This is an excerpt from an email exchange I had 5-6 years ago with a friend. Incarceration and black crime are very much in the news these days, and I’ve always found it distressing the degree to which we offer so little understanding to the mistakes young people make. Twenty years ago, I had a day where, but for luck breaking my way, my life could have been set down a very dark path. My time since then suggests that me spending the next decade in jail would have been a waste of something.
When I was a sophomore in Hermiston High School, I was in many respects a pretty normal kid. I had my friends, and seemed to be coasting along well enough. Hermiston High School had an open lunch policy, and students often went to Pizza Hut, McDonalds or Taco Time to eat. My school was a bit unusual in that there was not a clearly delineated ‘popular’ crowd; in fact, my older brother’s group of friends had previously occupied that role, but with their graduation the school drifted towards an unusual kind of apartheid with tense relationships between cowboys and Mexicans serving as the impetus for a great deal of the friction, which often broke out into fights of varying degrees of violence. As one of four black kids in the school (two of whom were my siblings), I was neither fish nor fowl, so for the most part I existed outside of this little maelstrom of adolescent identity politics. But, as I learned, having no attachment to a larger group put one in danger of being singled out for abuse by those in a group.
This is not a tale of bullying in a classic sense. Though I was different, I was also bigger than most of my classmates, was very good at returning insults and, more importantly, projected a pretty easy-going aura that, altogether, made me either an unlikely or too costly target for bullies who, after all, feared losing a fight as much as anyone. But on one particular day, a group of about ten or so Mexican gangsters, who were seniors from the high school across the river, stole my friend’s Pacers hat on our way back from Pizza Hut. There were four of us, and I think that we pretty much figured that unless we let them keep the hat, we would get our asses kicked—or worse. So, we punked out and slinked back to school to nurse our prides.
A minor incident, to be sure, but it didn’t end there. When our friend Matt (a cowboy) found out what had happened he was furious, and promised us that we would get back at them. Not sure exactly what that meant, we all agreed and felt excited to redeem some lost pride. We had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. The next day, Matt told us to meet him at his truck, and he showed us a large duffle bag filled with clubs, brass knuckles, knives, and three pistols. Matt tucked one in his pants, gave me a Gloc, and handed another smaller gun to a third friend. We were going to find these guys who took our buddy’s hat, fuck’em up, and get his hat back.
Looking back, the profundity of our stupidity shocks me. Any reasonable mind would look at this situation and instantly recognize that nothing could come from this moment but very bad things, but we nonetheless loaded into Matt’s track and went out in search of revenge. The thing that strikes me looking back is that I really didn’t think about it- and I mean that in as close to a literal sense as possible. If you had asked me, I would have admitted that it was a bad idea and put the gun back in the bag and gone to Taco Time. I did not feel peer pressure, in any real sense; rather, I just did it. The complete lack of contemplation perplexes me even now. I was not then, nor have I ever been violent, and, of course, taking such a rash act would be today impossible for me to even contemplate for more than the briefest fraction of a moment.
Guns loaded, pockets full of myriad instruments of mayhem, we slowly rolled the streets looking for the boys who had done us such disrespect. That day we got incredibly lucky, and we found nothing, so after a few hours of looking in vain we did what we should have done anyway: went to lunch. I’m not sure what would have happened if we had found those kids. I would still like to think that even as an incomprehensibly stupid 14 year old I would have known better than to brandish or use a firearm, but I cannot say the same thing about Matt, who seemed out for blood. And, as anyone with a fairly cursory knowledge of the law knows, his sins would also be my own, and I likely would have found myself in a bad way in a bad place. No college, no law school, no fancy Ivy League degrees; instead, ‘three hots and a cot’ at the Oregon Correctional Facility would likely have been my lot. But nothing did happen. I never touched a pistol again, went through high school incident-free, went east for college, and had a pretty standard life filled with what, in my moments of pride, I see as real acts of philanthropy and human decency.
There is a line between sympathy and permissiveness, and this little experience has made me a little more understanding of how it is that smart people –particularly smart young people- can make bad choices. Because of our incapacity to make decisions, I think that many boys live life teetering on a razor’s edge, and the briefest of nudges can send us tumbling off. If I had followed through with my ridiculous act, people would have looked at the situation and wondered what happened. I was a good student, had no history of violence or trouble, and came from a house with two working, nonviolent, non-drinking, non-drug using, law-abiding and loving parents, a brother in an elite school, etc., etc. I just made a profoundly flawed choice. More accurately, I allowed myself to drift without ever making an active choice. All of that said, whatever punishment I received likely would have been deserved
I rarely tell this story, and I’m not entirely sure what compels me to think and write about it today. I suppose that some might think that some fossilized remnant of that boy exists still, but mostly what occurs to me now is how little that person resembles me- sort of a continued consciousness in a completely new and different mind and body.
Either way, you would be well served not to steal my hat.