Really Growing Up

Really Growing Up

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Really Growing Up

The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.

~Henry L. Stimson

I grew up in a small city in Connecticut and had everything going for me: great parents, two older brothers who watched out for me, and a good set of friends. But when I turned fifteen, I felt that I was being smothered by my family’s rules and the rules at school.

Who were they to tell me what was best for me? I was smarter than any of those uptight rule makers! I skipped my sports practices and starting skipping class when I got into high school. I started smoking cigarettes, having a few beers, and smoked some pot with the “cool kids” on the path behind the school. I felt like I had finally figured out life and was having some real fun with my new friends, hot girls, and the coolest parties for the first time. By the time I was sixteen I had already experimented with some harsher drugs such as LSD and cocaine. I took Excedrin during the school day just to get the caffeine to make it through until lunch. Deep down I knew I was running down the wrong path but I didn’t care.

During my sophomore year I started school with a new career selling pot. I was saving up for my first car, a Mitsubishi Conquest. I thought I would have the world at my fingertips once I didn’t have to rely on my brothers and friends to drive me around. I trusted my new friends and thought they would stay by my side no matter what. Turns out one of my friends was getting “pinched” and set me up to sell to an undercover cop. I sold the cop some drugs a couple of times and a week later my home was raided. I was busted!

They surrounded my parents’ house, ran in the back yard and attacked my older brother Dennis while he was cooking on the grill, pushed my mom onto the couch, and made my brother Chris come upstairs to join us on the couch in his boxers, which was a funny sight since he had been innocently listening to music in his room. Two cops yelled at me to “freeze and drop the weapon.” I replied “It’s ChapStick!” They tackled me and then a policewoman kept checking my back pockets and was getting frustrated because I didn’t have a belt on and my pants kept falling down.

They only found a few joints in the house but with the cop’s testimony I knew I was going away for a long time. They had four felonies on me and I could be spending the next twelve years in jail. I knew at that moment I had to start making better choices.

My parents got me a good lawyer and I got the break of a lifetime. I was sentenced to one year at Manson’s Youth Institute and would have the chance to be home in six months if I demonstrated good behavior. I was never so scared in my life as when they brought me to an adult prison in New Haven to be processed. I will never forget that long ride in the “ice cream truck” as they called it.

Within the first week I was being bullied by the older inmates until I won my first fight and got the new nickname of “Baby Gerber” since I looked so innocent. The first two weeks were like being in hell because of all of the withdrawal symptoms. The corrections officers were amazing and gave me a bunch of sugar packets to combat the symptoms.

About a month or so into my stay my mom brought me a copy of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul from my aunt who couldn’t come up to visit me. I never liked reading much and never even read any of the books I was supposed to in school but I read this book over and over every night. One of the stories that made a big impression on me was called “Broken Wing” and it was about a kid who had a long arrest record and was the biggest juvenile delinquent in his school. An adult decided to trust him, and actually put him in charge of a big charity program, and the kid turned out to be a born leader who earned everyone’s respect and did a great job.

The book was like my escape. I read every story and related to each of them in some way or another. I started to write poetry for my girlfriend, jokes to do some stand up comedy to my friends, and songs for my new band once I got out. I started to realize that I had a choice as to how my life was going to go. I felt clearheaded for the first time in a long time. I knew that somehow I would be able to help others, just as this simple book was helping me. I was showing such progress and good behavior that I was going to be released six months early. My cellmate kept borrowing the book from me, so before I left I wrote a note on the back cover that said, “Don’t judge a book by the cover — read it, if it helps you let me know. Here’s my address. . .”

I am thirty-two years old now and I have a beautiful wife, two wonderful kids, a great family, and true friends. I have learned from my mistakes and I live a great life. Every once in a while I still get a letter from a kid in jail thanking me for leaving the book behind. As I walked out of that correctional facility many years ago the correctional officer told me “never look back or you’ll be back.” I took that advice seriously and have always looked ahead and appreciate that one-way ticket out of jail and trouble. I know that every day is a learning experience. We all make mistakes, but recognizing that once is a mistake and twice is a habit will help us to overcome any obstacle in life.

~Kevin Michael Nastu

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