El Gringoqueño

All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Category: Los Muchachos (page 1 of 2)

Stories from my work with juvenile offenders

A More Recent Example

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Luis Alberto Rodriguez Guadalupe at the Centro de Evaluación Residencial (Residential Evaluation Center for the Juvenile Justice System in Puerto Rico).  His story is as follows:

He was turned over to foster care seven years ago when his parents found they could no longer take care of him.  He was lucky to find a family willing to take him in through the foster system.  He was particularly bonded to the husband of the family, Fernando Luis Cartagena Torres.

“So, how was it with them?  Did you get along?”

“Yes, I was welcomed into the family.  I lived with the father.”

“What about the mother?”

“Oh, well,” he said, “They split up about 3 years into my stay.  I chose to live with the father.  I still saw the wife, but I stay with him.”

“Well, let’s talk about him, then.  What is he like?”

“He was great to me, but he was sick.  He had a lot of health problems.  Actually, he already died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, when did that happen?  How did it happen?”  I leaned forward.

“It has been three and a half years.  I was with him, and he started having… he had diabetes, and it caused all sorts of problems.  He was at home and was feeling weak, and collapsed.  They called the hospital and an ambulance came.  I rode to the hospital with him.  I was with him when they said he died.  His heart stopped.”

“Oh my gosh.  That must have been terrible.  But he sounded like a great man.”

“He was, and then his children came for the funeral, an’ they scattered his ashes on a hill in Coamo his hometown.  I got to throw some of the ashes.  His kids were there too.”

He didn’t actually say it.  I think being a young man, too much emotion wasn’t going to cut it here.  But the way he said, “His kids were there too,” a couple of times, I got the sense that he felt accepted into the family.  Birth, death, these are the sacred waypoints, and for the siblings to have accepted a foster kid into that moment said something about the family and the bond that had grown.  In any case, I understood the implication.

“So,” I said, “He sounded like a great man.  A modern example of Christ.  You know sometimes we look to the past for examples of how to live our lives, but many times we have the best examples in front of us.  Let me ask you something.  Have you ever been tired or sick?”

“Yes.”

“How does it make you feel about helping others.  When you feel bad, really sick, do you want to go out and help others?”

“I guess not,” he replied,  “no.”

Don’t you just want to sit and sulk?  And who would blame you?  Most people would say for you to get well first, take care of yourself, and then look after others.  That’s what is normal. You say that Fernando Luis was very sick.  Wouldn’t it have been easier on him if he had said, ‘I will take care of myself first’?”

“I guess.”

“Just think about it.  This is a man who was dying, but chose to look after you because he thought you were important. You were important to him.  He loved you.  He didn’t push you aside and say, ‘I can’t take care of you, because I am sick.’  No, he said that there was nothing he would rather be doing.  He gave himself to you.  When we talk about the sacrifice of Christ, that is what we are talking about.  I hope you take that example with you and apply it.”

Luis Alberto was smiling now.  He already knew that Fernando Luis was special, but perhaps my take on the situation exposed a new facet.  Maybe he didn’t realize the depth of the man’s love.

“I will say an intention for Fernando Luis,” I said.  “I will mention his name at Mass.  We will pray for him.  I will tell his story.  It is an important story.  It was good to have met you, Luis Alberto.”

We normally distribute Rosaries at the end of each session.  The kids snatch them up with gusto.  Although many are not Catholic, Catholicism is deeply embedded into Puerto Rican culture.  The wearing of a Rosary is a powerful symbol on the street.  I try to combat the “Rosary as accessory” by telling them that it is a reminder of their commitment, un recordadorio de tu compromiso.  It is something that helps them not forget what they have been given and where they want to be.  In the times when they feel small, petty, vengeful, selfish, or weak, it shall be a symbol to them of the love they have been given.  Remember Fernando Luis, the man who gave his life so you may know love.

Remember Fernando Luis Cartagena Torres, Luis Alberto, so that you may be inspired.

