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."
"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.