This is from a paper I wrote for an college English class. I edited the ending after finding this some 17 years after it was written, some 23 years after the incident itself occurred.
She had a soft, southern accent that slurred her already gentle voice. She held herself nervously, shoulders slightly hunched, head bent forward, eyes gazing up. Shelly, the temporary brought in to help me get through the excess of work.
She wore a pale blue, button-up with short sleeves and a long, straight skirt of white with blue roses printed on it. Pearls and sensible navy flats completed her ensemble. It was a first-day-of-an-assignment outfit. It was the kind of outfit that could be found in every discount and department store across the nation. It was the kind of outfit I always thought I should buy, yet never did. In stark contrast to her prim attire, I wore a ruffled skirt that landed just above my knees. Every ruffle was a different pattern of blue and white and green.
I found a spot for her in the break room where she could spread out and assemble the quarterly statements sent to the Columbus Jewish Foundation fund holders. I stopped in to check on her after about an hour. “How you makin’ out?” I inquired brightly.
She pointed to a run in her tan hose. “That just happened,” she explained. “I wouldn’t want you to think I came in with that. It just happened a few minutes ago.”
“Oh,” I replied, staring at the tear, trying to understand the depth of her distress. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. Happens to me all the time,” I told her with a smile.
I returned to my desk and began typing a letter when I heard a crash through the doorway. I ran into the kitchen where I discovered the coffee mug I had lent her shattered across the linoleum floor in solid chunks.
“Oh, my gosh! I am so sorry!” Shelly cried fretfully over and over. Surveying the remnants of the mug strewn across the floor, I squelched my frustration. It was one of my favorite mugs. With a deep breath, I placed a smile on my face.
“Don’t worry about it. It was just an accident,” I reassured her as I began wiping up coffee, gathering moss-covered clay fragments, dodging the sharp edges.
Once everything was cleaned, we resumed our separate projects, working in silence for another hour, before I invited her to join me outside for a break. Standing on the stoop next to the side door, soaking up sunshine, she confessed to me in a scared voice, “I’m not Jewish.”
I laughed, “I thought the same thing when I came here last fall. Actually, about half the people in the building aren’t Jewish.” I explained lightly. She made no reply and the silence grew heavy. “Have you been with the employment agency long?” I questioned, longing to fill the emptiness with words.
“We just moved here. My husband’s cousin is giving him a job with his construction company. Back in South Carolina we went to a non-denominational church and some of the people there know some folks up here. They go to a church that’s in the same conference as ours and they’ve been helping us get settled,” she divulged in quick words and sentences without periods. After her flurry of words she fell silent, looking at me expectantly.
Stumbling awkwardly from the uneven exchange, I groped for an appropriate response. “Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I go to a non-denominational bible fellowship on Tuesdays and Sundays.” I thought maybe telling her I was a Christian would ease her discomfort. I recognized that it was a little scary to come in to an environment so foreign and strange.
As we descended the stairs to the lower level I reflected on our discussion. Shelly’s nervous comments took me back to the previous November. I had felt so torn in accepting a placement at the Jewish Foundation. I had truly believed that working for a Jewish organization was somehow a compromise of my own beliefs. It had taken me three days to recognize that neither my parents nor my ministers had taught me this. Through Chanukah and Christmas, Passover and Easter I was forced to examine my own beliefs and assumptions.
Over lunch, I pondered how much of life I had taken as a “given” before I came to the Foundation. It had been a “given” that everyone around me shared some similitude of my beliefs. It had been a “given” that the person sitting next to me in the restaurant or pumping gas by my side had a similar background and future as I. Evaluating my “givens” challenged my narrow perceptions and exposed me to the full, and sometimes, harsh light of other realities than my own.
After lunch Shelly came to my desk. She stood in a half-crouch, leaning over me with a distraught expression on her face. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t stay,” she almost whispered in an unsteady voice.
Instantly concerned, I probed, “What’s wrong?” Did she feel sick, I wondered, or had something happened to her husband? I was not prepared for her answer.
“I’m a Christian,” she replied. “And you know, in church we pray for these people, the Jews, and I’m sorry, but I’ll finish the day, but I can’t come back tomorrow.”