My Talent is Selling Drugs

Tuesday’s prison session was good in a way that made it different, left me hopeful. I sat with two young men, Yadiel and Gabriel. Yadiel, un vacilón, an easy going jokester, and Gabriel, smart serious earnest were both happy to get out of their confinement for a time.

"Why did you come down?" I asked.

"To get out of the module."

"Really?"

"Yeah, oh yeah, I mean, we came to hear the Word, but whew, it’s great to get out."

I smiled. I look for small victories. I have already eased their suffering by being a vehicle by which they receive a short respite from being locked up. "Cool," I said.

Gabriel, seemed a little embarrassed, as if he had offended me by his remark. "No, but we came down because we wanted to hear about Jesus."

Such a caring kid. His exuberance had revealed that he just wanted a bit of freedom, but his empathy caused him to rephrase it considering me.

We talked a bit about some of their favorite things, what they wanted out of life. I lead them through the little exercise where I put them in an MTV Cribs home.

"So let’s say tomorrow, you’re out of here. I give you each a million dollars, a home on the beach with a pool too. It’s a big house with a Lexus and a Cadillac Escalade in the garage."

Their eyes got big.

"You’ve got your fridge stocked with refreshments. You’ve got a killer sound system, a DJ mixing table with all the hot tunes. You’ve got all the hot ladies at your party. And they look fine. You have everything you’ve ever wanted." I paused. "Now What?"

"Enjoy it." they both responded.

"So that’s what it’s all about? Get some stuff and enjoy it? You guys know how some of these reggeaton artists lose all their money, right? They spend it and it’s all gone. They think wealth is an end in and of itself, that the goal is wealth. You’ve got to have a plan for your wealth.

Listen," I continued, "Try to think of wealth like a businessmen thinks of wealth, as capital, a resource. Money is a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. Most poor folks think of the goal as money, but money is just a means to an end. What do you want do? I’ll tell you, spending money will be over before you know it if you don’t have a plan. So, what do you do?"

They sat there a little confused, searching for the answer to the question.

"You might use that money to start a business?" I offered.

"Yeah," they agreed.

"What business would you start?" I asked. "What are you good at? What do you like to do?"

Gabriel thought for a while, searching for something he was good at. He paused and hesitantly offered, "Selling drugs?"

I smiled. I loved that answer. Gabriel was right where I wanted him. "That’s great, Gabriel, don’t be ashamed of that. It’s a skill you have and you did it well. But let me ask you something. What is the most important part of that skill? Does it matter what you sell as much as your ability to sell?"

Gabriel nodded.

"So let’s cross off the ‘drugs’ portion. Let me ask you, Gabriel, what are some of the skills required to sell well?"

"You have to keep the numbers straight."

"Like a CPA, no? And you’re on the street with no computer to keep track of it all."

Gabriel smiled. I am positive that no one had ever congratulated him on his one skill, the one thing in his short life that he had excelled at and been incarcerated for. Instead of simply saying what he did was wrong and throwing it all away – along with him, I turned his talent on its head and gave him a slap on the back. Good job with the selling, but let’s try selling something else, okay?

"You have to create trust with your clients, no?" I asked.

"Yeah," and he smiled. "Trust is important."

"You have to create a trust relationship. They have to trust you and you have to trust them. If there are problems, you have to be able to handle them. That’s customer service. I’ll bet you gave better customer service than a government office, right? Quality product? You have to have a quality product that you believe in, no? If not, you can’t sell it."

Gabriel was nodding vigorously. He seemed to being saying, yeah, man, you got it. You got it. I’d never thought about it like that.

We continued talking and inventing businesses where he could apply his talents, mapping out a plan for his life that rolled in a more positive direction.

When it all finished, I was left, as I always am, with such a hopeful outlook on life. As I complain about sleepy people, entitled people, self-absorbed small petty little people, I come to prison and I am left more hopeful. It’s insane, I know, but sometimes outside, I see the worst of people and within the walls of the prison system, I see such talent, raw un-utilized talent.

Outside, where the sleepy people lie, they have no idea that there is a better way of being, that their lives are anything but perfect, exemplary, normal, tranquil, and pious. On the inside, though, with the sinners, those who have fallen, those who know there is something missing, I see a yearning for a better life. I see people looking to make a change in themselves and who know they are hungry.

