I spent the whole three and a half hour drive to Chicago trying to wrap my head around it: my much beloved sixth grade teacher, Mr. Jones (not his real name), had just been convicted of molesting a young boy.
I had been in town just for a few hours and I thought I would try to meet Mr. Jones for lunch. I called up the place where he worked trying to talk to him and find out whether he’d have time. “Hi, I’m trying to get in touch with Mr. Jones,” I said. “Mr. Jones doesn’t work here anymore,” the woman on the phone replied dryly.
That was odd. Mr. Jones had been working there ever since he had lost his job with the school district as a result of the allegations made against him. I decided to call him at home, to see if he was okay. As I the phone rang, I googled his name. When the results loaded I slowly replaced the receiver, realizing that I would receive no response.
The article read that Mr. Jones had plead guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He had been sentenced to seven years in prison. His best case scenario now is being released on parole in a little over three and a half years. The article was one of two. There were some details that came out which inferred mischief where I don’t think any was. Some “facts” were just plain wrong. But the thrust was true – Mr. Jones was a convicted child molester.
My mind went into a tailspin. I sat there, dumbfounded, in disbelief. “How could this be true?” I asked myself followed with the thought of “What will happen to Mr. Jones in prison?”
I remember the first day I met Mr. Jones. My family had just moved into town. My mother and I went to the grade school that I was to start the sixth grade. We were walking the halls when Mr. Jones greeted us. He was super friendly and ensured us that I would like the school, where he had been teaching for some time. Low and behold, on the first day of class, I was in Mr. Jones’ class. What a coincidence – the friendly teacher I had met on my visit was going to be my teacher. I would later find out that he requested that I be put in his class.
Oddly enough, Mr. Jones’ class wasn’t a regular sixth grade class. Many of the students in his class had behavior and other social problems. There were a handful of us who did not, and we were there to be an example to the others of what successful students can achieve. Mr. Jones’ class, however, was full up.
For that year, the children in his class were successful. Kids who were severe behavior problems learned how to operate in his structured environment. The incidents that needed resolution outside of Mr. Jones’ disciplinary system were few and they occurred infrequently. Many of my classmates had low self-esteem and a poor self-image and Mr. Jones worked hard to build all of the students up. Many of us felt like Mr. Jones really cared for us. He was invested in us as human beings, not just students. He loved us like father would love his own children. And for many of us, that was something we had never experienced.
Throughout the year, Mr. Jones would give students rewards to positively reinforce good behavior. The naughtier students received special attention, because without it their gains would fall apart. Sometimes Mr. Jones would do special things for his students. For instance after the father of one of my peers was beaten to death in an alleyway, Mr. Jones paid special attention to him in part because of the traumatic event but also in part because the boy struggled to behave even before his father’s murder. I remember Mr. Jones bought him a VHS tape and went to the funeral of the boy’s father. That was just one example that stands out in my mind, but it certainly wasn’t unusual.
After my year in sixth grade, I stayed in touch with Mr. Jones. I would go over to his house to visit with him. He would invite me to events with his kids, like going to the water park. Sometimes we’d go and have lunch together or watch a movie. He would invite me over for dinner with him and his wife. Sometimes I would phone him. He was, after all, a friend and a father figure to me. As a boy, I always felt comfortable with Mr. Jones. He would give me in advice when I needed it and console me when I struggled to cope with the issues I had with my own dad. Mr. Jones, whose father was like mine, helped me gain perspective on the situation. He helped me release a lot of the anger I felt towards my dad and grow as a person.
As I grew up and left that town, I would always make it a point to visit Mr. Jones. He was such an important part of my life that staying in touch with him and visiting with him was a normal and instinctive thing for me to do.
Mr. Jones used to live in my neighborhood. One day about five years ago I was home visiting my mother and I decided to walk over to his house and ring the doorbell. There was no answer and no bark of the family dog. I looked through the window and the photos on the table in the foyer were not of Mr. Jones and his family but of some people who I didn’t recognize. Mr. Jones didn’t live there anymore.
I went home and tried calling his number. It had been disconnected. Strange, I thought, wondering what had happened. I tried an old email and looked for him on Facebook. At first I got nothing. Then one day, a few weeks later, I received an email from Mr. Jones. He had changed his email and phone number, and enclosed were his new ones. He had moved to some apartments nearby and some things had happened to him – he would tell me in person. Next time I was in town, I called Mr. Jones up and we went out for dinner.
