Soledad

A promise is a debt you must pay someday

Soledad is a place you don’t want to go to, even if you were invited. It is a State Prison in the Salinas Valley in southern California. At that facility, there’s a Toastmasters Club known as Talk the Line. In 2009 I received an invitation to be a guest speaker. As a district leader, I promised to visit. Who wouldn’t like to speak to a captive audience – wouldn’t you? But I soon realize that some promises are not easily kept.

Every time I thought about making good on my promise, I remembered how badly I felt as a youth after doing concerts with groups for inmates at juvenile facilities. It was difficult to erase the memories of meeting young men and women my age who had lost their way and purpose in life. I still remember asking some of them how they ended up in a place like this. Their most common response was silence or stories that would stain my soul.  

Haunted by my Papa’s words of wisdom that a promise is a debt you must pay someday, I sent gifts to avoid visiting. I encouraged other division leaders to visit.  But nothing eased the pain of not having the courage to go.  Honestly, I feared revisiting that empty feeling I had after visiting those facilities. As the months slipped into years, and I was no longer a district leader, I thought the feeling of being obligated to keep my promise would be gone forever.  Visiting Soledad was fast becoming a long-forgotten memory until a fellow Toastmaster asked me to evaluate one of her contest speeches, and without a second thought, I said yes.  

The speech title was – “Get on the Bus.” It wasabout the memories of her life and times when as an infant and teenager, she had to get on a bus provided by the state every month for the children of incarcerated parents to visit with their kids. She recalled how happy she was to spend a few hours every month with her father.  As a single dad at the time, I was almost moved to tears. After the contest, she called to tell me how well her speech was received. Then said Henry; some of my club members are planning to visit Talk the Line. Would you join us and be a guest speaker? For a moment, I was silent.  I knew then that my someday had arrived. I couldn’t say no; I had to go. It was time to pay my debt.

One week later, an email arrived from the prison. The process had begun. First, I had to answer several questions regarding my eligibility for the visit.  My security clearance came days later with instructions on even the colors of clothing I was not allowed to wear and the scheduled time I must arrive for a mandatory briefing. My friend, sensing my anxiety over the process she had experienced many times in her lifetime, assured me that we would be together every step of the way.  

The briefing brought back many memories of my visits to the juvenile facilities. However, the tension was intense and got even greater when we faced the white line that gave Talk the Line its name. Before walking the line, we were instructed not to look to our right or left, as you might see someone you know. That was all the incentive I needed to get to the end of that line and into our meeting room as quickly as possible.  

The speech I delivered that day was entitled “Papa.” I chose Papa because of the many words of wisdom and the lessons my Papa taught my siblings and me to keep us on the straight and narrow. Papa believed that the Lord protects the innocent and the foolish and those of us who are twice blessed, but he warned us about friends.  Friends will take you, but they will never bring you back. Don’t be an eye servant! Whatever you can do in front of my face – You can do behind my back.

To this day, I will never forget the sound that reverberated in that room when I recalled Papa’s golden rule of life – Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. And after that most memorable meeting, I felt my debt was paid in full. It was gratifying to later learn about the many life-changing lessons some of those inmates took away from that visit and that time we shared with our fellow Toastmasters at Soledad. – a place I now say you should go to, but only if you are invited.  

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmasters in 1997. He is presently a member of 4 Toastmasters clubs; two in Santa Cruz and two in San Jose. He is a DTM-4. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ whose speechwriting approach is similar to his approach to songwriting.

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