Will they make a change? That remains to be seen, but I’d say they are already well beyond those that continue to stuff their fat little faces at the banquet, gluttonous in their excess, and never ever considering that the hunger they feel isn’t in their bellies.

Cartas Desde la Cárcel

Intenté algo nuevo con los jóvenes en octubre. Yo quería que ellos me escribieran una carta a un familiar, novia, o amigo y que contaran de sus esperanzas y deseos para el futuro. Aquí les presento las cartas intactas como testimonio de nuestros jóvenes.

Hector Garcia Rodriguez.

Yo Hector quiero de la vida: Yo quiero echar hacia delante para poder trabajar no faltar respeto a mi madre y estar con mi novia en mi casa para poder amarla que no sufra mucho porque estoy aquí. Y la amo. Hector y Cristina. La amo por siempre. Cristina es buena atractiva linda. Es la nena mía y que me perdona por todo que le he hecho por darle en la cara. Y que me perdona mucho por todo el daño que le hice. Estoy repentido. Que le extraño. Quiero estar con ella en estos momentos. Comida favorita de ella: Buger king. Actividad preferida: dormir y comer. Baila muy lindo. Tiene cuerpo. Tiene mente. No se deja de mi. Es guapa conmigo por eso me molesta con ella. Y que ella siga conmigo.

Jesús M. Nieves Lopez

Yo Jesús quiero de la vida: Salir de todo esto y irme a estudiar la escuela hotelera de San Juan. Me pienso portar bien con mi familia, no volver al uso de la drogas. Quiero volver con mi pareja sin tener ningún problema. Jesús y Marilyn. La extraño demasiado y siento un sufrimiento indescriptible por ella. Siento que me voy por un abismo y tengo un largo sufrimiento por todas las cosas que yo le he hecho. Ella le gusta mucho los dulces. Le gusta salir. Le gusta compartir en grupo. Que yo quisiera que me de una sencilla oportunidad que yo la voy a aprovechar. Se que he cometido muchas ignorancias en esta vida y que estar preso me he enseñado muchas cosas y una de esa cosas ha sido valorar a las personas y una de esas eres tu. Que eres una persona muy especial en mi corazón. Siempre vas a tener un espacio muy grande en mi corazón. Te quiero mucho.

What I Learned Tonight from a Bunch of Juvenile Offenders

No disrespect there, I assure you.  I just want to set it up properly.  I’m a college educated professional, with a background in Art, Technology, Engineering and ample business and life experience.  

But tonight, I felt insignificant, shamed, and incarcerated as I was within my own limits.

Tonight’s activity in the prison was to design Christmas cards.  We gave the young men paper, crayons, and color pencils and asked them to draw Christmas cards.  I offered that they should draw something they knew or draw something in which they were interested.  "What do you have to say?" I asked.

They busily set forth with religious iconery, scenes of nativity, presents, Christmas cheer, cars, Santa Claus and the like.

I sat with my paper blank with my head in my hands. 

I had nothing to say.  I’m not into blindly recreating religious themes.  As an American Catholic, I more resemble a Protestant, indifferent to the rendering of religious symbols.  Drawing a baby Jesus doesn’t come naturally to me.  Virgin Mary?  You kidding?  Three wise men?  Maybe, but it wasn’t coming.  Could I draw a camel?  I don’t think I’ve ever looked at one closely enough.  I thought about as many different Christmas or Puerto Rico images I could and rejected them – each and every one.

I was afraid what I had to say was not worth saying, that my drawing would suck, or be irrelevant.  I sat paralyzed by indecision and apprehension.  The more I sat, the worse it got.  I’m an artist.  I still look at some of my charcoals and think, "Damn I was good."  But today and recently… I just don’t know.

And these kids, disadvantaged, without the love of their parents or stable communities, and locked up as they were, happily drew whatever their hearts told them.  To quote Satchel Paige  "…dance like no one is watching." 

They did.  I couldn’t.

They seemed freer to me somehow.

