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Freed From the Herd
My Friends Led Me Astray
Malik F.
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Names have been changed.

When I first started high school, I didn’t really know anyone. The first day of school I felt very alone. I had to watch people who met through the freshman summer program talk to each other as if they’d already been there for three years. I was too shy to talk to people in my classes because I feared being rejected or having them call me names. When I feel alone, I isolate myself. So I just stuck to myself for a week.

Then, I met Barry. It was a relief when I became friends with him because now I had someone to talk to. I was only able to see him during lunch, when we’d sit in the back of the cafeteria together, and when we traveled home to Queens. But I’d made my first friend, which made me feel like I was worth something at my new high school.

A few weeks later, Barry started introducing me to his other friends, and by November, I was in a cool group. I felt like I was about to become popular. Feeling like I was part of the group was important to me.

I was in other groups too, but this group was the most fun. We ate, partied, and hung out together. Most of all, we laughed together. For example, everybody would be play fighting on the L train, and suddenly Derek would get pushed to the ground and we’d all laugh. Even if this group was lost in the desert, they’d be able to play games and have a good time without worrying about anything.

Having fun helped me forget about my family problems, like my parents’ divorce and the pressure I feel from my dad to do well in school and achieve. So I entered sophomore year wanting to hang out more with this group.

Unfortunately, things were about to get complicated. My friends started cutting school about once a month to hang out. One day, they asked me to cut 8th period with them to go to Central Park. I was nervous about cutting for the first time. I was afraid of being picked up by the police, and I was especially worried about what my dad would do if that happened. He’s very strict, and might send me down South to live with my mom because he’d say I didn’t respect him.

Going With the Flow

But I wanted to show my friends that I was in all the way. It felt like if I didn’t prove to them that I could be in the group, I would have no one to talk to after school. So I went along with their plan.

When we got to the park, the weather felt like beach weather, even though it was October. It felt great to be out of school on a nice, spring-like day. The birds were chirping and the trees were a medium green. It turned out that about 30 people went to Central Park that day to play manhunt.

Manhunt is simple: One team must tag everyone from the opposite team as they try to run away. I went so far out from the starting point that I had to follow a group of tourists back to the steep rock where we’d dropped our bags. As I approached from the top of a hill, I saw cops down below. They stopped and looked up, and my heart was beating faster than a person playing drums nonstop. Then several cops moved toward the hill. Everyone panicked and split into two groups. I was with James, Lana, and Barry.

image by Elijah Hickson

Arrested

As we walked down the hill on the side furthest from the cops, I saw one of them looking at me with an evil eye, like he was a cheetah spotting a zebra. I wanted to run, but something told me to wait until he made his move. Finally, the cop looked away and started to talk to someone else. I felt like a 1,000-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I guess my nerves had gotten the best of me.

When we met up with the rest of our friends, one of them told us that our buddy Malcom had gotten arrested for having graffiti pens. I was shocked. I was so glad that I’d walked with Lana, James, and Barry because if I hadn’t, I might have gotten arrested with him. I felt my worst fears had almost come true.

When I got home that night, my father yelled at me for being late. I told him about everything that we did in Central Park, except for the fact that we were cutting school. He replied, “See, your friends aren’t too bright. If I were you, I would stop hanging out with them and pick new ones before they get you in trouble.” I was so tired that I didn’t even disagree with him. I just told him that they were not the only friends I had.

But as I thought about it, I realized that I probably should hang out with this group of friends less often to avoid getting in any more trouble. I realized that I had allowed these friends to take me out of my “comfort zone” instead of listening to myself and respecting my own limits. My comfort zone included hanging out after school, but not cutting school and risking arrest.

After that incident, other bad things happened with the group. A girl named Mariah put a $10 shoplifted item into another girl’s bag, causing both of them to get arrested. Then Joseph almost got arrested by talking to a cop in a rude way. Also, some other “friends” from the group stole Barry’s $300 touch-screen camera and tried to pretend they were innocent. When Barry told his parents, his parents said that he couldn’t hang with those “rats” anymore, since they could betray him at any second. I realized that they could betray me, too.

Breaking Away

Since that day in Central Park, I haven’t cut school again, and the influence that group of friends has on me has dropped dramatically. I see kids from the group once in a while in school and say hello to them, but I don’t hang out with them after school anymore. Until they change their craziness, I’ve decided that I can’t be part of their group.

I realized that I don’t have to hang out with them to feel important. Instead, I joined after-school programs and met new people that way. Recently I went to a Christian youth retreat upstate and met other Christian friends like me. We worshipped God and had a great time. I felt so comfortable when we spent time together without anybody feeling like they weren’t welcome in the group.

After the retreat, I decided to start a Christian fellowship group at my school. I want to make new friends and help people who are depressed, mad at life, and who want to find a different way.

I feel better knowing that I have friends who won’t betray me or distract me from getting ready for college. Getting involved in new activities made me feel comfortable and more confident. Now I can make better choices when I’m picking friends.

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(NYC-2012-03-16)

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