The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Leaving the Past BehindNYC-2015-11-15

My 19 years on earth have been filled with chaos and drama.

When I was 14 I moved from the Bronx to Harlem with my aunt. The street fascinated me. When everybody knows you on the street it’s like you’re ’hood famous. And I thought, everybody loves a bad guy. My mind was already corrupt because a lot of kids my age talked about gang life and how they carried weapons.

I had also been exposed to a lot of violence inflicted by police, drug dealers, and just regular kids. So I was used to it. In fact, this behavior seemed exciting and fun and the way for me to make a name for myself that everybody would know and respect.

So I joined a gang. Whenever I committed crimes I didn’t think about the consequences because I never got caught. I was down with doing anything to gain respect and establish a reputation.

When I was 15, however, I got locked up for robbery. It was my first time doing time. I was held in a juvenile center for two days, and my grandmother worried because she had no idea where I was.

When I was there I started to think that I should listen to her. She wanted me to get an education. I missed being home in my own bed and eating my grandmother’s good cooking. I missed the freedom. When I got out she told me she stayed up all night praying that I’d come home.

But I went right back to the street. When I was 17, even though I had stopped going to high school, I started to question my life again. The gang life was still my main purpose but it had stopped feeling like fun; now I felt like I was always in messed up situations I didn’t wanted to be in. But I still had to show my loyalty. If you didn’t, you’d get beaten up badly.

Rethinking Gang Life

Gradually, I began to realize that just because I was loyal to the set in the gang didn’t mean I had to let them influence me so much. Instead, I thought, I should be listening to the people who really care about me.

Besides my grandmother, two of my brothers are positive people in my life who support me. Both of them work and they give me good advice, always telling me to go back to school and stay out of trouble. Sometimes they buy me clothes or food when I get hungry.

I started to hang out in the ’hood less and keep to myself more. Then, after a series of violent incidents in my neighborhood, the law was looking for suspects to lock up. So rather than get implicated I stayed with a friend in White Plains, New York, for six months. During that time I tried to clear my head and think about how I was going to proceed with my life.

But while I was away, my grandmother was diagnosed with leukemia. I couldn’t focus on anything but her. I was worried that I would lose her. The first time I saw her, I broke down in tears because it hurt me to see her lying there in a hospital bed dying of cancer.

Some days I felt depressed. The street life was also taking a toll on me and I knew that I was at the point in my life where I’d either get killed or sent to prison. So when my grandmother died in April, I decided to change my life.

I wasn’t sure how to leave the gang, but I knew there were other steps I could take. For one thing, my grandmother always pushed for me to get my high school degree so I signed myself into a GED program. (The GED is now called TASC, which stands for Test Assessing Secondary Completion.)

image by YC-Art Dept

Steering Clear of Trouble

I want to raise myself up, but there are some people trying to drag me down. They try to provoke me to fight, to rob. It’s been hard to change because I’ve been in a gang most of my life and everyone knows that. It’s hard to switch the image, but I’m trying. Instead of getting involved in confrontations I remind myself to stay focused on myself—my future goals and needs—instead of what other people are doing.

While walking to McDonald’s a few months ago, I saw a kid on the street who I’ve had problems with. I thought to myself, “I’m not here for a conflict, just to get something to eat.” As I walked in, the kid’s eyes locked with mine, so even though I’d hoped to avoid him, I couldn’t. He was one person ahead of me on line and he gave me a look like he thought I was there to hurt him. He turned around and asked me, “Is there static?”

I replied, “I thought there was no more static.”

He asked me the same question again. He was looking to start something.
“I told you, there’s no problem,” I said.

The kid ordered his food, and walked back to speak to me a third time. Before he started to talk I cut him off: “I already told you twice. Whatever happened in the past, I’m leaving it alone.”

He just wasn’t getting it that I wasn’t looking for trouble. I even shook his hand. I walked out leaving him with a confused look on his face. It’s hard for people to believe I’m really changing.

It’s easier for me to say no to trouble now because I’ve been in the gang for five years and I have seniority, and that comes with privileges. One is being able to choose the type of gang activity I want to participate in. I also stopped wearing flags or beads to identify me.

Mom Holds Me Back

But my mom is also making it hard to start a different life. She’s an addict who uses drugs and alcohol to deal with her problems. She doesn’t work; she sits in our house all day and complains. It’s not even her house; my grandmother left it to my brother and me when she died. But my mother acts like I owe her something.

Even though she knows I’m trying to get my life together and striving to be successful, it wouldn’t occur to her to be supportive. In fact, she actually gets in the way of my ability to focus on lifting myself up. One day my other brother came in to drop off leftover pizza for me. There was one whole slice and a half. I started eating the half slice and offered my brother’s girl the full slice. Then my mom showed up hungry so I gave her my half slice. She caught a heart attack that I gave my brother’s girl the full slice. It turned into a huge crazy argument and she threw a tantrum. She behaved like a savage, not a human being.

She’s leans on me and pleads, “Help, help.” It drains me of time and energy I could be using to elevate myself. She’s the opposite of my grandmother or what I imagine a mature mother to be like—someone who is there to support me, encouraging me to do well.

I’m not using these people as excuses; I’m just saying it makes my efforts to change more challenging.

One of my efforts is writing. It helps me express my feelings. It also gives me a voice to tell my stories and to become a better writer. It makes me feel good about myself whenever my work gets published. This has helped me stay off the street and focus on the positive.

I stuck with the GED PLUS program and I’m scheduled to take my exam in a few weeks. After I pass, I want to go to college in South Carolina because I have family there. I want to get out of the city and away from the gang lifestyle. I haven’t been able to leave the gang yet, but I’m trying to change my life by leaving the street alone. That’s what my grandmother always wanted. If she were alive now, she would be proud of me.

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