La Paleta

We visited the inmates last night and brought with us an assortment of treats to share. Our group threw the young men a little Halloween party with chips, dip, soda, candy and a cake for good measure. We played a little party game, one of an audience participation charade-like sort and then shared some food.

I poured drinks and wiped spills and when it came time to leave, I looked to the bowl for a piece of candy – for the road, I thought. There was none to be found.

"Ay, no hay paleta," I remarked. One of the younger kids thrust his hand into his pocket and produced a lolipop.

"You can have this one," he said handing it to me.

"No, no, you keep it. I only wanted one if there was extra. Está bien, quedate con ella."

And smiling, he insisted, "No, it’s fine, I have another one in my pocket."

Alexander’s Got a Week to Live

At least that’s what I hypothesized while trying to get him to figure out what he wanted out of life.

"Alexander, say you’ve got a week to live. What are you going do?"

"Um, I’ll get out of here?"

"Yes," I answered and snapped my fingers, "You’re out of prison."

"Well, I guess I’d ask God for forgiveness for my sins."

"Done and done. You’re already forgiven. Don’t waste any time asking for forgiveness. It’s already been done, and your life was given back to you. You’ve got a week left. What do you do?"

Alexander looked at me like I had just said the most ridiculous thing ever.  Look, he seemed to say, you tell me I have a week left, I tell you I want to be on my knees asking forgiveness for my sins – the best possible answer, mind you, and you throw it back in my face.  What kind of chaplain are you anyway? 

I’m the kind of chaplain who thinks that living on your knees is a waste, and besides it’s hard on your knees.  It’s a sin against your knees, and God doesn’t want that. 

Alexander considered his fate for a moment.

"Um, I guess I’d be with my mother and father. They’ve been so good to me. I’d spend my last week with them."

"Ah, so with your last week of life on this earth, you’d be seeking more than love – you’d be seeking to love. You wouldn’t be looking for amor, you’d be seeking to amar. Amen I say to you, brother."

We talked about other things for a while. Alexander likes boxing and Burger King bacon double hamburgers. In fact, he loves them so much he has his parents sneak them to him during visitation. I got a real kick out of that. We chatted about a fight he got into recently. Some older bigger kid poured shampoo on his cot and threw his clothes in the toilet. Just like high school, I remarked. Alexander got up in the guy’s face and got a couple of good licks in before the guards broke it up. Alexander said it didn’t matter anyway, because as he recounted to me with pride, he was already going to the maximum security facility.

"So, let’s return to the question: What do you want out of life? What about if I gave you 80 years. What would you do with your life? I give you a million dollars and 80 years. What’s next."

"Well, I um, I don’t know."

"Let’s just say that it’s okay to buy bling, a nice house, have a beautiful girlfriend, a great music system, lots of parties, a pool, and beautiful view. You can get all that in a month. By my calculation, that leaves 79 years 11 month. Now what’s next."

"I dunno, enjoy myself, pasarlo todo tranquilo."

"Alexander, how come when you have a week left you’ve got a clear idea of what you should be doing, but I give you 80 and you squander it?"

I reflect this week how easy it is to become a glutton. Give me more of it, I say, I want to live longer, better, and with more things. Do I realize what it’s for?

I ask you, who stuff your faces at the banquet, for what do you want it?

Figure it out before you come back for seconds, please.

Jesús era un Boxeador

Last night I was at the juvenile processing facility.  I got to meet a kid named Phillip.  American name, but didn’t speak a word of English.  I thought it weird.  Whatever.

He was a baby, barely 15, but he wanted to be a boxer.  He’d trained with his uncle before winding up in prison on a year and half sentence.  I secretly wondered what a 15 year old could do to wind up in prison for 18 months.  Geez.   Either that or what I’ve heard about the racket of "lawyers" extorting money in the projects para bregar was actually true.

"You have a friend who gives you a Playstation… what do you do with it?"

Puzzled look – like I was trying to trip him up with a trick question, like if he said, play the damn thing, I’d zing him and say… no you give it to charity and spend more time in church on your knees thanking the good Lord for your life.  Remember to wail and gnash your teeth.  He loves that.

