When I was 17 years old, I was arrested at school along with my younger brother and our friend. The police officers divided the three of us up and interviewed us separately. We were read our rights, and then interrogated at school.
The police officer who interrogated me made it clear that I was going to prison. Not only was I in possession of felony levels of LSD at the time, but I’d also dealt various drugs to my classmates, their friends, and underclassmen as young as 14. I was 17, and the officer said, “You’ll be charged as an adult. You’ll face at least four different felonies—multiple counts on each—and those will guarantee a prison term. You’ll go to Oregon State Penitentiary.”
I was scared. I considered myself tough in comparison to kids in my high school and people at large, but I had a friend who went to prison and I knew it was a different world. Compared to the average inmate at the state prison, I wasn’t tough at all. I was little and soft and pink.
My brother and I spent a week under an agreed-upon house arrest at a friend of my father’s. We waited for our hearings and to be remanded to custody. But none of those things never happened.
Before I faced a pre-trial hearing, my father spoke to the district attorney. They worked out a deal in which I would participate in a nine-month-long Life Challenge parole and rehabilitation program as a diversion. In exchange for my felony charges, I would serve nine months in an East Texas facility. I’d heard enough stories about the penitentiary, so I took the deal.
But three weeks later, I escaped from the East Texas Life Challenge adult facility where I’d shared a cabin with multiple murderers, a rapist, and a school bomber, all of whom were on parole from the Texas State Pen.
I ran, knowing that the Sheriff’s Department would be called as soon as I left. But since my charges were in the state of Oregon, and not Texas, I hoped that I’d have enough time to get away before everything was figured out.
I hitchhiked all day and ended up sleeping under a bridge in Dallas. By the next night, I’d taken up residence in the city’s Greyhound station where I could eat free saltines and ketchup packets and sleep during the day in the bus terminal’s padded chairs. At night, I wandered the streets of Dallas, napping on warm sidewalk vents if I felt safe enough to close my eyes. After two weeks, a friend wired me money and I took a long bus ride home to Oregon.
That’s where the story gets strange. I’d been arrested, made a deal with the DA, and reneged on that deal. I hadn’t done my time. I hadn’t completed my nine months. So, back in Oregon, I awaited my charges from the DA. I knew the other possibility was that a patrol car could pick me up and drag me to the Lane County Jail.
I waited, laid low, and waited some more.
Finally, I got a letter from Lane County. I was to report to the juvenile detention center in Eugene on a specified date. I didn’t know what would happen once I got there, but I was happy to see that it was the juvenile detention center. That meant that my charges weren’t going to be a part of the adult system.
I wasn’t afraid of Juvi. I’d done reform school in Tennessee. I’d seen a lot of violence. I’d participated in a lot of violence—I’d been hurt and hurt other people. Kids didn’t scare me. So, on the requested date, I showed up.
And you know how many days I spent at that juvenile detention center? Just one.
I was promised prison at my arrest. I never even went to trial. My father wasn’t wealthy enough to pay anyone off—so that possibility is out of the question—but I do wonder what might’ve happened to me if I weren't a middle class kid who got pretty good grades and earned National Merit Commended Scholar status.
More than that, I wonder, still: What if I wasn’t white?
I know that’s not a question we’re supposed to ask in this country post-1968, but, well, I have to ask.
I was watching the series premiere of The Wire the other night (I’m that far behind on HBO television shows—12 years back), and I recognized my brother and me in the West Side Pit boys. My brother and I carried handguns, dealt drugs, sawed off shotguns, hit people with various objects, dodged police, ran scams, and backed each other up. People didn’t fuck with us. By my senior year in high school, anyone who knew us was afraid of what we might do if they made us angry, so they stayed clear. And to be honest, I never knew exactly what I’d do myself—what I was capable of.
One night I was really high and tapping an axe against a high school football player’s car window while he and his girlfriend huddled, terrified, inside the vehicle. And I didn’t even question why I was there. That seemed like a normal thing to do on a Friday night. Of course I was tapping an axe against his car window. He was a dick, so why wouldn’t I? He had it coming.
