Summer of 1983. I am 14 years old heading to 9th grade and I commit my first crime. I could not know it at the time, but that event shaped who I am today. This is my story.
Growing up I always thought of myself as a good and just person. For a large portion of my childhood, I wouldn’t even curse because I believed it would lessen me as a person. Told the truth, kept on the straight and narrow, and never wanted to be a “bad” person. That is how I defined myself and I took pride in it.
One fateful summer day a bunch of kids are playing on the schoolyard. Scott is one of the boys. He has the reputation of being a troublemaker. I know him, but not well. We start interacting and one thing leads to another and Scott asks, “want some ice cream?” to which my naïve self responds, “yeah.” He says, “come with me,” and I follow.
The school cafeteria is around the corner. It is a separate building and is not visible to anyone on the playground. The entry has double doors. There are door handles on the outside and on the inside a set of bars that people push to exit. Before I know what’s happening Scott throws a rock, breaks one of the windows, reaches in, and pushes the bar to open the door. I know it’s wrong, but I am getting an exhilarating rush.
We both enter the cafeteria. Scott jumps over the counter and goes to the freezers where the ice creams are kept. He is trying to pry open the locks and not wanting to stand there like a limp noodle I decide to jump in and help. After much finagling, we bust the lock, grab a box each, and fill it with ice cream. We then run out the back door of the kitchen area and exit the school while holding our loot. We turn the corner and a group of high school boys stops us. I know a couple of them, and we are cool. But one of them who I don’t know is hell bent on drama.
They tell us that they were watching us from the outside windows the whole time we were burglarizing the place. Sanjay, one of the guys I was cool with, tells us if we put the ice cream back, along with a note and money to fix the window and the locks, then the whole thing will be over. Realizing how badly I messed up I jump at the opportunity. Leave it to Scott to mouth off and agitate them. Within a matter of minutes several cop cars surround us. Turns out the guy who craves drama had called 911 just to teach us a lesson.
By now it’s dark and I am in cuffs placed in back of a police unit. I live half a block away from the school, so my neighbors are witnessing what is happening. Given how I have always tried to be a “good person” this is absolutely the most embarrassing and shameful thing I have experienced.
What will I tell my parents? My siblings? My friends? Better yet, how do I keep this secret? What happens to my self-image now that I am a freaking criminal? My self-esteem just got flushed down the toilet and all I can think of is “please get this thing over with pronto.”
I am at the station alone in a small cell. An officer comes in and tells me to strip completely naked for a search. WHAT??? Let me tell you something … a few months before that my parents had taken me to a doctor for a physical. Being incredibly self-conscious, despite assurances from the doctor and my parents that it’s fine, I absolutely refused to allow the doctor to examine my private parts. My resistance was so strong that the doctor simply had to give up. Now here I am fully naked, most vulnerable I’ve ever felt, being forced to lift and move my private parts and expose myself.
This is the most humiliating and degrading thing I have ever gone through.
I get dressed and go into another room. Wanting desperately to come clean I without any hesitation or prodding provide a full and honest confession right at the police station. Spilled the beans.
A couple of hours later my father and his older brother come to pick up me. Oh my … the embarrassment I felt in front of not just my father, but my uncle too? Understanding how I must be feeling they don’t add to the misery. I appreciate it but I still want to crawl under a rock and sob.
This episode continues to haunt me every single hour of every single day. Several weeks later I get a letter in the mail. It is from the DA’s office wanting me to come and speak with them. As I read the letter my face flushes red, heart starts pounding, and beads of sweat percolate on my forehead. With a bulge in my throat and a heaviness in my gut, I realize this thing is far from over.
We go to the appointment and once more I come clean. The DA decides to file charges and I am feeling absolutely distraught. I don’t recall what happened next. I am too young and too unaware to understand the legal process so I just ignore reporting to my probation officer. In the hopes this thing will just go away I bury my head in the sand deeper than the longest necked ostrich. Bad move.
10th grade. I am sitting in English class and the school's vice principal comes and asks me to step out. He’s telling me that a couple of officials want to talk to me and if I know why. I say I don’t, but I am pretty sure why. I just don’t want to embarrass myself in front of the vice principal.
We go to his office and two plain-clothed officers explain why they are there and that they have to arrest me. Once again I feel like the whole world is caving in on me. They say that they will try to be discreet about it in front of other students, so they ask me to put my hands behind my back and they locked their fingers with mine and escort me to their unmarked car. Again, back of a police unit with others witnessing what’s happening.
They take me to jail. Another search and then off to Juvenile Hall in downtown. It was a Wednesday right before a four day weekend. My friends and I had plans in place. I am hoping that they do NOT find out my secret. How am I going explain why I am not there when the school bell rings?
I get booked in Juvenile Hall. It’s surreal. I want to wake up from this freaking nightmare. The first night when about sixty people were sleeping in one large hall, an officer comes to my bed and takes me downstairs. My parents and siblings showed up and were so persistent in seeing me that the officials actually broke protocol and allowed me to see them for a few seconds just so they would be at ease. I ask my family to keep my secret and not say anything to anyone. They agree.
I have to stay in “jail” over the four day weekend before I can see a magistrate on Monday morning. Those four days are filled with shame, embarrassment, humiliation, anguish, sorrow, regret, sadness, guilt, and every other heavy emotion anyone can experience. I know I don’t belong here. In fact, on the third day, one of the correctional officers pulls me aside and tells me “If you ever end up here again I will make your life a living hell. Do you understand me?” Shyly I mutter “yes.” What he was confirming was my belief that I simply did not belong there.
Come Monday morning I get chained and shackled to another “inmate” and a whole bunch of us get bussed to the courthouse. The prick I’m chained to is attempting an escape off the bus and is threatening me if I don’t go along with him. He’s much bigger and stronger than I am but I’m thinking you’re going to have to literally drag me with you if you want to pull this off because I ain’t having no part of it.
We get to the court and a lawyer that my parents had hired comes to see me. Ah man … I can’t begin to tell you the relief I felt when I had someone there to guide me through what was a foreign and scary process. We briefly speak and he leaves.
The Judge calls my case. My lawyer and I go up to talk to the judge. I look back and see my parents, older sister, and younger brother all very nicely dressed waving at me. I can tell they had been crying. My sister silently says “you’re coming home.” G-d, again I’m feeling a tremendous amount of shame and I am convinced that I let everyone one of them down, including myself.
The hearing was a blur and ended in what seemed to be an instant. Don’t remember much about it other than making sure I did as my lawyer instructed, which was to apologize and promise not to do something so stupid again. Just like that the hearing was over and I free to go … but I could not rid myself of all those negative and heavy emotions and thoughts that accompanied me. I felt defective. I felt I had permanently damaged my self-image. I felt I was no longer qualified to be a “good person” because I made some bad mistakes. I felt irreparable damage to my psyche.
The thing is…I never appreciated the gravity of what was happening when I entered the cafeteria. I did not realize or understand the consequences. It was almost like I was playing a game. Well, I assure you a game it was not. The emotional scars, the mental toll, and the shattered self-image were the most real things I had ever experienced.
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