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This is a lightly edited version of an essay that was first published in “Unaware,” an anthology that came out of collaboration between students in English classes at Oklahoma Christian University (OC) and students placed at Southwest Oklahoma Youth Academy Charter School (SOYACS) by the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs. Students from both schools engaged with each other through literature and writing and written and video conferencing exchanges that culminated in the publication of their work.

Growing up living in the projects was hard for my mother, who was single with four children to take care of all alone. Being the only one in a classroom full of children, to have no decent clothes or being the only hungry one in the room, was hard. I was made into who I am today because of all the people I came across who judged me.

I do not hate that they judged me because it helped shape me into a man who can go through anything and excel at anything he puts his mind to. I will tell you a story of how I was judged in the past and how it made me feel and think.

Growing up in the ‘hood was easy but hard. To survive you could not just sit around and expect for someone to feed you. You have to get up and find a way to survive, not only for yourself but also for your family.

I found that out the hard way. I grew up around guns and drugs, and they had an influence on me because as long as you had one of those, you had money. I needed money to provide for my sisters and brothers because my mom was a single parent and she needed help. I could see the hurt in my mother’s eyes, so I wanted to do everything in my power to make her happy.

The last straw for me to realize that I had to go make a way was when my little brother and sister were crying because there was nothing but bread in the house, and it was not even enough to live off of. That day I left the house at 9 p.m. and I was gone all night doing things that were illegal but brought money in. When I returned home, my big sister was yelling and punching me, crying and asking where I went since I left them all alone. She stopped her fit once she saw that I brought groceries and money for us to live off of.

I went to an all African American school in the projects. I had my own little crew and everything and I felt like I was on top of the world. One day I realized that my friends were not laughing with me, but at me, because of my clothes and shoes that I wore. My mother got them from Goodwill and I liked them because they were Jordans, but they were busted and my clothes were dirty.

My little brother was having the same problems. So was my sister. I got out on my own and made us money to eat and for us to have the things that we wanted not just because we were being judged, but because I needed them to be happy — I thought.

I made them happy by any means, and I made my mother proud because I was providing for them, and she could actually rest. I was proud of myself also because I made myself who I am, and I learned to forget what everyone else said. It is not about them, just worry about yourself.

I am glad I was judged because it made me simply who I am.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Student at Southwest Oklahoma Youth Academy Charter School

This writer is a student at Southwest Oklahoma Youth Academy Charter School, who participated in a collaboration with students in English classes at Oklahoma Christian University. The work was first published in “Unaware,” an anthology developed as part of the program.