I made a lot of bad choices, and when I was finally caught and arrested, I wasn’t held accountable. I wasn’t tried and sentenced. And I have to wonder, if I was in the West Baltimore projects, would I have been treated the same way that I was treated in suburban Oregon? Or if I was a young black male instead of a young white male, would I have been tried in a court of law? Would I have been charged as the arresting officer promised?
One morning in Tennessee—one morning only—I sold speed, ran a car off the road, shoved a gun in a stranger’s face, and even littered out my car window. Finally, my car was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy. But none of those previously-mentioned illegal activities were the reason for the deputy’s traffic stop.
The reason we were pulled over? Probably because one of my friends in the car was black. The sheriff’s deputy was wondering what he was doing, why he was in the car, what he was up to. Never mind that I had the gun and the drugs on me at the time, in the driver's seat. The deputy didn’t even search me. He barely looked at me.
Four years ago, before I published my memoir, my book editor called me from New York and said, “Are you willing to be fired from your job?”
She said, “You’re a teacher, and so many things you did as a teenager were illegal and violent. And even the things that you didn’t pull off still included murderous intent, murderous thoughts. So I’m just telling you: You might be fired after this book goes to print.”
It's true: Along with being a former drug dealer and violent teen, I’m a teacher—a high school teacher.
My argument for holding the job that I do is that yes, I made so many mistakes in my past, but I’ve never hid from them. I went to college after, earned a degree, and then got a master’s. I acknowledge my mistakes and say in interviews that my bad choices probably help me relate to my students. I’ve never pretended to be perfect, and that’s part of what you get when you hire me. I’m an imperfect person, imperfect but empathetic.
After my memoir went to print, I wasn’t fired. In fact, my superintendent and my assistant superintendent didn’t read the book. They didn’t even read about the book. I’m not even sure that they knew my memoir existed. So there was no buzz, no push to get me fired. A writer for a local newspaper suggested that I be fired, but apparently no one in the school district read that article either. So I kept my job.
I’m thankful that I wasn’t fired when my memoir was published. I’m thankful that I’ve been given opportunities and trust at my job. But gratitude also comes with a painful partner—the realization that not everyone is afforded the opportunities that I am, that not everyone is forgiven the way that I’ve been forgiven. The grace I’ve experienced is a privileged grace.
So I ask the question: Would I be a teacher today if I weren't white? Given the nature of my past crimes, would I be allowed to stand in front of young, impressionable students? Would I be given autonomy and respect?
I hope so. I hope my opportunities would be the same because I’m nothing like my younger self. I’m not violent. I don’t deal or use drugs anymore. I’m generally honest and responsible, as I’m sure many former delinquents of all backgrounds are. I believe in the possibility of redemption because I understand it on a personal level.
I was profiled once. It was long after I'd stopped committing crimes. I was in my mid-20s. A teacher, a father, with no police record. But on this particular day, I committed the crime of driving by a police officer while wearing a flat-billed hat cocked to the left. Definitely off-center. It was the hat equivalent of a hoodie.
The police officer pulled me over but refused to speak to me. I waited for a half hour, then called out the window, "Sir, please talk to me about this traffic stop."
He didn't. He called back-up. I waited another 15 minutes and, finally, got out of the car.
I know I should have stayed in my vehicle, but instead, I walked back towards his police cruiser, held my hands high above my head and yelled at him: "Sir, it is your job to tell me why you're holding me!"
The police officer drew his gun. He used his service weapon to intimidate me back into my vehicle.
At the time, and later, interviewing with Internal Affairs, I considered myself unlucky. But now I see it differently. What if I wasn't white? What if, as a black man being illegally stopped by a police officer, I got fed up, left my vehicle, and walked toward a police cruiser while yelling at the officer? Would I have been shot? Would the shooting have later been justified? What if I'd had my hands in the air to show that I was unarmed in, say, Ferguson, Missouri?
Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s memoir about his druggy, violent high school days, is titled The End of Boys.