February 23, 2020

Ripple Effect: First, Last, Never.

The last few years of my parents’ lives we knew they were sick and that that their death was near. There was this intense sense of the “last” Passover, the “last” birthday, the “last” something for us to celebrate together.

Then, my mom died. There was the “first” Hanukkah without her. Then the “first” New Year she wasn’t alive. My dad died eight months after her. It was the “first” time I was without parents. 

Six weeks after his death, my oldest daughter was born.

First child. First time being the adult. First of many firsts.

So many “firsts” that the sadness of the “lasts” that came with my parents’ deaths ebbed a little. Although I must say, it was hard being a mom when I had just lost mine.

First times and last times. We remember them. They are significant.

My husband and I were just on a family trip to Hawaii with our three kids. With my oldest a junior in high school, this felt like one of our last trips as a family.

I remember the first camping trip we took. 

My youngest had just started crawling.

She was dirty the entire time from crawling on the ground in the dirt of the campground. 

In every single picture her body is covered in dirt and leaves, her smile big, her eyes shining with mischief.

I look at my teenage children who right now are not so fond of spending time with their mom. I can’t imagine all of them not being on a family trip with us, but I know that day is not far off.

First, last, never. 

There is something incredibly significant about the first time you do something and the last.

“Ms., this was the first time I was sober with my family.”

“That was the first time I walked away and did not fight back.”

“Ms., that was the last time I will get locked up,” he told me after he was detained for a few months because he fought with a co-worker.

“I spent the past 15 years of my life in and out of those walls. No more! That’s it!”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m with you.” 

“Ms., I ain’t never been in love.” This young woman’s story can break the strongest of hearts. It broke mine.

“I ain’t gonna trust no one ever. You feel me?”

“Never is a long time,” I say. 

“Keep your options open. There could be a first time for love. There always is,” I add.

Someone from the other side of the room says, “Well, this was the last time I am getting married. Had me three husbands. No more. Find you some love,” she says with compassion to the girl. “Just don’t marry the fucker.”

We all laugh.

“I got the job!” she tells me over the phone. 

“That’s amazing,” I say. 

“What did you say to them?” she asked me. I was her reference.

“I told them the truth. That you were amazing, hard-working and smart,” I tell her. 

“Where did you tell them you met me?” 

“I told them you did my program. They didn’t ask me where. I didn’t think they needed to know.”  She laughs out loud. 

You see, I met this young woman when she was 16 and incarcerated. 

She has been out for a while and we have been in and out of touch.

This young woman is incredibly creative and landed a job interview with a small party planning business. I have spent a lot of time with my mentors learning how to vouch for the people I teach. This is no simple task, making sure I don’t get them or myself in trouble. Never say something you can’t stand behind or don’t know.

One colleague told me, “Speak from your heart. Tell the truth, and don’t share information that, how shall I say, can be incriminating.”

That’s funny, I think, considering many of them have criminal backgrounds.

Now, I am a master of doing exactly that. Saying what is needed without adding what isn’t.

“I got the job,” she told me. 

“Amazing!” I say. 

She is quiet 

“This is my first real job,” she says quietly. 

“The first of many,” I say.

“What if it’s the last?” she asks.

“What about my tats (Her tattoos. She has many.) and what if they find out?”

When you are incarcerated as a minor at some point your record can be expunged. That means erased and it cannot pop up in some background check. It is as if it never happened. Hers had been, yet she was afraid.

“Then they will find out,” I say calmly. 

She was having a panic attack on the phone.

“Listen,” I tell her. “I hear you. Just go and be yourself. Do the job. Be the best you can be. It will fall into place. If it doesn’t, we’ll figure it out together.”

I said this with conviction to convince her and to convince myself, too. 

I have heard from my adult students of the nightmares of trying to get a job or rent an apartment when you have a record. The stories are beyond disturbing.

This girl needs this job. It’s a real deal breaker. 

I am well aware of what is at stake.

“You got this,” I add.
“Breathe!”

 She does.

First job. 

First paycheck. 

First bank account. 

First promotion. 

First moment of pride.

So many firsts.

I hadn’t heard from her in a while. I recently got a phone call:

“Nomi,” she said. I know things have changed once they call me by my name and not “Ms.” anymore. 

I am already beyond happy. She really needs to say no more.

I found out she is doing well. She moved away. 

New start, cheaper city, and now has her own little company and is mentored by the brilliant woman who hired her after my recommendation.

“Nomi,” she said. “You opened the door for me to walk into my first job. That was the last time I doubted myself and I’m never going back.”

I am quiet.

“Hello?” 

“I’m here,” I say.

“Damn,” she says. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you shut up and be so quiet,” she says. 

“Very funny,” I say wiping my tears.

First time. 

Last time. 

Never.

She tells me more. 

These kids drift in and out of my life. Throughout the years it’s fun to hear where they have been and what they have been up to, especially when it is a success story.

“I never thought this would happen,” she tells me. 

“I really thought that first day would be my last.”

“Well it wasn’t,” I say. 

“Thank goodness!” she says. 

We continue to catch up.

I am so proud.

I am so relieved that she is doing well.

“I’ll call you again in a few months. Okay?’ she says. 

I am happy, so incredibly happy to know that this is NOT the last time I will hear from her.


Naomi Ackerman is a Mom, activist, writer, performer, and the founder and Executive Director of The Advot (ripple) Project a registered 501(c)3 that uses theatre and the arts to empower youth at risk to live their best life.

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