On duty as a Resident Assistant in one of the residence halls at the University of Mary Washington, 19-year-old Elena South was speaking with another RA when her friend Aliyah Jameer started making hissing sounds to get her attention.
“Look, look over there,” Jameer whispered, pointing at an open door across the hall from the other RA’s room.
In the open room, scattered with soiled t-shirts, sweatpants, and Axe deodorant spray, was an enormous clear, plastic bottle filled with liquid, sitting alone atop the window sill. Nobody was in the room.
South retreated from her conversation to look into the room. As she scanned the room and noticed the bottle, her face remained deadpan.
“If that RA doesn’t even notice something like that,” South said at the time. “I’m not going to do anything about it.”
South and Jameer went on their way, on to the next hallway, making sure that the peace remained undisturbed.
The truth is that South, the daughter of two federal agents, knew that leaving a college kid alone with a suspicious bottle in an upperclassman residence hall on a Monday night probably wouldn’t do much harm.
Growing up with a mother on the Drug Enforcement Agency and a father with the Food and Drug Administration, she’s seen worse.
As a small child, South lived in Panama while her mother kept a close eye on the whereabouts of the corrupt, drug trafficking dictator, Manuel Noriega. Her father was on the task force that captured and detained Noriega as a prisoner of war before he was tried and sent to a U.S. prison.
When her mother was pregnant, she went undercover as a drug dealer’s girlfriend in order to help bring down one of Texas’ biggest crime families.
But South never wonders if her life was ever in danger.
“The D.E.A. would never put my mom in a situation where they could risk being sued,” she said. “Besides, those criminals really started to enjoy my mom’s company. They were giving her gifts and helping her out though the pregnancy.”
South is fully aware of the complexities of the criminal world and the fact that there is a vast grey area between good and evil. She explains that agents oftentimes end up forming close relationships with those who they investigate. Her mother even kept in contact with several criminals after helping to put them in prison, writing them the kind of handwritten letters usually reserved for family and close friends.
This knowledge probably informs South’s own tactical style as an RA. She certainly doesn’t go around treating her residents like criminals. In fact, she takes it upon herself to treat them as she treats her own friends. She bakes them pies and invites them to stop by her room at any time.
“I’m not paid to act as a police officer,” said South. “They are my peers.” But she is quick to add, “I’m also not paid to be their maid.”
The latter half of South’s statement is made abundantly clear when passing by the kitchen on her floor, cardboard recycling boxes spilling over with cereal boxes, pop cans, and classroom handouts in all colors of the rainbow.
“That’s one luxury of being an RA,” she said. “If they don’t take out the recycling, I’m not the one who is going to have to pay the fine.”
But there is one thing that South doesn’t tolerate: violence. South has encountered a few incidents of violence in her time as an RA. One occurred when a group a boys broke into a fight on the front lawn of her building.
“I heard this yelling coming from the front, so I looked out my window and there was this tangled mess of boys all over each other,” said South. “When I got down there, they all ran past me before I could even see who they were.”
But running away was probably a futile effort on their part. South started doing her detective work almost immediately after the event took place. Instead of going to the floor where she knew the boys lived, she went to a girls’ floor. There, she knew she would probably find friends of the boys.
“I knocked on their doors and asked if I could come in, you know, just to talk like girlfriends,” said South. “I reassured them that nobody was going to get in trouble and that I just wanted to know what happened for my own peace of mind.”
When the boys got wind of what South was up to, some of them came to her themselves with their own stories. She advised them to go to the police themselves with the truth as to prevent harsher punishment.
South’s circumventive method is typical of an ideology that her parents instilled in her, one that frowns upon disorganized bureaucracies and time consuming paperwork. “If you go by the book all the time, nobody will respect you, and nobody’s going to call you when there’s trouble,” said South.
South adds, “I do enough so that people feel safe.”
South’s safety driven conscious stems from growing up in a handful of Third World countries in South America that are often characterized by violence and crime. Until the age of 13, when she moved to the States, she was faced with realities that children in the U.S. usually aren’t aware of.
But one can tell that the things she has seen are not burdensome. She greets friends with hugs and kisses. She engages nearby strangers in conversation. She listens earnestly when people speak. At South’s core is a love of all things playful and fun. This is evident upon entrance to her room, being forced to reckon with a life-sized cardboard-cutout version of James Dean. If she happens to notice that her roommate is deeply involved in an online game of “World of Warcraft,” she nudges her, asking those in the room, “Should I go jump on Karen now?” And by venturing to South’s windowsill, one finds romance novels with muscular males on the covers, Jewish candles that were used for a séance on Friday the 13th, and Austrian wafer cookies.
On her night of duty, South ended the night with several girlfriends, looking up YouTube videos of their favorite songs. South’s chosen song was by Johnny Cash, the “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The rest of the building was peaceful, fluorescent lights still flickering, and not a soul in sight.RA