To Whom It May Concern

The answering machine was blinking with a new message as she made lunch for her three year old. “I must have missed the call when I was picking up Madison from preschool,” Dawn thought. She finished making lunch and checked the caller ID. From the looks of the number, it might be the call she was waiting for from the school district. Dawn’s stomach lurched and her heart skipped a beat as she pressed the play button on the machine. She heard the school principal, Mr. Wollensky: Everything was fine, nothing urgent, something about clearances and volunteering next week and still waiting to hear from central office. Please call back.

She immediately wanted to vomit. This can’t be good. It’s like when the doctor calls to deliver news instead of having the office manager call. They don’t do that unless it’s bad. No news is good news and this was not no news…

Dawn inhaled and pressed the dial button. After being transferred to Mr. Wollensky’s voice mail she left her home phone and her cell phone number and waited… She had lost her apetite for lunch and Madison was uninterested in including Mommy in her imaginary game of ‘princess homework time.’ Dawn busied herself with cleaning the dishes, wiping the counters, folding cloth napkins, and eventually settled into a rousing game of Candy Crush before closing her eyes for mere minutes as she lay on the couch.

Dawn was emotionally exhausted, rereading the letter in her head and pondering what could be taking so long, “Maybe the district-powers-that-be are discussing it as we speak. Perhaps an investigation is being done. I can’t fault them for that. I’m glad that they’re doing their due diligence. At least someone is after all this time. I just hope it’s not sitting on someone’s desk inbox at the bottom of the pile…”

Days like these drained all of Dawn’s energy, drawing her attention away from her kids, her husband, her life. She found it hard to focus on anything else and knew she was in for another long and frustrating evening, and another sleepless night. Dawn knew this was just something else that was completely out of her control and that she would just have to wait, but her patience was wearing thin and, after four years, she had little faith in the justice system.

“Innocent until proven, my ass.” Dawn steamed.

The new state guidelines for volunteering in schools required clearances, which wouldn’t be a problem under normal circumstances, but almost nothing of the last four and a half years was normal. As both a certified educator and a parent, Dawn actually agreed with the new mandates put in place as a safety precaution. However, the new safety requirements may also prevent Dawn from stepping foot inside her own children’s school as a class parent or volunteer in any capacity allowed.

“What a crock of shit. Talk about adding effing insult to injury,” Dawn kept these thoughts to herself.

But she had decided to go ahead with the application process anyway and hoped for the best. She had obtained her clearances for criminal history and child abuse the previous academic year, when she returned to teaching religious school on Sundays for the year. Of course those records were clear. It’s not that she never broke the rules, but her extraordinarily average teenage years were decades ago and other than that one time (at sleepover camp) when she got caught for underage drinking, less than one month before her 21st birthday, she really was quite typical and rarely broke any rules, which is just one aspect of her infuriating situation.

“If only they knew me.” 

The sheer ridiculousness of the situation was nothing less than laughable. Only laughter on this matter was simply not possible.  This situation was disheartening and beyond frustrating.  For the first time since the fire, Dawn was possibly going to be prevented from caring for her children in one aspect of their lives, and she had a sinking feeling that this was only the beginning. It made her feel dirty, unwelcome, and unwanted.

Dawn knew her FBI fingerprints were going to be an issue.  She’s been fingerprinted plenty of times.  It was a standard clearance in the field of education. However, the last fingerprint she submitted, before applying as a school volunteer, had nothing to do with education.  The last time she was fingerprinted was the day she was arraigned on an indictment for a crime she didn’t commit.

Aggravated Arson.  Arson because no one bothered to complete a proper investigation as to cause and origin on the fire that consumed their home and subsequently, their lives; aggravated because she was home with Riley and Harrison, and pregnant with Madison, so the children were deemed to be at risk.

“If only they knew me.”  

But they could not have cared less.  So her fingerprint results would be an immediate red flag and denial for permission to volunteer in school, despite volunteering without issue in past years.

After receiving the unofficial fingerprint results in the mail last week, she cried.  Of course the arrest record is there.  Never mind that the date on the record is WRONG. She was not arrested on the day of the fire.  In fact, she has never been arrested for this.  She was wrongfully indicted over a year after the fire and has yet to be read her Miranda rights.  Apparently, these were all semantics and proof of our justice system’s failures.

She thought about cheering on her children and their peers as they raced around the school in the annual fundraiser that promotes healthy and active lifestyles. She recalled the looks of awe and amusement of Riley and her classmates when she was a mystery reader each October, dressing as a witch and reading a poem about goblins and manners that she had memorized as a child. It had become a family tradition and the thought of skipping this year or losing the tradition brought on more familiar tears.

Her chest heaved with each question, “What about holiday parties? Will Harrison feel left out on his birthday when I can’t come in to read his favorite story? Will Riley resent me for not sharing the Hanukkah miracle with her friends? Will they both be upset when I am unable to accompany them on class field trips?” She felt handcuffed to the injustice of it all, burning in anger.

Her husband, Scott, wasn’t shocked to hear the news of the fingerprints and advised her to let it go for this year.  “Fuck you” she thought, “I will not just let it go. What the hell is the point of being a stay at home mother if you don’t, no – CAN’T, help out at your own children’s school?”  She stewed and simmered and finally texted her husband’s lifelong friend, the school board president, Matt. Matt was someone Mr. Rogers would call “a helper.”  Look for the helpers. And so she did.