The only response I could muster was a look of surprise. I continued to sit stunned while she returned to her seat. Ten dozen contradicting emotions crashed incoherently in my brain. I felt anger. Anger at Shelly’s ignorance. Anger at the teachers and pastors and parents who fostered such ignorance. I felt insulted. I had told Shelly I was also a Christian. Telling me she could not stay because of her Christianity was a slap in my face, an invalidation of my beliefs. I felt hurt. I thought Shelly, like me, would find the Foundation a rewarding environment ripe with potential.
I sat looking at her hunched profile through the open doorway of my office, across the hall and through the doorway of the break room. There she sat. I could feel her anxiety like a tangible force, reaching across the hallway to engulf me. I wanted her gone.
I grappled for composure. Slowly, deliberately I went in to her. I measured my steps and voice, knowing I stood close to the edge of rash actions. In a calm, even voice that wouldn’t betray my inner turmoil, I relayed, “Shelly, if you really feel that way, I think you should go ahead and leave. You won’t do yourself or us any good in the state you’re in.”
Her lips clamped together and her brows hunched over her eyes. She inhaled sharply through her nose, causing her chest to puff out, and her shoulders to go rigid. Her eyes turned red as she fought the burgeoning tears.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have accepted the assignment. It’s just, well, I…it was the first thing they offered me and I was afraid if I said no they wouldn’t give me anything else. I’m sorry.”
“Shelly, you don’t have to explain. I just think it that’s how you feel, then it’s best for everyone if you leave now.”
She stood there for an instant and I could see words bumping together frantically in her mind, but none reached her lips. Yes, I too longed for a nice, tidy way to end our acquaintance. Unable to articulate her thoughts, she sprang into motion, grabbing her purse, not bothering with the strap, looking anxiously for any stray pieces of her presence and finding none, she walked out. She looked back once as she turned the corner to the stairs.
I returned to my desk where I sat for a long time after she departed, sorting through the emotional debris left from our encounter. The anger resurged, anger that fear had choked Shelly, anger that she couldn’t breath the sweet air of understanding. Her fear made her blind, unreasonable, illogical. I ached for her lack of understanding. I cursed life for being such a tangled weave of right and wrong, of muted grays and strained whites. I wished it were easier to set oneself in the very midst of broken humanity, look straight on its chipped face, and still find the beauty among the scars.
I dreaded having to tell the Executive Director, Jack. Shelly’s decision was not a personal slight against Jack, but it felt so terribly personal. It was late afternoon before he finally returned from his meeting. I hurried unskillfully through the incident, reciting as few details as necessary.
“Jack, should I call the agency to see if we can still get someone out here tomorrow?”
He thought for a few seconds. “No, I’ll just ask my wife if she can come in for a few days,” he spoke without his normal exuberance, a weary note in his voice that I had not heard before.
Once Jack was settled in his office, I called the agency. The representative began a barrage of criticism against Shelly, but I stopper her. I’d had time to think and I knew what I wanted to say to Shelly. “Can you do me a favor?” I asked.
Eager to rectify the situation, Nichole could not respond fast enough, “Sure, anything. What do you need?”
“It’s a little unorthodox, but could you ask Shelly to review the account of Joseph working for Pharaoh?”
In the coming days, Jack relayed the story to a number of people. For weeks, I would be in the midst of some project and would be stopped to discuss the episode. In our small corner of the world, I had become the goyim champion, standing up in the face of antisemitism. I became a hero of sorts, but I wore the praise uneasily. The truth was I felt ashamed of how much I could relate to Shelly. The assignment to the Jewish Foundation had also been my first assignment and truthfully, I had only accepted because, like Shelly, I was afraid I wouldn’t be offered future assignments if I refused it. Like Shelly I had grappled with working at the Jewish Foundation.
Unlike Shelly I had come to recognize the error of my thoughts, but I didn’t want to admit to my Jewish coworkers and friends how truly similar I was to Shelly.
I have so many Shelly scenarios in my life now. So many moments where I so narrowly escaped becoming prisoner to fear and ignorance. And I have many years, many decades where I did succumb to wrong ideas that governed my actions through fear and intimidation. It still scares me to see how close I came to never becoming free from the cloying containment of those ignorant beliefs. It still steals my breath to see so many people who never choose to pursue the uncomfortable path of confronting the limiting belief systems they are familiar with.