I was the fourth child, a son, born to parents that fought every evening as if it were a ritual without which they couldn’t go to bed. My father left us when I was seven. My mother did her best to make ends meet, but it was obvious that three jobs, paying minimum wage, were killing her. When I was twelve, my two older brothers were killed—One by a rival gang and the other by police. The grief soon killed my mother. My elder sister, who had been paying the bills with some help from the state, disappeared a year later. Some says she was a victim of sex trafficking, but I never came to know what had happened to her. There was nobody to pay the bills so I came to live on the streets.   Every night, I took the last green train and slept on it; then I went to my ‘hood in the morning.

Photo by Paul G

In my ‘hood, guns were everywhere.  I just needed to find an allegiance with a gang. I joined my brothers’ gang. I wanted to kill the ones who had killed my brothers, the gang who was always in conflict with mine.  Anyway, I didn’t belong anywhere. I had nobody. I needed to be part of something and what could be better than part of revenge?

Once I got a gun in my hand I felt powerful. After all who could not submit to a gun, except…except cops.  I knew very well that I had to avoid them at any cost, and I did, for a long time. During that time, I killed the brothers who had killed mine. But then I got caught, which I knew had to happen. I thought my gang would back me up. I was a fool. They all ran away into their ditches—the ones who recruited me, the ones I thought were my brothers and would always be on my side.

Photo by Max Kleinen

I ended up in prison. I knew I’d get thirty to forty years; more years than I had lived outside. And then they told me if I go to school located in the prison, I’d get a day off in my sentence for each day in school.  Now, when I was  deep into the ditch, they thought of saving me as if a year or two off of my sentence would make a difference, as if they didn’t know that I’d be an old man when I’d get out of here. But I accepted. It took me out of the cell, away from the bullies, for a while, but I had little interest in any of the subjects, except Art. Art was a distraction that took my mind off of the past and present, and the dread of the future.

Photo by Mitch Lensik

The above is the composite memoir of the students I taught in a high school, located in the prison system. I call it a composite because I have tried to use a general theme I found in the lives of my students, but there were lives that were way more difficult than this general theme.  I really came to know the meaning of the expression, “reality is stranger than fiction.”

            These young men, who were usually neglected or abused physically and definitely emotionally, found their “belonging” only outside home, with gangs; gangs that thrive on violence; violence that brings these young men to prison, sooner or later. Who is responsible to hand over these weapons to our young men? Gangs? Society? System? Second Amendment?

Photo by Ye Jinghen

We live in a society that make parents work two to three jobs to put food on the table and roof over the head of their children. After this neglect at home and in the society in general, we expose our youth to the environment where guns are prevalent and where only chance to feel any power is to be in gangs. These vulnerable young men and women whose cognitive faculties are still incapable of comprehending the effects of life s/he has chosen are forced to make tough choices on the streets. Wouldn’t our forefathers consider this while ratifying the second amendment if they could foresee the effects of it on our youth 230 years later? Shouldn’t we consider it?

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