"You would… "  I motioned with my thumbs as if to fiddle with the controller.

"Play it?"

"Yeah!" I exclaimed, "You play the thing.  That’s why your friend gave it to you.  And what is a Playstation for?  To be P L A Y E D."

Phillip smiled a 15 year old smile, ear to ear, clean teeth to clean shining teeth.

"So now you’ve got this Playstation that you didn’t ask for.  You kind of know what to do with it, but it’s really no fun by yourself.  Who do you call first?"

"Mis amigos?"  He offered.

"Right.  Then you get together and share your gift with your buds.  You pass time with them sharing the Playstation."

"Yeah."  Phillip smiled again.

"Phillip, what’s your talent?  What do you want to do with your life?"

Phillip hesitated.  I don’t know why, I had not been trying to trick him.  The quickest and most natural thought is usually the right one.  I had not led him astray up to that point.  He stilled seemed to be searching for some kind of noble Godly vision of what he should be doing with his life instead of what he wanted to do, what he was good at.  He gathered the courage and offered:

"I want to be a boxer."

"Cool," And without missing a beat, "Did you know that Jesus was a boxer?"

Again Phillip was thrown for a loop.  Jesus a boxer?  How could it be?  Boxing isn’t Godly.  Boxing isn’t pious.  Boxing is at best the red-light district of sports and humanity.  

"Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘leave it all on the field’?  Or in your case ‘leave it all in the ring’?"

"No."  He looked at me quizzically.

"Well, after you fight, you should barely be alive.  After you finish, you shouldn’t be able to stand.  After you are through, you will have nothing more to give, no interviews, no congratulations, no celebrations, and if you lose no sorrows, no regrets, nothing.  You will have used it all up and left it in the ring."

Phillip looked at me, eyes wide in puzzlement or amazement. 

"Phillip, for what purpose do you have this life?  Did you ask for it?"

"Eh?"

"Are you going to get out alive?  Does anyone live forever?"

"No, I guess not."

"Isn’t it a gift like the Playstation?  Aren’t all gifts just that;  not asked for?  And just like a gift that you didn’t ask for, the best thing you can do with it is use it, before it breaks, before it becomes obsolete… or the Playstation III comes along."  Phillip chuckled.  "What would you save it for anyway?  You’ve got to use it. 

Jesus wasn’t just a boxer?  He was the champion of the world, uncontested, undefeated, even in death.  He knew one thing that only the greatest champions have ever come close to knowing.  He knew that how you do a thing is more important than anything else.  That whatever you do, you live it fully, completely, with no regrets.

When you box, it’s a spiritual exercise.  In order to do it well, you’ve got to study it.  You have to train.  You have to discipline yourself.  You must have respect for it.  With all the things you do you pay homage to your life and your life is that which has been given to you as a gift.   You honor  your gift by being the best boxer you can be.

Remember too, though, that all gifts carry a burden.  You have a heavy responsibility.  If you want to be like Miguel Cotto you have a heavy burden to carry.  You might see his victories, his money, or his fame, but his bouts show his discipline, his patience, his devotion to his craft.  He’s not hanging with his friends in the evenings.  He’s training early in the morning and getting his rest.  When he’s not training or resting, he’s probably reviewing films, studying his sport or eating a special diet.  Yes, he has time for friends, but he’s a championship boxer and it’s not easy.  And he’s surely not getting in trouble.

Phillip, is this future what you want?  Do you accept this?  Will you take up the burden, the responsibility, and the commitment to make your dream a reality?"

"Yes."

Ezequiel Wants to Paint Cars

“How do you call yourself?” I asked extending my hand.

He mumbled something.  I couldn’t make it out.

“Could you say that again?”

“Escgael,” he said again as I leaned in.

“Eh?  What was that again?”

“Esdasel.”

“Could you write it down please?”  I handed him a pen and paper.  I watched him write out E-Z-E-Q-U-I-E-L. “Ah, from the Bible – the Jewish prophet.  Interesting.  Cool.”

He smiled.