I was happy to see Mr. Jones and he was always happy to see me. His eyes lit up and he smiled his big toothy grin. In his southern drawl he said, “Rajeev, it’s so good to see you. I always pray for you and hope that you are doing well.” It was something Mr. Jones would typically tell me but the warmth in his voice always let me know that he meant it.
As we sat at the local restaurant, eating our meal, Mr. Jones had told me of his saga. His son’s childhood friend had accused him of fondling him. He had been arrested and charged with the crime and had to give up his house in order to pay for the exorbitant legal fees. Fortunately his children had long been gone from the house so the downsizing wasn’t terrible. He had terms of release which forbade him to be alone with children and so his life had completely changed. Over the next couple of years, I would stay in touch with Mr. Jones and try to visit with him frequently and call him occasionally.
Our visits were cordial, but Mr. Jones had changed. He was no longer the same man. There was a streak of anger which had consumed him. It was impossible to visit with him without his situation coming up in one shape or form. His demeanor was completely different – the warmth I had always associated with him had cooled considerably. But how could I blame him? His life had been turned upside down. His career as a school teacher was, needless to say, over. He had lost all of his savings, his social life, and his church family just to name the most important things.
The ordeal seemed to drag on indefinitely. He eventually changed his legal counsel but even after that it seemed like a series of never-ending status hearings. “I went to court and nothing happened,” he would tell me. “We’ll see what happens in another few months.”
As time went on, Mr. Jones told me about different details about his case and because my experience with him had only been positive and I had seen the positive impact he made on so many lives, I found the accusations hard to believe. Like him, I was hoping that the ordeal would soon be over and the charges dismissed.
I had called him one day while I was in Phoenix, just to check in on him. Truth be told, as I had gotten older, I had found it difficult to talk with him because of his situation and his hardline conservatism. Nonetheless, I still cared for him and wanted to know how he was holding up. He told me that he was doing okay and that in August there would be another hearing. He would tell me if anything changed.
I was stunned to read that he had pled guilty. It didn’t make any sense to me. For all of this time he had told me that he was innocent. I believed him. I had no reason to doubt him. Had I had kids, I would have trusted them to be fine with him. And now, after how many years and money spent, he simply pled guilty? It didn’t make any sense.
Apparently he admitted to fondling the boy. Part of me still has difficulty believing it. I can’t help but wonder whether his lawyer felt that his case was unwinnable and that pleading now would give Mr. Jones the best possible outcome. He faced a longer sentence on a worse charge and perhaps the lawyer felt that a jury would convict him had they gone. Maybe he just ran out of money. Or maybe it was a lack of energy – he had been beat to shreds as a result of losing his life. Could he have just come to the conclusion that he was in a lose-lose situation? I don’t know and anything I might suggest is just pure speculation.
Now Mr. Jones is serving seven years. His mugshot shows a tired man. He is in a medium security prison not too far from the city. Knowing now what I know about prison, I can’t help but fear for him. Will he manage to survive it? Will somebody try to pull his card and assault him, or even try to kill him, if he refuses or they find out his charge – a simple internet search reveals all of those details. Will he plunge into depression and try to end his own life? I hope not. Maybe he’ll be able to keep to himself, do his time, and move forward. But then, he’s already nearly sixty – he could be on a sex offender registry for the remainder of his life – I struggle to see a bright future.
In the end, I’m not sure how to feel about it all. Mr. Jones is now a convicted sex offender. He is a “chomo,” a bottom-feeder in the bottom-feeder society that is prison. But I can’t place him there. He was never that to me. I still have difficulty believing it all, even if he did tell the court he did it. Nonetheless, I can’t picture him as that.
I am hurt – I wish he had told me. I know how difficult it would have been, though, so I can’t blame him for not saying anything to me. There are so many unanswered questions. I have never known a person who has been convicted of such an offence before and I’m not sure quite how to react. Perhaps it’s nativity on my part, but to me Mr. Jones was the next best thing to my own dad, and sometimes, at the darkest times, better. I know that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without Mr. Jones and I thank him for that – and for that reason, I don’t think I could ever turn my back on him.