“Okay, so maybe stealing to make money wasn’t so cool after all,” thought seventeen year old Jesse Jonsen as she put the final touches on her high school English class writing assignment. It started out as a simple enough assignment — write an essay about a lesson you’ve learned this year. But for Jesse, it grew into a major project exploring what lead up to her finishing high school in the Minnesota Itasca County School Girls Group Home, more than 200 miles from the Twin Cities home where she grew up.
She wrote about the nice clothes, lying to her parents about the job at Dairy Queen, how she got caught, the juvenile trial, the choice the judge gave her, the trip north in a Police van, all of it.
Most students wrote their assignments on notebook paper, but this one was special and Jesse wanted it typed. She almost cried when the Group Home Director offered the use of her new Windows 95 laptop. After struggling for weeks, first learning how to type and then learning to use this new word processing software, after writing and rewriting and editing and rewriting some more, she finally felt good about her paper. She knew it would get an A, but the grade wasn’t important any more. It was more important to write it all down, to understand what made her think like a criminal and what she would do with the rest of her life.
Just one more thing left to do – click the “Print” button and it would all be there on paper for her teacher and everyone else to see. And then the criminal chapter of her life would be over.
But nothing is ever easy. A few seconds after clicking the “print” button, an amber light flashed on the printer, but nothing came out. The printer had plenty of paper. What could be wrong? After some fumbling, the Group Home Director figured out the printer needed a new toner cartridge. The Director had a meeting in a few minutes and asked if Jesse wouldn’t mind changing it since it could be messy. Jesse agreed and the Director showed Jesse how to change the cartridge and the toner collection bottle. After closing up the printer, Jesse’s paper came out and looked nice. She decided to print another copy, just to make sure it was all OK.
Jesse felt good about herself after dinner. The group home stocked snacks in a pantry and Jesse asked if she could celebrate with a butterscotch pudding.
“The dishes are done, so use a plastic spoon,” said one of the staff members.
Jesse sat down on the couch in the TV room with some other girls and ate her pudding. It was a boring show, so after she finished her pudding she got up and started walking to the room she shared with two other girls to go to bed for the night. She looked forward to turning in her paper the next day and to the rest of her life.
“Hey Jesse — what’s your deal anyway?” asked one of the girls. “Too good to hang out with us now?”
“No,” said Jesse. “Just a big day at school tomorrow. Good night.”
“Jessica Jonsen?” asked the waiting Police officer as Jesse walked in the front door after school the next afternoon.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Come with me, please.”
Jesse followed the Police officer down the hall to the conference room opposite the Director’s office. It was the same room where she sat with her parents and met the staff seven months ago. Now she was back again. Escorted by a Police officer. This could not be good.
“Please, sit down,” said the police officer.
“Jesse,” said the Director, “$200 was missing from the cash drawer this morning. Somebody left a note on my desk claiming you took it. What are your thoughts on this?”
Jesse was stunned. “Umm, I don’t have any thoughts. This is news to me.”
“Jessica,” said the Director, “If you know anything about this, now is the time to speak up. I can’t help you if you don’t help us.”
“What do you want me to say? I don’t know anything about it.”
“Jessica, those funds pay for necessities for the girls who live here. Losing that money hurts us badly in many ways. We need you to come clean and help us resolve this.”
“Wait a minute! Isn’t all that money in your safe? Isn’t the safe locked?”
“Yes, and I filed the combination in the computer I let you use for your school paper.”
“How would I know that? Look, I didn’t take your money. I don’t know what happened to it. You want to search my stuff?”
“We were hoping you would volunteer for that, yes.”
“Well be my guest.”
The Police Officer began searching Jesse’s room. And in the top drawer of her dresser they found it. Ten $20 bills folded under some socks. Jesse sat down on her bed, stunned.
“I have no idea how that got there,” she said, fighting back tears. Jesse folded her hands and looked down, fighting the urge to scream, fighting the urge to run away. One day after making a decision to stop stealing — and now this?
The others looked at her expectantly. They saw her looking at her hands, her face getting redder, fighting tears. Somebody must have seen her take the money and written the note to stay out of trouble. It was only a misdemeanor and she was a minor. Maybe they could still help her, but first she had to come clean.