After a short back and forth of explaining the latest he offered to put in a call to see how to move forward. His response was that Dawn needed to write a letter of explanation and send it straight to his contact in the human resource department at the district central office:

To Whom it May Concern,

I am writing to clarify the results of my FBI fingerprint search in regards to the school district’s volunteer application process:

On May 20, 2011 my house in Passaic County, New Jersey suffered from a devastating fire. We are still unsure of the cause and origin of the fire. Unfortunately, because I was home with our children, I was wrongfully indicted for aggravated arson in June 2012. I have been fighting the charges for the last 3.5 years and I am currently awaiting trial and expecting/hoping for a dismissal and for the charges to be expunged.

I am currently a stay at home mother to our three children. Before becoming a mother, I taught for 11 years in preschool, religious school, and elementary school in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey. I am a New Jersey certified K-5 elementary school teacher and originally obtained my Pennsylvania teaching certification upon graduation from Cabrini College.

I am an active volunteer for my children’s elementary school’s PTO, and have been my oldest daughter’s room parent. I truly enjoy volunteering my time to help in my children’s classrooms as their teachers request. I would like to continue to volunteer in any capacity that I am able.

I am hopeful that you will be able to approve me as a volunteer despite my wrongful indictment and the lengthy judicial process.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Dawn Watson

Dawn hand delivered the letter the previous Friday and waited…some more…She had tried not to focus on the letter but it had been a week and today’s message from Mr. Wollensky sent her reeling through all of the “what ifs” swimming around in her mind.

Her cell phone rang and startled her off of the couch.  Mr. Wollensky explained that there was a holdup in central office with several volunteer applications but after his attention, the other applications were approved.  All except Dawn’s.  He wasn’t sure what the hold up was, but for some reason Dawn’s application could not be pushed through and until it was, he was very sorry to tell her that she could not volunteer at next week’s fundraising event.

Dawn wanted to cry. She kept it together just long enough to briefly explain the horrific situation. She was still hopeful that she would be approved and she would contact the district’s central office the following week. Dawn apologized for taking up the principal’s time.  The tears flowed freely as she pushed end on her cell phone.

It was all starting. This is exactly what she feared would happen at the last status conference in court. After the current {third} judge assigned to the case had hoped for a settlement, the current {fifth} prosecutor, Esposito, had said that he knew Dawn was fearful that her teaching license would be revoked but that the state was not interested in taking that away from her. “What an idiot,” Dawn vented to Scott and Paul, her attorney, after the mandatory yet brief court appearance. “He has no say in my teaching license. You can’t be a convicted felon and have a teaching certification. And even if some states allowed for that, what school would hire me? What an ass,” she steamed.

Apparently, Esposito had finally glanced at the file and took note of a marginal note that the very first prosecutor had made sometime around the indictment. The deal offered that day remained the same, over 3 years later: ‘plea to a third degree felony with no jail time and mandatory counseling.’ It’s actually a great deal…if you’re guilty. But Dawn was innocent and anything less than a dismissal and expunging the records was unacceptable. Besides, thanks to this whole ordeal, she was already in counseling.

Dawn, of course, had discussed the deal at length with Scott and Paul. The very idea of being a convicted felon for a crime she did not commit was abhorrent and she refused to perjure herself to stay out of jail. And to make it worse, that “deal” would mean losing her teaching certification and a whole slew of other ‘side effects’. Remaining honest could mean that she would be convicted, jailed, and subsequently absent from her children’s lives for the next five to ten YEARS to teach them about honesty, among other things. If she lied and falsely admitted to a crime she did not commit, she was guaranteed to be present in their lives. The irony was not lost on her. But she had to fight for what was right and true, despite what was being risked. “No deal,” thought Dawn, “I’ll take my chances and trust in the justice system.”

Only, she had had no idea of how unjust the system was, and now, in addition to spending the last 4 years waiting in purgatory, hell was starting to rain down…

————-

Dawn wiped her tears, took a few deep breaths, and gathered Madison into the car. She turned on the radio in hopes she could tune out on the drive to school. As she approached the final stop sign and turn before arriving at school, a fire engine, sirens blaring, flew down the street. “It wasn’t me,” a defeated voice in her head repeated, “It wasn’t me,” and she was catapulted into the nightmare that she relived every day in her memory, “It wasn’t me…”

She pulled up to school and waited in her car as long as possible before Riley and Harrison were dismissed. Dawn had no desire to socialize today. She felt as though she had a sign on her back, prompting unwelcomed judgment. Dawn kept her hat brim pulled low and her sunglasses on, despite the overcast sky. She hugged Madison close, not wanting to put her down, feeling vulnerable and needing her daughter’s protection.

Mr. Wollensky exited the dismissal doors with the fifth grade safety patrol students before the rest of the school was dismissed. Dawn took a few steps back into the crowd of parents, trying to avoid being seen. She wasn’t ready for the look. That look that people who just heard her story gave her, as if they’re trying to figure out if she really was innocent.

“If only they knew me.”

She wanted to give people that chance, to honestly know her. But most people were assuming and judgmental without even realizing it, without having all of the information, and her current reality was just too much to put out there. She was exceptional at reading people now and had learned that it’s best not to say anything. So she carried on, rather quietly, in her daily routine in a town that would never be home, befriending very few people, swaying in the breeze, not willing to grow roots…

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