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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Crazy Kids?
My immature brain almost landed me in jail
Anonymous
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Nearly everyone has the potential to kill somebody. On one scorching summer day I actually came close to doing just that.

I was 16 years old, playing basketball with an acquaintance. We were cracking the usual, childish, “your mother’s so fat” jokes on each other.

They weren’t the kind of jokes that should lead to a fight, but they did. He said something about my clothes, I said something about his sneakers, and we both got angry. Soon there was a crowd of kids around us, egging us on. After every joke they would “Ohhhh!” or say, “Yo, you just gonna let him thug you?” We both took off our shirts, ready to fight. I felt like I had to prove myself to everyone, to show that I had heart.

Pride First

I punched him in the face a couple of times, and broke the skin on my fist from hitting the square of his chin. Then I backed up and fell over a bike onto a bench, and he jumped on me and punched me four times in my face. I had too much adrenaline to really feel the punches, but I was cognizant of the force of the fist hitting my head.

I was dazed when I got up and my head was throbbing, woozy, and heavy. He had given me a knot on my forehead resembling a pear in shape and size. “Damn!” I thought to myself, “I really want to hurt somebody right now.”

I could feel myself getting angrier, and my pride felt damaged. I was humiliated; everyone was laughing at me and pointing at the knot on my head that was visible from outer space. I felt like I had to redeem myself in violent, dramatic fashion. My ego-mind coerced me to say aloud, “If you’re still here when I get back, I’m going to stab you.”

I Was the Knife

I ran upstairs full speed and got one of my mother’s big Ginsu knives. I ran outside with no self-control, and luckily (for me and for him) he wasn’t there. There was a crowd of kids that scattered when they saw the knife, though. I stood there for a few seconds with the knife in hand, and saw the scared looks on people’s faces as they fled. In that moment, I felt like I was the knife, dangerous and lethal. I felt powerful.

With no one to fight, I went inside and threw the knife away. I looked out the window at the scene I had made. Someone had called the cops and there were two uniformed police officers walking through.

I wasn’t really angry anymore, and I wasn’t scared that the cops would come looking for me. I was just there. Everything felt so surreal that I didn’t know what to think. My senses had failed me, especially my common sense.

Brake Failure

image by Daniela Castillo

This is just one example of a time in my life when my boldness and impulsivity overcame me. I realize now I wasn’t using “the good brain God gave me,” as my mother would say. Instead, pride resided in my brain, and it was a tumor the size of a fist.

Apparently, though, it might have been more than just pride that kept me from thinking straight. Scientists say that teenagers’ brains are great at learning but not so good at controlling impulses or recognizing consequences.

Teen brains are like “a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake,” Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, told the Associated Press. I know that for me as a teen, it was hard to stop going down an impulsive, destructive path once I was on it. During that fight on the basketball court, some girls who didn’t want to see me fight had urged me to back down, but it barely registered. “Don’t fight him, it’s not worth it,” they said. I put that through the rinse cycle for two seconds, but I still shrugged at my conscience.

These differences between teen and adult brains are especially important in dealing with crime. In 2005, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether it’s appropriate to give the death penalty to someone who committed their crime before the age of 18. The American Psychological Association argued against the death penalty for juveniles, saying teens’ brains haven’t matured enough to control decision-making, so they shouldn’t receive the same harsh punishment as adults.

They also argued that a teen who’s violent or makes stupid decisions won’t necessarily always be violent and impulsive. They might grow out of it and not be a danger to society. “Adolescent risk-taking often represents a tentative expression of adolescent identity and not an enduring mark of behavior arising from a fully formed personality,” the Association told the court. In the end, the Supreme Court did outlaw the death penalty for juvenile crimes.

Under Construction

Not thinking about or fully understanding consequences is also common among teenagers. During the fight, I didn’t think about my own well-being or anyone else’s. I could have killed somebody. I didn’t give that a second thought, nor did I think about the police, my mother, or any other consequences.

According to an article by Claudia Wallis in Time magazine, teens have a difficult time making judgments because the frontal cortex of the brain, where decisions are made, is actually undergoing physical changes during adolescence. That development can affect the way teens behave and the choices they make. I think brain development, as well as teens’ lack of experience and wisdom, are important to keep in mind when sentencing teenagers. Teens should be handled with different care than adults.

To the adults who say that these studies about teen brains are just being used as an excuse for teens to get off easy, I say that I’d like to take a time machine back to their high school or college days. There is a good chance that these same people may have been smashing cans of beer on their heads or doing other dumb things. As my great-grandmother says, “The old was once young.”

Cooler Head Prevails

Even after reading about the teen brain, it’s still hard for me to understand my actions at 16. (I’m 21 now.) I can only imagine what could have happened that day if the other kid had still been there when I returned with the knife. I might be in prison and he might be dead. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I did see the kid around sometimes, and we would give each other dirty looks, but it never escalated to blows again. And I never did anything that bad again.

In the last few years, I have gone from being an angry and sometimes violent person to being a peacemaker, perhaps thanks to my more mature brain. These days, even when provoked, I’m pretty good at keeping cool. Most recently, I was with a female friend when some guys made rude comments directed at her. I could have gotten really upset and escalated the situation, but instead I just stood between her and them and ignored them, and they stopped.

Even though I wanted to punch them in the head, I was able to control my impulses much better than I did that day, long ago, on the basketball court.

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(NYC-2010-05-09)