We assign values based on first-impressions, though few of us like to admit it. We learned the golden rule in kindergarten after all, and our better parts know that it’s a risky and close-minded habit.
But to be fair, our perceptions are often accurate. If someone meets our gaze and speaks with a stong and confident voice, we might believe his words or trust her intentions. If the voice quavers or the breath smells like booze, the person’s motives are suspect. And we’ve got too few hours in the day to hear everybody’s story; we’ve got our own important places to be.
So assumptions can be useful, and more than that, they’re often unavoidable. But I believe the most unfortunate part isn’t that first-impressions are limited or even wrong; it’s that they form a permanent template through which we will filter everything that person says or does in the future. Every action or word will affirm or contradict what we already believe. We are all tragically, unconsciously biased.
The past several months I’ve spent on this project have been an invaluable learning experience. I’ve gotten to meet people struggling to find employment and purpose, people trying to transcend limitations, and I’ve had the opportunity to ask how they’ve gotten where they are and where they hope to be.
It’s been a test of open-mindedness, in some ways. The rational part of me wanted to assign individual responsibility to their situations while the empathetic part of me recognized that circumstances are often out of their control. And nobody’s story exemplified both sides of the issue as well as Angelina French’s.
Angelina is 27. In 2003, around the time she graduated high school, her sister Carla was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease known as Goodpasture’s Syndrome. She fell ill while she was pregnant and had to give birth prematurely. The baby survived, but weeks later Carla seized, suffered heart-attacks, strokes, and was placed on life-support. She died several months later, at the age of 20.
After Carla’s death, Angelina wanted to numb the emotions. She tried oxycontin, and later heroin. She became dependent on opiates. One day, in a grocery store parking lot, Angelina and her then-boyfriend were seen using drugs while they sat in the car. The police came, searched the vehicle, and took Angelina to jail for possession. She was offered deferred prosecution on the condition that she completed drug court. She accepted.
While completing the terms of the agreement, Angelina was chosen by university researchers who were studying the effectiveness of methadone treatment. As part of the study, she was given regular doses of the synthetic opioid and eventually stopped using heroin.
Angelina is now an expectant mother and lives with her fiancé, Frankie. She hopes to return to college, possibly to become a therapist or social worker. But, says Angelina, her priority is now the baby who is due this summer.
Near the end of the slideshow below, you’ll hear part of the solo she sang in MAP’s recent graduation ceremony. “Killing Me Softly,” may seem at first an odd choice for the occasion, but Angelina later told me it was one of her sister’s favorite songs, and one of the few she knows by heart. The fact that Angelina can seem painfully shy and timid, speaks to how important it must have been for her to sing at the ceremony.
Angelina’s story isn’t a tragedy, nor is it a stereotypical example of success. Angelina taught me, perhaps more than anyone else in the program, that it’s not up to me to decide one way or another. I’m here only to write what I see. And what I see, for better or worse, is a story in progress.