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Slimantics: Three miles in Savely's shoes...

 

Slim Smith

 

In Thursday's paper, the Dispatch reported that Jill Savely had been hired as the new principal at Columbus High School. 

 

The story dutifully noted her professional background -- seven years as assistant principal and two years as a biology teacher at CHS and the fact that she was the district's 2009 administrator of the year. 

 

The story also mentioned something else: Savely was convicted on a DUI charge in 2010. 

 

I winced when I read that part. It wasn't that I disagreed with the decision to include that information; as managing editor, I had signed off on the story. 

 

Rather, I winced because I know what it's like to see that sort of thing in a newspaper. If anybody can empathize with Jill Savely, it's me. Yes, I think I have a pretty good idea of what she has endured since Oct. 2, 2010, when she was stopped and arrested for that DUI.  

 

I suspect that Oct. 2, 2010, will be burned into her memory.  

 

I have one of those dates, too. For me, it's Feb. 19, 2006.  

 

That was the date I was picked up for my third -- yes, third -- DUI in a span of four years. It was the date my world came unraveled, the day I hit bottom, the date I had to make a choice. 

 

It was also the day I began to pay: 

 

Four months in state prison. Three years without a driver's license. Stripped of my job as Metro Columnist at a major newspaper. A figure of scorn in print, radio and TV. Abandoned by my fiancĂ©. Humiliated in the eyes of my peers. Burdened by the shame I had caused my two children and my siblings. Oddly grateful that my parents had died a couple of years earlier and did not have to endure the shame of having a convicted felon for a son.  

 

I walked out of Florence West Prison in Florence, Ariz., on July 2, 2007, penniless, with no job, no prospects and barely enough hope to stay alive. 

 

I spent three years living in a two-room building on a horse property in Tempe, Ariz., riding a bicycle through three blistering Arizona summers, working one odd job after another -- ranch hand, landscaper, car-wash attendant, thrift-store clerk, janitor. Isolated by both circumstance and choice, careful to avoid old acquaintances, embarrassed when a stranger would stare at me a long moment, then say, "Hey, didn't you used to be...?'' 

 

It has now been almost five years since I walked out of prison and more than six years since I ended an abusive relationship with alcohol. I finally got my driver's license back, came back to Mississippi, finished my college education and returned to the profession I have loved since I was a child.  

 

For a long time, I viewed Feb. 19, 2006, as the darkest day in my life, and it would be dishonest if I were to say that I still don't find that date painful. But over the intervening years, I've come to see it in a different light. Feb. 19, 2006, had to happen. It was an act of divine mercy that it did, I believe. 

 

For the longest time, whenever I met someone new I felt compelled to tell them the sordid details of my stunning fall. A lot of my friends scolded me for that. "That's what you did, not who you are,'' they told me. 

 

Still, it seemed to me somehow dishonest not to reveal that information. And it seemed to me that if I were going to be truly accountable -- if I were going to own it and accept the consequences of it -- part of that meant wearing a Scarlet Letter.  

 

I do not feel that way anymore. I am not compelled to divulge those details to those I meet. But I do not avoid it, either. 

 

It was the first thing I mentioned during my job interview here at The Dispatch. And, when Savely's story came to light on Thursday, it seemed an appropriate time for me to share it with you, too. 

 

Of course, for Savely, the offense is far less egregious than mine. One DUI can be dismissed as a lapse in judgment, a poor choice. I suspect the people who know her realize that. Certainly, she would not have been considered for the principal's job if those who made the decision were not confident of both her character and her conduct. 

 

I think Savely will find that a few people will be critical. They will argue that she has forfeited her right to be a principal. But these are not typically the people who matter anyway. They are the rare few who, having never needed mercy, see no cause to extend it to others. 

 

Fortunately, most people, being aware of their own human frailty, will recognize the unfairness of judging a person by her worst moment. 

 

Someday, perhaps someday soon, she will view Oct. 2, 2010, as no more than an embarrassing moment in her life. It will certainly not define her. 

 

As for me, the offense was greater and so is its residue.  

 

But it is more scar than wound now and a scar doesn't hurt. It just reminds. 

 

For that, I am grateful. 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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