Getting Busted for Drugs in College Changed My Life Forever
Illustration by Cornelia Li
"Raised in the System," the premiere of season six of VICE on HBO, focuses exclusively on juvenile justice in America. It airs Friday, April 6, at 7:30 and 11 PM EST.
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I love my daughter. That goes without saying for most parents, but I am truly crazy about mine. She literally came out of the womb with a smile on her face—no crying, just a big smile, shocking the doctor and all the nurses in the room.
As I stood on the sidelines of her sixth grade soccer game two years ago, I suddenly decided I should coach her next team. I mean, why not? I'd always watched her soccer games, trying to keep myself from yelling out instructions. "Move closer to the goal," I would scream. "Don't let her get in front of you!" She usually just shushed me and tried to get as far away as possible, but then we'd laugh about it after the final whistle sounded.
As a community college instructor, my schedule was flexible enough to take on a coaching gig. So when I signed my daughter up for a summer basketball league and casually mentioned I was available to volunteer, I was thrilled they asked me to coach. She was almost as excited as I was. "No way! No way…" she said over and over again. "For me and my whole team??" she asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
Over the next few weeks, in preparation for the season, we worked on passing and shooting drills and joked about whether she would call me dad or coach at her games.
But about a week before the season started, I received an email asking me to complete a volunteer coaching form. Immediately, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, one I had come to know very well over the years. It was the same sickening dread that visited me every time I applied for a job.
Sure enough, there was the question on the coaching form. "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
When I stood in front of a judge and accepted a plea deal all those years ago, I did not understand that I was, in effect, branding myself with a lifetime sentence. I had been arrested for criminal possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell in 1994, and was offered a deal that took the seven or more years of prison time off the table and replaced them with five of probation. At the time, I'd just started my first semester of college, and my only focus was getting back to class and finishing my degree. I agreed to the terms and walked out of the courtroom, happy to be free, confident the incident was at least mostly behind me.
I would soon find out that freedom was not, in fact, included in my plea.
As is the case for many of my friends of color, the criminal justice system has since become an ever-present shadow looming over my life. That felony conviction was followed by rejection after rejection from jobs I was overqualified for, and even law schools I applied to. Now this: Maybe I couldn't even be a volunteer youth basketball league coach.
I was simply trying to help guide my daughter and other kids in our community. I love sports and had some great coaches during my own amateur playing days, and it seemed like I was finally in a position to contribute to a child's life the same way those mentors once did for me. I just knew I would be a great coach, focusing on the basics, providing gentle guidance.
I had never been convicted of any violent crimes or crimes against children. I had a few misdemeanor arrests for marijuana and drug possession and then the one felony case. But almost 20 years after my conviction, I was facing the same reality.
I also feared I would now have to disclose an aspect of my past to the other parents, teachers, and members of my community—people I suspected would probably judge me harshly. I'd worked hard to establish myself as a professional and an equal peer among them and now feared they would view me as they might view many other men of color: as a problem.
The application didn't even ask me about my education, so I wasn't able to list my undergraduate degrees, master's degree in business administration, or doctorate degree in law, all of which I earned after my conviction.
I thought about how I was supposed to explain the problem to my daughter. After our weeks of planning, drills, and shared excitement, what was I supposed to do?
With great hesitation, I completed the application and included a description of my offense, crossed my fingers, and hoped that karma would be on my side. A few days later, thank God, they sent my official team roster and a congratulations notification. My daughter and I, along with her team, began a season that took us one game away from the league championship. I was congratulated by the parents, received cards and thank-you notes from the girls, and most important, got a big hug and a "Thank you, Daddy" in the end.
No one from the basketball league ever commented on my coaching application. I wanted to ask about it, but felt like for my daughter's sake, I should keep my mouth shut and focus on the team.
There was a part of me, a very big part of me, that held out hope that maybe I was finally moving far enough beyond my past that it wouldn't be as big of an issue anymore. But my experiences generally keep that hope in check; it is hard to shake off the doubt and pessimism.
Two decades of constantly having to explain a poor choice that I made when I was just beyond my teenage years has made me numb. And constantly seeing people like myself struggle to try to do the right thing in a system that seems determined to force us into doing the wrong one, if only to survive, makes me resentful.
Only my daughter's hug at the end of the season convinced me that maybe, just maybe, acceptance for who I am today, not yesterday, is waiting somewhere just around the corner.
Jason Bost teaches in New Jersey and the author of White Nigger: The Struggles & Triumphs Growing Up Bi-Racial in America.