This blog is revised and reposted since it was written in 2015
“We love labels. We really do — as a society, I mean. It’s so much easier to understand the world around us if we name it, tie it down, and distance ourselves from the parts we don’t like…”
– quote I found on the internet…
This is a story of a kid who committed a crime, a former student of mine, and my friend…
- Robbery (armed)
- Criminal Confinement
- Burglary (2 counts)
- Theft, receiving stolen property
“That’s a close enough spelling of his name for our records. Next.”
That horrible day when 6 black men from the big city came into our town, stole a car, raided a house, and held a gun up to a woman and baby. He was with them.
“We want justice.”
He shows no remorse. Nothing has worked to “rehabilitate” him and we tried all the way till he was 14 years old when we decided to convict him as an adult.
“A 28 year sentence would be most appropriate.”
— Prosecuting attorney
The kid was 14 years old. Given his mental capacity and the damage done to him over the years … it goes a long way to explaining why the other boys took advantage of him, which is what they did. He has reacted favorably to rehabilitation in the past.
“This was a little harsh.”
— Public defendant
He’s no problem. He and a white boy been in here forever on adult charges.
“One was released, one was shipped off.”
— Juvenile hall staff
He was the youngest of a group of 6. They were not his friends. The only thing on his mind in the first hearing was probably what could happen to him on the outs if he said too much.
“It’s a shame that 10-20 years rode on what he couldn’t say in the first trial due to fear. 2 years waiting on his trial; all the others are moved on or out.”
— Juvenile hall teacher
Mitigating factors are not enough to outweigh the aggravating factors. 20 years, do 10, and we will factor in probation and time served.
“See you in 10 years.”
How’s everybody doing in juvenile hall? Tell them I miss them, and that I’m sorry I haven’t written them yet from prison. Tell them I love them.
“Thanks for being such a good friend.”
It’s like my heart adopted this young man the first day I met him over 8 years ago. Some people are just yours to love. Your heart knows who they are, and your actions get to follow.
He was in our classroom of 2 people, separated from the other kids because the court chose to see them as “adults” based on the severity of their offenses. He came in just before 15 and was now 17, ticking away the years till he turned old enough to even have his “adult” trial. He was forced to wait 2 years to even discover the repercussions of his actions because he was too young to go to adult court – 2 years of his teenage life in waiting.
He instantly became my favorite student (if teachers assistants can have favorites). He was quick to complain about writing assignments, the most inquisitive about my travels to Africa, and the first to call out an “unjust” situation in stories we would read, “That ain’t right!”
As I got to know him in the classroom, my heart for him grew right alongside my sense of commitment to walk with him. As his birthday approached, and a trial date was set, I met with his lawyer, studied his story, and prayed – a lot. On the day of court, I watched adults completely disregard my friend as they held small details of one fateful night up against his head to portray him as a ruthless and uncaring individual. As a scared community shouted for a sick form of justice, he had to listen to untrue claims about himself, left with no real advocacy and a voice that went unheard.
He shouldn’t have been in that adult courtroom in the first place. He is not the sum of abuse plus past mistakes. He is not “beyond rehabilitation”. He is not scary. It was the most helpless feeling in the world to know that this injustice was being done toward my friend, stealing years of his life and piling on more opposition to his future.
He was just like any other kid, and very much a kid, and I wish our small town had the chance to meet him like I did. But the newspapers told a different story, and the combination of things done to him plus offenses held against him left people with no other assumption but to view him as a felon 5 times over.
So I “did the time with him”, as he’d say. From letters to e-mails, rare phone calls, and the periodic prison visits, I got to watch a boy grow up to a good man. He learned from peoples’ stories, he kept a sound mind, and to a surprising degree, he expressed thankfulness. He talked about cities and traveling and dreams, childhood memories with his grandpa, and his concerns for protecting his younger sisters. as any good older brother would. I never knew the man the courts saw. I never met the boy the newspapers wrote about.
I blamed God for allowing this outcome to occur; for letting a boy live out the bulk of his teenage life in prison, yet He has healed my heart since then and revealed to me that was not His plan A. As a society – we had missed it.
Our friendship still grows and plans are beginning for the non-profit he will begin that will help kids who grew up in situations like his own: kids in foster care with no real home or advocacy, waiting on the rehabilitation of love. “It’s not easy growing up like that. They need someone to see them for who they really are.”
And the world needs to see them for who they really are. And if we ever want a healthy society, love must break past the labels in our own mindsets about young black men, so they can be positioned to use the keys they have been given to help people rather than be locked up into a future that society crafted based on a perception of who they are becoming.
Not every kid has to face that in court. Not every race triggers such heavy judgement in America. That’s why I write about white privilege. That’s why I get so angry. No one in their right mind with a voice would allow what is happening regularly to young black boys to happen to their child and think that society and the justice system is even near okay. And if my words could be the sun shining through the shades that blind us from making sane decisions towards people, I would never stop talking. This is why I write.
When I met him, I thought God had given me a call to be an encourager. I would then write a blog about letters and visits to prison, watching his mind grow, and things he taught me while keeping his head up in the toughest of places.
When his story scarred my heart and opened my eyes, I thought God had used him to call me into a lifetime of advocacy and fighting the system. Then I’d write about the problems – loss wrongfully incurred and years being stolen from young black men who were judged more according to their family name, grade school reading scores, acquaintances, or street address than their personal actions.
When I talk to him today, I realize I have no idea the gift God gives us when He gives us someone to love.
He agreed with the conclusion I placed on his story in this blog, but pays the court system little mind. “The bigger problem in society, he says, is ‘not a color thing’. It’s tough being black, and racism is real in the justice system and in schools, but everyone is being stifled in who they truly are meant to be when they are judged based on looks, clothes, money, or home address rather than being seen for who they really are. That’s why we need mentors…”
And just when I thought I had any clue as to the reason God allowed me to stumble into his life at 17, I realize the impact of a friendship is ever unfolding, so I hold this conversation open as “to be continued” and tell him to get his own blog.
If this hits your heart, take a minute to dialogue with yourself. Click here for questions I ask myself.