“Okay, now that we have that out of the way, I’m James o Jaime en español.  Pleased to meet you.  So, Ezequiel, first I want to ask you why you came down today?”

“I always come down.”

“Okay, did you come down for a particular reason?”  I always ask this because I’m not sure if a particular inmate is coming to the session for religious study, general chit chat, or just to get out of the general population for a respite.  I can go all religious if need be, but I prefer to weave it all together in a more secular way.  But really, it’s all the same to me.  Me da igual.

“I’d… like to look for… Jesus.”

“Why?”

He shrugged.  Look I don’t know, maybe.  Maybe I felt I was supposed to say that.  Or maybe I was trained to say that.  Or maybe it felt good to say that.  Or maybe I’d like… I dunno.

“What do you want to do?” I asked him.  “What would you rather be doing right now?”

“I’d like to be out of here.”

“Yeah, but if you were out of here, what would you be doing?  What do you like to do.  What would you like to do with your time?”

“Paint cars.”

“You mean like in an auto shop?  Hmmm, that’s interesting.”

We talked, or rather, I talked/asked him about painting cars and his talents and what he liked to do.  He was a quiet kid.  He didn’t say much.

“Hey, you ever see that show on MTV, ‘Pimp My Ride’?  It’s this show where they take an old beat up car and turn it into a work of art.  New seats, new rims, tires, interior, rugs, sound system, televisions, computers, new dash etc.  They always put a super fine paint job on it too.  You want to do something like that?”

“Yeah.”  He smiled his eyes twinkling.  He was still a kid of few words, but he had these twinkling eyes.  I’d have to pay attention to his eyes for clues to his thoughts.

“So, how might you paint these cars?  What would you paint?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about some clouds, and ‘Mi bendición’ with a Puerto Rican flag with a cool metallic ice?”

“Yeah.”  His eyes got wide again.  It’s like I could read his thoughts before he even knew he had them.  I could see him dreaming about his beautiful paint job.  I watched reflections in his eyes of some big aluminium rims, sweet Pirellis, neon in the undercarriage, an awesome fade on the side panels with a Puerto Rican flag waving in the cool tropical breeze.  It was like a big piece of sweet candy and I could see it tasted good to him.

“It’s like art, you know?” I offered.  “One of the things that we share with God is the need to create.  It’s one of the things that takes us back to the divine, compartimos ese rasgo con Dios.  He was sitting there all alone and he had this big nothing, but a lot of love.  He could do no other thing than create… everything.  So great was his love, he created us.  That’s what it’s like when we create.  When we create we are doing the same thing that God did.  We are fulfilling the same need.  We are sharing in the divine.”

Ezequiel nodded.

“So, guess what,” I added. “Lots of famous painters throughout history created paintings on all kinds of places, walls, poles, town squares, floors, ceilings, carriages, you name it.  They painted everything.  Maybe you do this painting on the car that says, Jesus es el salvador or mi salvación, Jesus.  Whatever.”  I thought maybe I was getting corny now.  I pictured in my mind a typical heavily modded import with a rosary and crucifix hanging on the rear view mirror.  Painted on the exterior I saw a big mural of La Señora de la Providencia, an image of the Virgin Mary, with an infant Jesus resting on her lap painted big and fat on the hood.  I saw chrome, lights, a crucified Christ on the door, and a cloud-like father figure emerging from a heavenly scene.

It’s not my taste, for certain, but I loved it.  I see some of the graffiti here and I must say I am in awe of the talent of these kids.  While I wouldn’t own a Jesus-pimped car, I have to say I’d love to look at it.  I’d love to drink it in, enjoy the art, appreciate the expression.  I would stand in awe of such a creation.

I shook Ezequiel’s hand before we left.  It was a pleasure to meet you, I said.  I told him that I dreamed of the car he would paint.  I told him I dreamed the dream as if it was my own.  I wished I could paint that car the way I dreamed it.  But, I told him, I’d probably screw it up.

It was up to him to do it right, because the world needs that car.

