marked the correct box adding “conviction expunged” and the date. The district called me. A third meeting was to explain the checked box. I interviewed four times. No one could have been more grateful than me when I was hired. While working as a Counselor with at risk students, a pretty girl in my caseload wearing braids similar to mine approached me. “Ms. Smith, my mom said I can’t come home. They kicked me out of the mall yesterday for stealing but I didn’t mean to,” she said. “Intentions won’t matter, “ I said, “next time you will go to jail.” I could see so much of myself in this young woman. I assured her that things would improve if she made smarter choices. I watched her graduate from high school that year but didn’t let her know I attended. The last I heard she was set to graduate from a university this year.
Sharisse T. Smith is a mother of four, Army wife, writer and counselor. She lives in West Point, New York with her family. Her work appears in The New York Times and Babble. Check out more of Sharisse’s writing at SharisseSmith.com and connect with her on Twitter at @SharisseTSmith or on Facebook at SharisseTraceySmith.