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Can’t Afford to Follow
My family is too important to me
Charlene George
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I heard the same things from my new friends at middle school nearly every day. “Yo, Charlene, let’s not go to school today. Let’s go smoke and get some alcohol. Let’s maybe go to the movies, museum, or the zoo, but let’s not go to school today.”

They seemed really nice, and when they spoke about all the fun places they went during school, I decided to join them. I wanted to hang out with them and be the type of friend they said was cool.

One day we went to the movie theater and saw five movies—but we only paid for one. It was so great to see action, funny, and scary movies that had just come out, all in one day.

Then my friends told me to steal $20 from my foster mom so we could go to the movies again. They also wanted me to buy some things for them. I didn’t want to let them down, so I said OK. But I couldn’t bring myself to steal from my mom. Instead, I brought $20 I’d saved up and pretended that I’d stolen it from her.

I’d lived with my foster mom since I was 7 years old. I felt she really wanted the best for me. I wondered why my friends never wanted to talk about their own families, and why none of them could say even one good thing about their parents.

But I kept on doing things with my friends to show that I was one of them. About three weeks after I started cutting school with them, we went to the mall. We didn’t have any money, so we were just window-shopping and looking around in a store called Rainbow.

Then, to my surprise, my mother’s good friend Kim popped out of the back. It turned out that she worked there. She asked me what I was doing there during school hours.

Before I could answer, the man who worked at the counter started yelling at my friends. It wasn’t a pretty sight the way he was grabbing them, like his nails were digging into their skin. Their bodies were leaning to the side and they were screaming, “Help, he’s hurting me!”

When the boss went over to the counter to see what was going on, I was shocked. My friends had been stealing small items like candy, earrings, and fake rings that would turn your fingers green in a second. He called the police and my friends looked afraid, like they were wondering where their lives were headed now.

image by Matty Deluna

When the police came, they needed my friends’ family information so their parents could come get them. Most of them had their parents come to pick them up. But when the police asked the two ringleaders of our group about their families, they looked shocked.

They said they didn’t have any information to give the police. For the first time, I suspected that they didn’t have anyone taking care of them to come pick them up.

As they left the store, it hit me that maybe they cut school and stole things because they had no one taking care of them and teaching them how to act. But I did, so why was I acting this way? I imagined being locked up away from my mother, just because I wanted to be a follower. I thought to myself that my future couldn’t be a jail cell. It had to be a home and family.

I was lucky to have my foster mother and I didn’t want to lose her. I asked myself, “Am I going to let this peer pressure keep getting to me?” Doing what they asked me to do was only getting me in trouble.

Luckily, while my friends were stealing, I’d been standing next to Kim. After the police left, Kim made sure that I went home right away. She said she knew that I wasn’t the type to steal. She said, “I’m not going to tell your mom,” and that made me feel really happy.

Then she said, “You have to tell her all by yourself. Letting your mom know would show her what you did wrong, but it would also show that you’re growing up.”

I was upset. I’d hoped that Kim would let me go without telling anyone. But I knew I had to tell my mother, because sooner or later the truth would probably come out.

When I got home, I told my mother how I’d cut school that day. Her face got really crazy and her eyes were almost poking out of her head. As she yelled at me, she was spitting so much that my sister was wiping off her face like it was raining cats and dogs.

“You are grounded for one whole week with no TV and no electronics,” my mother said. “I’ll be coming up to your room to take the phone away from you.”

image by Matty Deluna

An hour later, my mother had calmed down. We started talking about the issue all over again. She told me I still had to do my punishment so I’d learn from my mistakes, but that she was happy I’d told her all by myself.

That’s when I realized that Kim really helped me by making me start doing things on my own. Even though she didn’t know me that well, she helped make me choose whether or not I wanted to keep giving in to peer pressure.

I decided I wanted to make a change and that no one else could do it for me. It had to start with me. I resolved to stop smoking, drinking, and hanging out with my old friends.

For one whole week, I hung out by myself. Now that I was going to school every day, I didn’t see my old friends because they were still cutting. After school I’d go home and watch TV during my free time. I was being a good person, but I got really bored and lonely.

I felt like I was walking through a maze trying to find some new friends. Then, after a week and a half, I met a boy named Peter and a girl named Vicky at a swim meet after school. They both went to my school and were in my swim group.

I started going to their houses to play video games and chilling with them at the movie theater. One time, the three of us had a conversation about being able to tell each other the truth. Even though it felt a little funny saying it, we all admitted that we had cheated on tests before. We knew cheating was wrong, but we all felt good that we shared something with each other.

Peter and Vicky didn’t pressure me to skip school, drink, or smoke. We didn’t hang out on the street getting in trouble. I was still going to school, getting good grades and perfect attendance and putting a smile on my mother’s face.

When we went to the movies, I remembered my old friends sitting next to me. I remembered jumping because we were scared of the movie, with the popcorn going up into the air and getting on the people in front of us—and them thinking we threw it at them. Those were the good old days.

But if I were still listening to my old friends, I would be just like a remote control car, going everywhere they wanted and just being used all the time.

Recently, one of my classmates asked me to slap another classmate on the back of the head when he was asleep, so no one would know who did it. I told him that if he was so big and bad, he should do it himself.

Now when I get pressure from a peer, I deal with it by using my brain. I go back to my memory of when I messed up with my old friends, and I tell myself I don’t want to face those consequences again.

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(NYC-2007-03-04)


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