I consider myself successful because I avoided the pitfalls my parents dug all around me. I have never been arrested, I am not addicted to any drugs, and I don’t have children with men I can’t stand. I can take a lot of the credit for this, but I can’t take all the credit. Luck was definitely involved. When I was young and hurting in a house of drugs and violence, I acted out. Maybe it was for attention, maybe it was a cry for help, and maybe I couldn’t help but do the things my parents taught me to do.
When I was eleven or twelve, I was a thief. For some reason, the boundary between mine and not mine was blurry and unconvincing. I took things off the shelf and put them in my pocket. Sometimes it was just one little thing, like a packet of gum. Sometimes it was a lot of little things, and I packed me pockets full of jewelry or trinkets.
Twice I was caught.
The second time I was at the mall with some friends. Another customer tracked me down and I was so terrified I went with him. It turns out, he had no authority and I could have kept going. I handed over all the merchandise. The assistant manager at the store took down my name and number, said she would call my dad, and the store would decide if they were going to press charges. I saw my life crumbling before me.
When I got home, I was so terrified I told my parents right away. There was some yelling and screaming. I was sent to my room while they thought about my punishment. A little while later, two of my parents’ friends came over drunk, their kids in tow. I remember it being chaotic. I remember screaming through the front door and trying to get the kids down to my bedroom. In the maelstrom, my parents forgot all about my transgressions, and the store never called.
Was this a lesson learned? I guess. I’ve been on the straight and narrow ever since. But I have to recognize how lucky I was. That store didn’t press charges, and I never got a record. I think we as a society often look at children, especially teenagers, with records and we scoff at them, turn our hearts, hunch our shoulders, blame them for their criminality, hold them accountable like they’re adults. But how many of them were crying out for help the way I was? How many of them only got detention centers and probation when they needed someone to intervene in their lives, to get their parents help, to clean up their whole family? How many of them were only acting out the terrible life lessons their terrible parents bestowed upon them? How many of them fell into the pits and traps left for them by the cycles of abuse, violence and drug addiction? Once they got that record, their lives change drastically. Doors close. I was never labeled as a criminal and was able to walk away from my mistake. If one person in that store had made a different decision, who knows how far I would have made it, if I could have avoided the other traps set for me? Would I have still avoided drugs like the plague? Would I still have protected myself from pregnancy?
I have to wonder. Did I get off easy because I am white?