On my second day in Juvenile hall I watched a Mexican cholo get his head smashed into a table by a big black kid. The poor guy was caught unaware from the back and was being pummeled into the ground while the black kid kept screaming, “Don’t ever talk bout my momma! Don’t ever talk bout my momma!” It was over in less than 30 seconds when the guards rushed them both and restrained them. I learned to never talk about a black guy’s momma.
How the hell did I ever get here? I wasn’t even in high school yet but I was sitting in a juvenile detention facility in Jackson, Michigan with teens aged 12-19. I was the only Asian in the whole facility. I brushed my teeth, took a crap and slept in a solitary room just large enough to stretch my legs. And I was scared.
The first two nights I just sat on my bed and cried…softly, cause you don’t want people hearing you cry in jail. I thought about all the cars, homes and stores I broke into and wondered if I slipped up along the way. I thought about the 250 hours of community service I had accumulated but never finished. I thought about my probation officer and wondered if he was racist cause he kept giving me more and more violations. I thought about the demeaning teachers who suspended me and the school principal who singled me out for expulsion cause I was a bad influence. But most of all I thought about the disappointment in my mom’s face when I was being led away from the court room in hand cuffs and leg shackles. I thought about her red teary eyes and the hopelessness and fear she felt for her son. That hurt the most.
The first few days were the hardest but once I established a routine and made friends with the blacks it became bearable. The black guy who beat up the Mexican was named Aaron, and he was in the neighboring cell. As punishment for fighting Aaron was put under lock down for 5 days – no leaving the room for anything. I got to know him pretty well over that week because we could speak to each other though the ventilation shaft under the stainless steel sink/toilet combo. Aaron was 16 and in for attempted murder and wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon. Once he turned 18 he would be transferred to adult prison. He didn’t care about the consequences of one fight – he accepted his sentence a long time ago.
I mostly listened as Aaron ranted. He was a leader among his peers, a shot caller for his gang and dating a white girl from the other cell block. He called me “Wu Tang”, performed his raps for me and asked for feedback. I listened, gave him feedback and even passed notes around the block for him. Strangest of all he encouraged me to read.
I was caught off guard. “Why the *#&$ would I want to read?!” I exclaimed.
“Cause you might learn somethin.” Aaron replied.
The next day I grabbed a book from the school library. Mostly because I thought the cover was interesting. On it were two teenagers who looked like gang bangers from the 1950’s. The book was called, “That Was Then, This Is Now” by S.E. Hinton. Luckily I paid attention in elementary school and could read pretty well. I was instantly immersed by the first few pages about brothers who grew up hustling and trying to survive a hard street life. I couldn’t put the book down because I discovered a whole new world that I never knew existed. I finished it over the next 3 days. The first book that I had ever read from cover to cover was in a jail cell.
After a few weeks I was scheduled for release. I divided my belongings I had accumulated to my friends and saved the best stuff for Aaron; pencils, notepad, and deck of cards. I never saw Aaron again. Honestly, he’s probably just another statistic of the system now. Despite the hopelessness of our situations it was not beyond a divinely inspired redemption. God showed me the power of reading through a black gang member while incarcerated as a teenager. This lesson would take me farther than I could have ever dreamed or imagined. If that is not divine I don’t know what is.