Not Your Average Nun
It was evident from the thoughtful questions at the end of Mario's Story that the audience was deeply moved. Afterward I told Sister Janet I was naturally curious to meet Mario, who has recently been awarded the prestigious PEN USA fellowship Emerging Voices while his legal fate is being determined. When Sister Janet and I discovered quite felicitously that we would both be in California at the same time, her blue eyes sparkled. “I think God is showing off a bit.” She arranged to have me invited to a lunch at the beach house of the chair of the writing program's advisory board in Malibu. There I would meet not only Mario but another graduate of the InsideOut program.
The first guest to show up on the appointed day was Walter McMillan, an engaging 27-year-old African-American medical student who is president of the InsideOut Writers Alumni Association. He and Mario were in class together in 1997, but McMillan was tried as a juvenile for robbery and served four years in a juvenile jail. He credits Sister Janet and the writing program for getting him physically and psychologically out of the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where, according to Walter, his mother was on crack and he himself was shot at twice walking down the street. After getting his undergraduate degree in English at the University of Washington, McMillan is now studying nuclear medicine. “In juvenile hall,” he told me, “the system says you are bad, bad, bad. How empowering to discover, 'No, I'm not!' The writing helped me connect to that question, 'Who am I?'” Sister Janet went on to say: “Reading their stories in front of their peers and having their writing affirmed means more to these boys and girls than we can imagine. And the more their stories are appreciated, the more they allow themselves to be vulnerable in their writing. The kids are very good at picking up on b.s. They know that whatever they say has to come from the truth—because the others will call them on it.”
Another guest at lunch was Javier Stauring, the 45-year-old former gemologist who succeeded Sister Janet as chaplain at juvenile hall and whom she first recruited there as a volunteer. Stauring, who acts as a mentor to Mario, had brought him to the beach lunch. Mario was grinning from ear to ear—as if he still could not quite believe he was free. (He had spent his first night out of jail in ten and a half years sleeping on his family's garage roof, looking at the stars.) There beside the ocean, he and Sister Janet hugged and laughed—in prison they had often fantasized that someday Mario would be free and they would walk on the beach together. That day had arrived.
Listening to Mario talk about books, about writing and his plans for the future, it was apparent how much Sister Janet's support and his writing teacher's encouragement had meant to him. In an essay titled “Unfit,” Mario wrote: “When I joined the InsideOut writing class, I searched for words to expose the cave of my soul. I wrote about memories and painful experiences. I poured forth my fears, doubts, and perplexities on paper, and I began to understand my life, who I was and why.”
For someone who had just emerged from prison and didn't know if he would be forced to go back behind bars for life, Mario seemed remarkably relaxed. “I'm confident justice will be served. I'm living proof we can correct a wrong,” he told me. He calls Sister Janet “my trumpet. She heard me for the first time.” He told Susan Koch, the documentary filmmaker, that for him Sister Janet personified the Beatles song “Let It Be”: There will be an answer, let it be, let it be.