To my very first boyfriend,
When we were in high school, our principal told me to stay away from you. He, along with others, worried that you would have a negative influence on me.
I was a straight-A student, en route to a top college. Meanwhile, you were already on probation for gun possession.
Growing up, people saw you as a “bad kid.”
But I didn’t see you that way.
Our friendship developed somewhat unexpectedly.
According to you, a few of your friends thought I was pretty, but no one had gone out with me. So, you wanted to be the first. Even though you were probably the most charming 15-year-old boy to walk the planet, I didn’t make life easy for you. I was innocent but very strong-minded, unafraid to tell you “no” or put you in your place when I thought necessary.
My stubbornness, coupled with your love for a good challenge, led to us spending more and more time together before ultimately developing a genuine friendship.
Every night, before you went to sleep, no matter how late, you would call me to say goodnight. I pushed you to pay more attention in school. I remember how excited you would get to tell me you got a good grade. When we met up on the weekends, you would always let me know how pretty you thought I was by saying “Wow” or “Damn girl.” I tried to play it cool, but I’d crack a slight smile.
You taught me dancing at a club was not the same as dancing in a tap or jazz class. When you moved to South Carolina for a few months, you sang the lyrics to the song “Angel” by Shaggy when you hugged me goodbye. And whether it was on the phone or in person, if you ever noticed that I was stressed, you would remind me that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish. You were sweet, supportive and very protective of me.
Even when you messed up, I could never stay mad at you for long.
In 10th grade, you forgot Valentine’s Day. The next day at school, you gave me candy and a rose.
I looked at you and rolled my eyes.
Then, you said, “Lauren, you are too special to get your Valentine’s Day gift when everyone else does.”
It was complete bullshit, but it worked.
Since I met you, I have always been lucky enough to see a different side of you than some other people, but I certainly am not the only one.
Sophomore year, our lockers were across from each other. Every once in a while, I noticed this very quiet girl walking beside you in the hallway. She wasn’t friends with any of your friends. It struck me as odd, but I didn’t bother to ask you what was up.
Then, one day, you were over my house and you left your email open on my computer. When I went to close it, I saw she sent you a message. Curiosity got the best of me and I read it.
A few boys from our grade were continually making fun of her. One day, they bullied her in front of you and you made it very clear that they should stop. She wrote a heartfelt message thanking you, explaining that those boys never bothered her again.
To me, that’s who you are and that’s who you have always been.
Even so, as we got older, you continued to make poor choices. After we both switched schools junior year, our paths diverged. When I began college, you became a father. When I started my career, you went to jail.
From drugs to gangs to guns to I don’t want to know what else, you spent much of our 20’s in and out of prison.
I don’t dismiss or condone ANY of your transgressions – but they also don’t change my opinion of you.
While I have not seen you in almost 20 years, now and then we catch up over the phone. Each time, you talk about how much you love your kids. You tell me how proud you are of me and you let me know if anyone gives me any trouble, you always got my back – and I know you mean it.
Since ninth grade, you’ve been a caring, fun, protective and loyal friend, who has always built me up and cheered me on.
The same qualities I liked about you as a kid are the same qualities I like about you now. But for a long time, the contrast between the person I know and the criminal record you have acquired confused me. About six years ago, I started to ask questions:
“Why did you make such bad decisions?”
“What could you have done differently?”
“How come you were never scared to get in trouble?”
You explained to me that while I was busy with my schoolwork and extracurricular activities, you had plenty of time to spend with the wrong people. Also, you shared how you were exposed to experiences that normalized violence or illegal activity. The more honest you were with me, the more I understood that life wasn’t as simple for everyone as it may have been for me.
For that reason, I have learned not to judge anyone, which has not only made me a better journalist but a more compassionate human.
But unfortunately, as you move through life, most people won’t be like me. Most people will google your name or see your history and pass judgment, the same way our principal did when we were kids.
Even so, I want you to know that I will never see you as a bad person because I know you have a good heart.
I just pray that with every decision you make going forward you always choose to use it.
I still believe in you.
Your old friend,