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A search for self-worth started with shoplifting candy and ended with a prison sentence for murder.
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Source: iStock)

I heard the cheers and claps of my admirers vibrated through the room. I was in seventh grade and had just won multiple tournaments in the card game Yu-Gi-Oh! I stood undefeated; I was a king among kings.

The attention was addicting. During childhood, I was used to feeling “not enough.” I wanted to feel valued. It was like a sweet delicacy I couldn’t get enough of. 

But I needed more than a card game to satiate my hunger.   

In eighth grade a friend asked me to join him shoplifting from Target. My eyes lit up as he told me about the glory of his adventures. I envisioned myself sitting on a throne with all my worldly desires beneath my feet, and I said yes. When I walked out through the automatic doors — pockets full of stolen merchandise — and tasted the fresh air of freedom, I was filled with relief and criminal pride. 

The next day I walked into school with my head high and a bright yellow Sony Walkman in hand. My peers quickly flocked around, bombarding me with questions. Pleasure consumed me. I was drunk on the attention.

I relished this new image of myself as “the cool kid.” At this point, the attention I got from my peers eclipsed all else. I never wanted this altered state of mind to end. I cast away the life lessons my parents had taught me and started living by a new philosophy — that I would use any means necessary to get what I wanted.

The next victim of my newfound addiction was Bockman’s Liquor Store. I could feel the excitement build as I entered the doors. My friend advised me to wait until the cashier was ringing up a customer. I stood in the candy aisle, raring to go. When my friend gave the signal, I put box after box of candy in my backpack. Before the customer’s receipt had even begun to print, I was out the door with a backpack full of stolen candy. 

Around the corner, we celebrated with a soda and a bag of Skittles. When I arrived home, I became a ninja, silently hiding from my family in the darkness. Once in the safety of my locked room, I dumped out my bag to bask in the glory of my treasure. I then tucked it deep in the corner of the closet under some clothes, trying to hide the wrong I had committed.

The next morning I laced up my Nikes and threw on my backpack, now rectangular from all the boxes inside. My peers flocked around me, asking about my backpack. I baited them: “You’ll see at lunch.” The first few classes dragged on. When the bell finally rang, I burst out of my seat toward the cafeteria, tailed by about 20 other students.

I loved how there were so many kids around me. When I got up to leave, I looked back and saw the entire table get up as well. I felt like a crime boss from one of my favorite yakuza or triad movies. Down an empty corridor, I emptied my backpack, spreading box after box across a bench to the sweet “oohs” and “aahs” of my audience. 

This was what I wanted. I started to distribute the treasure to my peers, treating them like they were part of my personal crew. I saved the best for my closest friends. Their words of gratitude were intoxicating. Then they asked for more. I told myself these people needed me. I would have done anything to keep fueling this image of myself, and soon I headed out for round three.

By age 13, I had already begun cultivating the belief that my worth was based on what I did and provided for others. This began way before my delinquency. 

At first, this was a way for me to protect myself from mistreatment at home. I had a way to contribute to the lives of others so that I would not be abandoned. At that time of my life, it worked. This became my identity. 

I may have been a juvenile then, but the beliefs that I formulated in my younger years went on to play a role in causing a lifetime of pain and suffering for so many people. The mantras “by any means necessary” and “my worth is based on what I do” kept repeating in my head. 

Twenty years later, I am wearing a blue jumpsuit with the words “CDCR Prisoner” emblazoned on the back, serving a 16-to-life sentence for murder. When I first came through those prison gates, I wondered how I got there. That question no longer occupies my mind. This story of my longing for self-worth as a child was what set the foundation for the choices I made as an adult. 

On the tragic night of Dec. 21, 2012, the desire to prove myself burned so brightly, I murdered a hero. All I hear now is a somber, roaring thunder that drones on ceaselessly, and the cries of those who I hurt. I wanted to be “that” guy, but “that” guy was a monster.

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.

Tien Nguyen is a writer incarcerated in California.