The genteel voice over the phone asked, "Will you volunteer to speak at Los Padrinos?" "Is this a society group and a special fund-raiser?" I asked.
A funny chuckle burst across the phone line. "Well, it IS a special type of society and you might say it’s a ‘fun’ raiser for the girls who are students."
Since it was local, I was in town, and she was the employee of good client, I agreed to meet her at the school. "School". Nothing was further from the truth...
The heavy metal door slammed behind us. The dirt and patchy grass campus had seen better days. Oh, what had I gotten myself into? Why had I ever agreed to spend two hours in this place? Los Padrinos turned out to be LA County's answer to juvenile prison: a combination school-dorm and time-before-doing-Big-Time facility.
"We have to hurry and get to the class, Eileen. We're going to the high risk side."
"High risk?" I gulped hard. "What's that?"
"Girls from ages 12 through 17 who are here on convictions for murder, rape, gang assaults, prostitution, drug sales... you name it they've done it. Some will go from here when they are 18 to the state prison. Others will be sent back home. But remember, they are still just kids."
"But what am I going to tell them? I deal with corporate types."
"You talk about communication and difficult people and conflict. These kids could use that. You'll know what to say when the time comes. Above all, it's just important that you cared enough to meet them."
My heart sank even further. Cynthia had more faith in me than I did.
By what right did I come here? From my background to my education to my home life, I had nothing in common with these kids. Or did I?
In single file, hands behind their backs, they trooped into the classroom and flopped down on chairs too small for many of them. At first, all I saw were baggy orange pants, gray oversized sweatshirts, and eyes registering everything from curiosity to sullen boredom.
There was tiny Nan* with eyes like a fawn, splinter-thin arms, and a tattoo on her neck. Marie kept jumping up: street-smart, sassy, funny. Monica told us about suicide. And 13 more whose faces I still see at night and whose names I whisper in a silent prayer as I mentally circle that schoolroom. For what happened in the next two hours was the biggest learning and grace in my adult life.
"I want to know your names. Go around the table and tell me."
The litany of names circled and I repeated each until I matched face and name. Eyes brightened. Heads nodded. I discovered no guest to that room had ever wanted to know their names.
"Tell me the things that people do on the outside that get to you. Tell me what you do in response. Tell me how you feel." My learning and theirs began.
Somehow we connected. And the asphalt persona dropped and in its place were children and teenagers... afraid, hurt, angry, bewildered, and alone. Their words spoke volumes of abuse, incest, abandonment and a despair that there was nothing they could do to change it. They didn't want to be like their parents.... fathers in Folsom, mothers on the street. They didn't want their brothers and sisters to be like them - nor their children. And I heard more:
"Do you know what it's like where I live? And your daughter has a chance for a job! Where do I go? If there are no jobs and everything is so expensive, what else is left but to steal, or run drugs? I hate it. I feel bad. I don't like me."
"I want to go to college, but I can't read. And I have to go with a guy with money and do what he says. Do you know how much Pampers cost? We'll do anything not to take welfare."
"Everyone says I'm bad. Maybe that's why my mother threw me in the trash can as a baby."
And on they talked. Some cried. I listened. Two hours vanished and almost in mid-sentence they trooped out, many reaching for hugs as they left. I felt depleted... drained... and helpless. I turned to Cynthia in despair.
"What happened? Whatever did we start? I feel terrible!"
"Oh, Eileen," cried Cynthia, tears also running down her cheeks. "Don’t you see? For the first time since I’ve been coming here, they felt that someone really wanted to listen to them instead of lecture. They felt permission to be vulnerable and real. It all starts with sincere listening."
I take no credit for that day at Los Padrinos. I think it was the lesson that I, as a professional speaker, most needed to learn. But my sense is that I’m not alone. How many times do any of us really listen to our office mate, our spouse, our neighbor, our vexing teenager?
No, I haven’t been back. Cynthia has gone on to other projects and I’m on the road much more. But I haven’t forgotten her words. The girls at Los Padrinos are a broader-life, more dramatic version of our greatest need: to feel that someone cares enough to really listen... that someone cares enough to take a-never-to-be-regained-again minute from life and be truly present for us. It is a precious present. *Name changed to protect identity.