Kid, keep those eyes on the prize

August 27, 2007|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I wanted to use your name on this, but the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice asked me not to.

Maybe you'll recognize yourself from the following description. You are 16. You are confined to a juvenile detention center. You were convicted of public disorderly conduct and "assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature." And Stacey Haynes has taken a special interest in you.

She's a federal prosecutor who told me about you when I visited Columbia, S.C., last month to give a speech. Actually, she asked me to autograph a copy of my book, Becoming Dad, for you. You and she had a deal: You'd get the book if you could go 30 days without a disciplinary write-up.

I have to admit, that flattered me. I mean, I'm used to signing books that are given as gifts, maybe a few that end up as doorstops. This was the first time I'd ever been asked to sign a book as an incentive. But she told me you are that rarity, a reader. I hear you might even want to be a writer yourself someday. So this prize, she said, meant something to you.

I was really pulling for you to win it. But after a few weeks of good behavior, you committed an infraction. I was disappointed when Stacey told me that. Then she told me what the infraction was.

Am I to understand that you got in trouble for swatting a pregnant guard on the backside with a towel? Dude, maybe I don't have the right to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway: That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

I'm not writing this to dog you. But it occurs to me that what you did epitomizes one of the major reasons you and a million other young men so often wind up in cells and coffins. Yes, there's poverty, and there's father absence and there's lack of education and these things play crucial roles.

But at the end of the day, there's also this: Apparently no one ever taught you to keep your eyes on the prize.

I'm going to tell you what I used to tell my sons: Never satisfy a short-term impulse at the expense of a long-term goal. Never do what feels good in the moment if it's going to cost you something that matters a whole lot more in the end. The trade is never worth it.

You want to be a writer; you wanted that book. But you'd endanger that for the momentary satisfaction of irritating a guard? Does that make any sense? I'll bet you the inability to think long term is found in 90 percent of the young men in that detention center. They wanted to make their mothers proud; they wanted to prove something to somebody; they wanted to fulfill this dream or that ... and they threw it away for something momentary, fleeting, ephemeral and, ultimately, worthless.

You're lucky. I hear Stacey eventually wound up giving you the book anyway. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope you understand that life doesn't always give second chances.

I asked her why she had taken a special interest in you. She told me about visiting your unit as a speaker. "He asked intelligent questions and seemed to have a lot of potential hidden behind his tough exterior. I see a lot of defendants in the federal system who, when you talk to them one-on-one, are just guys who made one bad decision after another. Most may have made different choices if they had someone who expressed an interest in them and showed them another way."

She wanted to be that person for you, to help steer you onto another track before you graduate to federal crimes. She has made an investment in you. And I guess, from a distance, I have, too.

When people make investments, they are looking for a return, a profit. In your case, that profit would be that you leave that place and never look back, that you build a life that makes you a credit to your community as opposed to one of its deficits.

You can do that. Step one is to always remember:

Eyes on the prize.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column usually appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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