Julio Cesar

I smiled and said hi to Julio.  He had a small tattoo of an "x" high on his cheek, near his eye, and knuckles emblazoned with letters.  I don’t recall what they said – it didn’t matter.   I only thought that the tattoos all over his visible body, arms, hands, face, made him look tough, really tough.  He seemed like such a quiet shy, kid though.  He looked down when I shook his hand.  He didn’t look me in the eye.  Some of the kids will look you in the eye.  It shows how tough they are.  "I’m not afraid of you." They seem to say, and maybe as an aside to their fellows, "And I just want you all to know that I’m the big dog here.  Don’t you forget it."   I notice, but it doesn’t matter.  I’m neither bigger than it, oblivious to it, or ignorant of it.  I just think it’s irrelevant, that’s all.

Let’s get down to business shall we?

Julio Cesar’s favorite sport is billiards.  "Huh, that’s interesting," I told him.  "Most kids here like basketball.  A lot like baseball, but I’ve never heard anyone say billiards.  Cool."

Julio Cesar’s innate talent is organizing things.  He likes to drive a fork lift or "finger" as they call them in Puerto Rico, not because it’s a job, or he likes the fork lift per say.  He seems to like organizing the boxes in the warehouse.  He enjoys the challenge of placing the boxes in the best possible configuration for optimal packing.  I told him that between the billiards (geometry) and the box stacking (spatial perception) he might just have an unusual and special brain.   "Did you do well in mathematics?" I asked.

"Yeah, I didn’t do too bad in math."  He kind of perked up a bit, like he had just discovered a great and pleasant truth about himself.

I asked him if he had finished school.  Juan Cesar, 19, said that no, he’d not finished school.  He didn’t know why, just didn’t go any more.  He shrugged, as is the custom of many of the kids.

"You know who Albert Einstein is?"

"No," he shrugged again.

"He was a scientist from the early part of the 20th century.  He didn’t do too well in school.  In fact, he never did well in school.  But his brain was wired differently.  He was able to visualize things in his mind most people could not.  He ended up winning the Nobel Prize, the grandest honor that a scientist can receive.  It’s a worldwide honor."

Julio Cesar looked interested, even if he had no idea who Einstein was.

"Julio, has anyone ever told you these things before?" I was curious, to see if anyone had ever connected these dots in his life.

"No, no one has ever talked to me like you."  He smiled.

I smiled, and my mind raced through an entire dissertation in a millisecond.  If anyone can make an impression on this kid, I can.  I’m this big weird American.  I look different than what he’s used to.  I’m from the colonial power, which as ridiculous as it sounds in the 21st century, counts for something.  I’ve got credibility.  To top it all off, I talk to him about things of which he’s never heard, and make observations about him that no one ever has.  He’s taken notice.  Maybe what we talk about isn’t particularly insightful or clinically correct, but it’s weird, it’s different, and he might just remember it.

He brightened more and asked me if I was coming back next week.  I said yes, that I would be there again on Tuesday.

"I will still be here on Tuesday."  He was excited now.

"Cool, then I’ll see you Tuesday.  Do you know how to play chess?" I asked pointing to the chessboard painted on the top of the table.

"No."

"Wanna learn?"

"Yes."

The Simplest Questions of All

Tuesday night’s prison session was a difficult one.  Normally, it’s a positive experience, as I guess this one was in the end, but I’d not had an inmate quite so lost.  I was at a loss.  What would you do with a kid like this? 

We usually start out with a series of questions.  What is your favorite food?  What is your favorite sport?  What do you like to do in your spare time?  What talents do you have?  These questions, I believe, are the fundamental and most important questions of our lives.  They give you a road map of who you are.   There’s this quote that I love.  It comes up occasionally when I log into one of my servers.  It goes like this:

Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.  Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a fake messiah.  The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born?  Where is your home?  Where are you going?  What are you doing?  Think about these once in awhile and watch your answers change.
— Messiah’s Handbook : Reminders for the Advanced Soul

It’s kind of like that at the prison.  We ask simple questions and we get simple answers, but they reveal a lot of deep truths.  Last night was different though. 

