I met Jesse when I was the Head Start to College Coordinator at Bristol Community College (BCC) in New Bedford, Mass. He was one of those students who could slip through the academic “cracks,” and it was my job to make sure he did not. Students were in this program because they did not have much parental support at home; their parents often held multiple jobs to make ends meet, so they were not around much. Jesse was one of many students in the program, but he stood out because he was extremely intelligent and well read. He could remember minute details of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and other books that I had long since forgotten. We used to talk about books a lot, and I marveled that he could be such an astute reader considering all of the distractions in his life, and there were many. He did not read books superficially. They got under his skin and became part of him. I admired this in anyone let alone a person who had grown up under difficult circumstances.
Jesse made the best of the deck he had been dealt. Under other circumstances, his life could have been so different. Anyone who has an ounce of imagination realizes the fact that any one of us could have a life like Jesse’s. I’ve never taken for granted the circumstances of my birth. Having a vivid imagination often leads to putting oneself into the shoes of another and can help us understand the idea, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ As a fairly intelligent species with the capacity to empathize, we sometimes forget this. He didn’t have a mother and father, he had grown up in foster homes, he learned early on that he could not trust adults, and he lived on various couches. He didn’t have a trusted adult looking out for him his entire life. Can you imagine that? Even relatives in his extended family could not be counted on when bad stuff happened because they had their own complicated lives that were filled with drama. He had many cousins, but when push came to shove, there was really no one to help him out. In his mid- twenties, he had already been in prison for five years and couldn’t get hired by McDonald’s because he had a record. How was a young man like this going to earn a living? How was he going to make it? Answer — he wasn’t. He sold drugs and DJ’d for special events to try to scrape together a living, and it was hard. He was on a track that is all too familiar for people who grow up in poverty. He was not a bad person; he did not have opportunities that many people take for granted.
When I think of Jesse, the lyrics of that Bob Marley song, “High Tide or Low Tide,” go through my head:
“A child is born in this world, He needs protection, God, guide and protect us, When we’re wrong, please correct us. And stand by me.”
What happens to the child who does not have a protector? This was Jesse’s plight. He had learned to survive and live on the streets. He could not talk to adults most of whom would not give him the benefit of the doubt. He was perceived as a stereotype. The adults around him had already made his bed and determined his path. He could not be the smart kid in class; this would have made him a target. He couldn’t talk to his friends about the books he read; that would have made him look weak, so it was his secret.
He wanted me to meet his puppy, “Big Boy,” and I am not one to miss meeting an animal. Jesse had traded an Xbox for a beautiful brindle Pit Bull puppy. We left campus, and I drove him to his New Bedford apartment where he lived on the third floor. In his neighborhood, there was row upon row of three- family houses; they all looked the same and they were run down, too close together and yardless. All he had in the apartment was a couch, a mattress on the floor, a dog and a TV. He didn’t even have the Xbox any more. Big Boy had his own room; he had pooped and peed on the rug and torn it up. The puppy didn’t get out much because Jesse was in school and out of the apartment a lot. I don’t think he took the dog out since there was no leash or collar. He called Big Boy his “Little Nigger” in an endearing way. I was surprised that Jesse could have so much affection for a dog when he had not received all that much from the adults in his life although I could understand it. He told me a story about a foster parent who made him kneel on uncooked rice for hours at a time as a punishment and stories of the older boys he had lived with in various detention centers. This young man had no guardian while he was growing. It was a damn shame, and it made me think about a lot of things many of us take for granted: a home, stability, a parent or guardian watching over us to make sure we are safe and out of harm’s way. Jesse had none of this.
So how does a person with this background and the cards stacked against him find hope and remain positive, especially when he is serving a ten-year sentence in a Massachusetts maximum security prison? I don’t know, do you? I have enough trouble staying positive, and I’ve never had to worry whether or not I would have a place to sleep at night.