You’re 16 years old. And you want the world to know you aren’t afraid of anything. But that’s not true. There is one person who scares you, and I am writing to tell you that your fear is ruining your life.
It is the day after Christmas in 1996. You have not been going to school and you just recently started robbing people, selling drugs, and smoking weed. Face is who you are right now, but Face is not the person you should be.
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Face is your street name – a friend gave you the name because people always say you have a babyface. But with the name comes a different persona.
It all started when you were six. Your family went back to D.C. because Dad developed an addiction to crack. You moved into an apartment building that your grandparents owned, and you could hear gunshots down the block every night. It was like growing up in a war zone.
When you started school in D.C., the class bully hit and pushed you. Even though you were tiny for your age, you defended yourself like dad trained you to do, and you whooped him. The bully became your best friend, and together you both bullied other kids.
At a young age, you knew you were the smartest kid in the class because you always knew all the answers and raised your hand first. You took your PSAT at 11 and scored very high.
You also knew you had a talent for the arts. At the last minute, the school needed someone to recite a poem called The Creation. You told the guidance counselor you could do it. You only had a day to memorize it. So, you studied all night. After the performance, many people in the crowd cried, and your guidance counselor grabbed you.
Through tears, she said, “Oh, my God! You are so smart, but you’re just going to waste your life with your attitude. “
She wasn’t far off.
When you were 11, your dad left because of his addiction. He moved to Las Vegas, leaving you feeling empty and hurt. Around that time, you started to also feel a lot of peer pressure. You wanted to fit in with other kids. So you began to cause trouble – acting like a class clown.
In school, you started to dumb yourself down. You got kicked out of the gifted and talented classes and sent to lowest-level classes where kids couldn’t even spell their names.
In the streets, a kid told you to jump someone for nothing.
He told you, “If you don’t, you won’t be with us.”
You chased a guy down the street and beat him up for no reason.
Unfortunately, you don’t know how to stand up for values or morals, because you don’t want to be alone and become a target in your community. Your environment is influencing so many of your decisions. A friend of yours teased you about the condition of your sneakers. That was another catalyst that led to this street lifestyle you are living now.
You feel a sense of empowerment – because you think making your own money, by whatever means, allows you to make your own rules.
However, being Face, living this thug life will lead you to today, December 26, 1996, a day that will change lives forever. You are about to lose money shooting dice. One of the guys will suggest robbing those men selling drugs in what you consider your territory. He will give you a gun. You will go to their apartment, pull out the gun and order the men to give you cash. They will throw the money on the floor. When you bend down to get it, one of the men will grab the gun, which will go off but hit no one. You will fight these men and get out of there safely with the gun but without any cash. When you tell your friends what happened, one of them will go back to the apartment and fatally shoot a 51-year-old man.
Weeks later, you will get arrested. You will laugh when they tell you you are there for murder because you know you didn’t kill anyone. However, that’s not exactly how the law works.
Prosecutors will allege you went back to the apartment where the killing occurred. Even though you will tell them that you didn’t go back, you will be charged and convicted of felony murder because anyone involved in a felony crime that results in death can be charged with murder – even if you’re not the one to pull the trigger.
The following year, at 17 years old – still looking like a child at 5-1 and 100 pounds – you will be sentenced to forty years to life. But you won’t be shaken by the reality of your situation. This is normal to you. In your neighborhood, young men either get killed, or charged as an adult for a violent crime. It is a future you expected. You will simply follow suit.
The first two years in prison, you will still be Face, a thug, letting people know that nobody is going to prey on you or your property.
However, when you get to prison a woman who works there will ask you if you can read. She will bring you books. And you will consume one after another. By 18, you start to notice that all those people you were trying to impress in the community have forgotten about you. The people that genuinely love you, like your mom, don’t care if you are a gangster or thug or what type of sneakers you own. They genuinely just love you.
Once you realize this, you will have a dark moment. You will smoke some weed in prison. You will sob in your cell as you finally recognize and accept that your whole life has fallen apart.
But then you will make a promise to yourself. Every day you will say one prayer, read at least one verse, do one push-up, and work towards your legal case and GED.
That night in the winter of 1999, you will decide to stop being Face and start being Halim. You will decide to be better – you will decide to just be you. Halim is the name you were given at birth. You never liked it because the name made you stand out from everyone else. But Halim is not a thug. He is not a murderer. He is a smart, poetic, artistic, nerdy guy who loves books.
You will stop smoking weed and gambling. You will pray, and you will read scriptures. You’ll learn about Confucianism and Taoism, and you’ll start to learn about all these various ways to heal yourself spiritually. Once people realize you are intelligent, they will respect you. They will ask you to write poems for their girlfriends and explain what their lawyers are trying to tell them about their cases.
In prison, you will write eleven books. You will write letters to kings, prime ministers, deans, and professors.
These relationships will help you stumble across research that provides evidence that a juvenile’s prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which makes them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to make thoughtful decisions.
Because of your progress in prison, you will become the poster boy for new legislation in D.C. for people who got life sentences for crimes committed under 18. The new law will say anyone who served 20 years for an offense committed under 18 will have the opportunity to go back to court and petition for resentencing and release. From prison, you will get to read your testimony on the manner to lawmakers. The law will be enacted in 2017 and two years later, after 22 years in prison, you will finally be released.
First, when you get out, you will hug your mother tightly. Then, you will ask your family for a computer so you can get to work. All those people you wrote to in prison will provide a network for you, and you will launch a public speaking business, sharing your truth with the world in a poetic way.
You will start taking pictures of articles from the Wall Street Journal and writing poetry and commentary on them. That will be your first piece of visual art. After speaking at an Apple store in San Francisco, a man will offer to buy ten of your pieces at $2,000 apiece. Crazy right? He will turn out to be an owner of the Golden State Warriors, and he will take you to a game and introduce you to the other owners. He will continue to encourage, mentor, and text you daily.
You will share your interest in fashion with him, and he will help you launch a fashion brand. And then, when the pandemic hits, you will start to paint. People all over the world will buy your art and prestigious galleries will sell your work. Your art will bring you around the globe, building relationships with people from all walks of life. You, a kid from Washington DC, will be commissioned by a newspaper in the UK called the Evening Standard to create art for the late Queen for the platinum Jubilee celebration. In your first three years out of prison, you will sell about two million dollars worth of artwork.
You will do well in life, and you will even have a beautiful little girl. But I need you to listen to me. Don’t take that gun. Don’t go to that apartment. There is no reason for you to spend 22 years of your life in jail. Please, go to school. You can become an engineer or work in finance, since you love math. Stop selling and abusing drugs. Stop the violence.
Don’t wait until you’re in prison to be a poet. Right now, be an artist. Let the world know that you are smart. If you can have the courage to explore your gifts instead of trying to be a “gangster,” you will be able to fill the emptiness your father’s absence left you with the love of all the new relationships your art can help you create. If you excel in school, it will keep you safe. Your intelligence can be your ticket out of the hood and your passport to see the world.
You came up in a mosque and the church, reading scriptures. Stay connected to your spirituality and honor your family values.
I promise, greatness is inside of you.
The world is so much bigger than the 61 square mile radius of violence and prison and despair that you know as Washington, D.C.
Right now, you think you’re tough because you’re not scared of drug dealers, police officers, or gang members – many who are much bigger than your diminutive child-like frame. But the reason you will suffer in life – the reason you are not happy – is because there is one person – one thing – that terrifies you right now. And that is your true self.
If you want to be brave, the most gangsterest thing you can do is Love who you are and all that you are, and let the light follow.
Don’t be Face. Be you!
I know you got a hard head, but I hope you listen.