Héctor is 16.  This is his fourth time in the juvenile detention system in Puerto Rico.  To the question, "Who do you most want to emulate?", he answered, "My mom."  

"What is it about your mother that makes you want to emulate her?  Is it something she does well?"

"She works really hard.  She works in a pharmacy and never complains about nothing.  She is very organized and dedicated."

"Disciplined?"

"Yeah, disciplined," he answered.

"So, tell me about your mother.  Did you live with her?"

"No, I lived alone."

I was puzzled.  "Okay, where did you live, with your father?"

"I live by myself.  An uncle died and left a house.  My father said I could move in there.  It’s close to my father."

"Hmm, okay, tell me about your father, then.  What’s he like.  Do you see him a lot?"

"No, my father works a lot."  He then perked up a bit, and said with pride, "My father lets me do whatever I want.  I had a car at thirteen."

"At thirteen," I exclaimed in surprise.  "You can’t even legally drive at thirteen.  How did you drive."

He shrugged and grinned.  "I just did."

"So you live alone.  Wouldn’t you rather live with someone?  How come you don’t live with your mom?"

"I did, but after fourteen years together, she left my dad, and two months later was with this other guy.  I hated him.  I think she was with him before she and my dad broke up.  He is an opportunist.  He’s no good for her.  Mi padrastro y yo no nos caemos bien."

"I see."  And we went on.  We talked about some of the other things on the question list.  Héctor’s favorite food is lasagna.  His favorite sport, soccer.  He likes reggaetón music, math, riding his motorbike, and aspires to better his mechanic skills and maybe work in a garage.

We returned to his mother.  I asked him if she visited him in the prison.  He said that yes, but she wasn’t happy to be there.  She was sad or angry and it wasn’t a happy moment for him.  I tried to explain to him how a parent could be disappointed in a child but still love them.  He looked uncomfortable so we shifted back to what he admired.

"So, maybe you admire her discipline.  How might you get that for yourself.  How do you get discipline?" 

He didn’t know.  I mentioned that I was an officer in the Army and that the Army can be a good place to get discipline.

"Ah, no, I wouldn’t like it.  Absolutely not." 

"Yeah, it’s hard, I agreed, but sometimes hard things are worthwhile.  It’s not like I want to convince you to join the military… but can you agree that your life isn’t rolling in the right direction?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Sometimes when you’re moving in the wrong direction, you’ve got to take drastic action.  You’ve got to get out, change your position, change your surroundings, do something dramatic.  I don’t know, I don’t judge, I’m just trying to help.  I’ve got my own set of problems.  ¿Todos somos pobres hombres, no?"  He smiled. 

"You know," he said, "It’s not even my fault I’m here."  And then the flood gates opened.  This kid needed to talk, so I listened to the remarkable incident that landed him here.  Normally we don’t ask the kids what they’ve done.  We’re not supposed to get personal with them.  Frankly, it’s irrelevant to me.  I don’t care what they’ve done.  They’re kids.  Some of them are murders and drug dealers, others are drug users, thieves, petty crooks, they’ve assaulted someone, or whatever.  We don’t ask, but if they want to tell us, we’ll listen.  We’re trying to elevate them.  We care about you.  You have value.  You are valued.  You are loved.  We love you. 

"I was getting into it with my step-father, mi padrastro and he called the security guard who called the police.  I was already on probation and he knew it.  I jumped out the window and climbed up on top of the apartment roof.  I jumped from one unit to the other and climbed down inside the parking area.  I had his car keys with me, so I hopped into his car and left.  I made it to Caguas before the police nabbed me for car theft.  That’s why I’m here.  I got a year for supposedly stealing his car.  I didn’t do nothin’"

I was in shock.  And to myself, I cursed the son-of-a-bitch.  This guy’s wife’s sixteen year old son, runs off in his car and he sends ’em up for grand theft auto for a year.  This kid did something wrong, certainly, but what kind of person does that?  Did he rationalize it to himself as tough love.  "You know mi amor your son needs this.  He needs to get serious about his life and to learn that there are consequences.  This is good for him."

But quietly, slyly he grins to himself and thinks it is good for me too.

 

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