by Troy Chapman
I got a call to the chaplain’s office last month and learned through him that Marguerite Feller had died. When I first met Marguerite, she was a middle-aged school teacher and I was a third-grader who was having trouble reading. She took me into her special reading class and caught me up on my reading skills.
I met her again 15 or so years later when she showed up at the prison where I was being held at the time. She was retired by then and I wasn’t sure who she was. When she explained, I still wasn’t sure what she wanted or why she was there. She said she just wanted to “check up on me.” To see if I was all right.
She continued to come after that first visit. I sent her some of my paintings as gifts and after setting aside a few for herself she began showing the others to friends, selling them and sending me the money. This was a time when I didn’t have much of anything and not many friends in the world. I was extremely grateful.
She also began to encourage my writing by sharing things I’d sent her and encouraging those who read them to come and meet me. In fact, this was a fruit of her own labor. If it hadn’t been for her caring and patience in teaching me my vowels and letters, I would likely never have developed the writing skills that have so profoundly altered my life. When many had concluded that I wasn’t worth any extra trouble, Marguerite concluded the opposite.
More important even than this, she seemed intent on helping me remember who I am; on telling me a different story about myself than the one told by my crime and those bad years preceding it. She told me I was “always a good boy.” As evidence of this, she still had possession of a card I’d made her. It said: “Mrs. Feller, You taught me my vowels: A-E-I-O-U, I love you.”
I had no memory of this but she brought it back to me there in the prison those many years later and it was a sublime service to my spirit. I spoke earlier of not knowing who we affect, or how much we affect them, as we struggle to be lights in the world and I’m sure she couldn’t have known the effect she would have on my life, but it was enormous. I believed her when she told me I was more than my crime or anything else I’d done.
She wasn’t perfect or a saint or someone with all the spiritual answers. I know she was lonely and depressed in later life and she missed her husband Walt terribly after he died. Sometimes she felt that her life was pointless. In other words, she was an ordinary, real person.
When I think of her I often see her, in my mind’s eye, in one moment. It’s the moment when she saw me on the news, charged with murder. I wonder about the progression from that moment to the thought that she should come visit me. I think about the courage it took to follow through on that thought with no idea what it was like to visit a prison, what she would say to me, or what kind of person I was those many years later. I know as she continued to visit me she took a lot of criticism from friends who were worried about her and concerned about her judgment.
“Common sense,” it seems, would have dictated that she feel sad, say “what a shame,” and dismiss me from her life. That she did the opposite says a lot about who she was and stands as a powerful teaching to me about how to meet Creative Spirit when it calls and what it means to be a light in the world.
And in the end this is the truest and best thing I can say about Marguerite: She was a true teacher and a good one. May she travel well.
Gouache by Troy Chapman