Jesse looked up. Through her tears, she said, “Look, anyone could have done that. You said you have a note from somebody, right? Can I see it?”
The Director showed Jesse the note. It was on a blank piece of copier paper. The hand-written message said, “If you want to find your missing money, talk to Jesse Jonsen.”
Jesse studied the note for a few seconds, then handed it back to the director. “That note is almost right,” she said. “You found your missing money and now I’ll help you find who took it. It wasn’t me, but somebody wants you to think it’s me and that pisses me off.”
By now, several girls were gathered near the door to Jesse’s room. “Can we go back to your office?” asked Jesse.
The group walked back to the Director’s office and closed the door.
“She’s right,” said the Police officer. “We don’t have proof she took the money. It’s just as likely somebody else took it and wrote that note to get Jesse in trouble.”
“What do we do now?” asked the Director.
“Nothing at this stage,” said the Police officer. “Except to stay vigilant.”
“Can I go now?” asked Jesse, as the outline of a plan started to form in her mind.
“Yes, you can go. But please don’t talk about this with the other girls,” said the Director.
“Fine,” said Jesse. “Is it OK to take this old toner collection bottle?” she asked, noticing it still in the office trash can. “And I’ll need some duct tape and a couple of plastic spoons.”
“What do you want those for?” asked the Police officer.
“I have an idea for a little project that might help find who took your money.”
“You know that toner makes a mess, don’t you?” asked the Director.
“I’m counting on it,” said Jesse. “Can I get a roll of duct tape from the office supply cabinet?”
“OK, go ahead,” said the Director.
“What did the cop want with you?” and “Why did they search your room?” were on everyone’s mind at dinner that night.
Jesse figured out an easy reply to all their questions. “They think I took some money but they can’t prove it.”
Later that night, while everyone else was asleep, Jesse emptied her sock drawer and went to work. When she finished a few minutes later, her sock drawer held an assembly with an upside-down toner collection bottle, plastic spoons, and duct tape that would rival any Rube Goldberg contraption.
The next person to open that drawer would draw the spoon assembly away from the toner bottle, probably jarring the bottle a little and flinging toner all over the inside of that drawer. And all over the hand of anyone trying to reach in and plant money.
Jesse finally went to bed. She didn’t sleep well.
The next day, a different Police officer met her at the door as she came in from school and led her to another meeting in the conference room with the Director. Jesse’s heart raced, but this time she was prepared. She invited them to search her room again, but warned them to be careful opening her sock drawer.
“What are you hiding in there?” asked the Police officer.
“Can I borrow your flashlight?” asked Jesse.
“You mean, MAY I borrow your flashlight?” said the Director.
“Whatever, just loan me your flashlight for a minute,” said Jesse.
The Police officer loaned Jesse his flashlight. Jesse carefully slid her drawer open by about 1/4 inch and shined the flashlight inside.
“Well, will you look at that,” she said, handing the flashlight to the Police officeer.
“Impressive,” he said, as both the Police officer and Director looked down at the drawer.
Jesse slid the drawer open the rest of the way. The spoons were partially dislodged from the inside front of the drawer, the toner bottle hung crookedly from the stationary top, and toner was all over the inside of the drawer. Along with another $180, covered with toner particles.
“Look for a girl with black around her fingernails,” said Jesse. “That’s who took your money.”
Eight years later, an older and wiser Jesse Jonsen smiled inwardly at that memory as she waited in the lobby for her job interview with the Bullseye Stores Fraud Department. Even after four years of college and three grueling years of grad school, she was still most proud of that high school paper and a burst of invention brought on by necessity that changed her life.
Both copies of her paper were slightly yellowed by now, but the red A on the front and “I love this paper!” from her teacher were still an inspiration. She kept one more souvenir from that girls’ group home. An empty laser printer toner collection bottle and a couple of plastic spoons, still duct taped together in an offset T shape, from the first time she turned lemons into lemonade.
Now finished with school and ready to work, she was eager for her interview and looked forward to a career fighting fraud.
“Jesse?” called the receptionist. “The manager is ready for you now.”