100 Years: A Journey to End a Vicious Cycle, Chapter I, Copyright © 2015, Mark L Baynard, http://www.journey100years.com
One Hundred Years
As I looked at my reflection, I quickly began to see my own faults. I was not satisfied with the state of my life, and I believed that I had the power to make it better. I believed that making more responsible decisions would lead to a better outcome. During this process, I realized that it was necessary for me to take a very honest look at who I was, and why I did the things that I did. I began taking a closer look at myself, and identifying the mistakes that I had made. I had wasted a lot of time in prison, and I thought about my other family members who had also been, or currently were, in prison. When I looked at my situation as it related to my family, I immediately saw that there was a pattern. That day, as I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I made the decision to change the bad example I had been setting for others around me. I knew that I could have been a much better role model to my younger brother, as well as to my young cousins. Today was the day I would change.
I usually felt a lot of different emotions after leaving the probation office, and often chose to disregard them. This particular day, however, I could not ignore these feelings any longer, and I decided to use them as motivation to remain focused on being free, and leading life as a productive participant in society. I thought about all of my various family members who had been to, or were in, prison: my dad, my younger brother, and many of my cousins. Once home, I got a piece of paper and wrote my name, and everyone else’s names, in a list; beside each name, I marked the time served in prison. I absentmindedly neglected to include several of my uncles, nephews, and other cousins in this list, but when I started tallying up the totals, the number quickly reached one hundred years.
For quite a while, I kept this finding to myself, shut away in my heart and mind; I knew the calculations were significant, but I really did not know what to do with this information. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that I had to share my findings with someone. One day while visiting dad at his place of business, I mentioned the numbers. At first, he looked at me as if I was exaggerating, but when I grabbed a piece of paper and showed him the numbers, he agreed and kind of put his head down in disbelief. In that moment, we both understood that we can’t cry over spilled milk, and we can’t change the things that have happened in the past. We also understood, however, the importance of starting the process of necessary change within our family; if we did not initiate such change, this number would only continue to increase. Our conversation was the catalyst for my decision to use the information I had discovered to inform others of my own mistakes, and hopefully motivate my family, and other local individuals, to break the cycle. Initially, writing a book about my findings was not something I considered, but before long, I realized that doing so was very necessary.
My past is not something that I am proud of, at all, and looking back at my life can be a difficult thing for me to do. Once my eyes were finally opened to the curse of this vicious cycle, I had a number of different feelings. I consider myself to be a strong person, but I will admit that I felt very weak and helpless during this time; my feelings went from one end of the spectrum to the other, and my heart was full of questions of how and why this destructive cycle was allowed to happen. I felt a sense of disappointment and disgust, and a great deal of guilt for the heavy contributions that I made to this reality.
During this phase of self-examination, I began to see how and when my life had begun to take drastic changes for the worse. Looking back, I saw where and how I had started looking at my life differently, and when my dreams and desires had begun to change. I realized I had given up on wanting to be a doctor, lawyer, fire fighter, or a police officer very early in life. I recalled, however, that even though I gave up on certain childhood goals, I had always known, albeit subconsciously, that I did not want to live poor and struggle for the rest of my life. I was reminded of how my mother struggled to raise us, and I did not want to experience that in my own life. I reminisced over my struggle with making money, and of taking unnecessary risks with my own life. As I continued to evaluate the realities of my past, I clearly saw just how these struggles and risks had led me to prison. I wasted a lot of time in the prison system, and now, as I reflected over the events that had taken place in my life, I was able to see how and why I needed to help others realize the consequences of taking the wrong route in life.
I spent my teenage years walking around in complete darkness. I did what I wanted to do, without considering the thoughts or feelings of others. I did not take seriously the consequences of my actions, and this behavior eventually led me down a path of destruction. I was bound for a dreadful end, based on the decisions I was in the habit of making. The end result of drugs and street life are prisons, institutions and death, and, for better or worse, I know this more than most. I can remember telling myself, as a young teenage male, that “I could accept responsibility for my wrongs even if they led me to prison,” or that “If I returned to prison, I will serve double digit numbers.” But while I knew that I could handle prison and that I was willing to accept the consequences of my actions, I did not consider the ways in which my poor decisions would affect my family. When we go to prison, we ultimately take our loved ones with us; they will have to make adjustments in order to continue a relationship with us, such as taking the time to visit, or to write letters. As well, there were many younger individuals within the housing projects that I grew up in to whom my actions were regrettably poor examples and influences.
Taking time to evaluate the realities of our lives often brings us back to our childhood, that place where life as we know it began. As far back as I can remember, I lived with my dad and step-mother, and stayed with my grandmother, on my dad’s side of the family, on frequent occasions. I have many good memories of staying with my grandmother in the state of Alabama; I remember being around my aunts and uncles and wanting to go to school with them, walking on dirt roads, and just being a kid. My grandmother had an outhouse outside her home; it was a dark and very scary place, and on top of that, it stank! Many years later, I was very happy when my grandmother had a regular bathroom built inside of her house; I knew that I did not want to use another outhouse ever again!
When I was five years old, I lived with my dad, my step-mother, my brother, and sister, in Spain. This was my family, and I did not know anything different; I was lucky and happy to be raised by such a nurturing family. Soon after, my dad took me to the state of Delaware on the pretense of visiting other family members. My dad was in the military, and we did a lot of traveling; it was normal for us to travel to different places and visit family and friends. I quickly found out, however, that this trip was not just another vacation, and I could not have anticipated the changes that this trip was going to have on my life.
From my earliest memory, I thought that my step-mother was my biological mother. (I am using the nouns of step-mother and biological mother in this memoir for the purpose of differentiation; I greatly appreciate the job they both did in acting as a mother figure in my life, and I hold them both in high esteem.) During the time that I lived with my step-mother, she raised me as her own son, and I have nothing but admiration for her. On this particular day, we arrived in Delaware at a house that I was not familiar with; later I learned that this house belonged to my grandmother on my mother’s side of the family. Everyone was really nice to me, and I received the normal compliments of, “You got so big!” There were a lot of people there that I did not know, but I managed to find other children to play with while the adults conversed throughout the house.
My memory of everything that happened that particular day is a bit unclear, but I distinctly remember being called into the living room at some point. There was a lady I had never seen before, sitting quietly off to one side as I entered the room and sat down; there were several other women standing around the room, or sitting on various pieces of furniture. Then, one particular woman stood up, looked at me, and said, “This is not your mother,” as she pointed at my step-mother. This visibly shocked me; life as I knew it had changed, I had believed that my step-mother was my mother, and now I was being told differently. The woman then pointed to the lady who was sitting quietly and said to me “This lady here is your real mother.” At that point I was very surprised, and kind of confused; I did not know what to think or even how to feel. She then asked me, “Who do you want to live with?”
Don’t ask me why, but I pointed to the quiet lady. I guess being told that she was my real mother is what made me want to live with her, to get to know her. I do not know why I made the decision I did, or even why I was asked; I was only five-years-old, and these were things that adults handled, not children. I do know, however, that I am very glad that I made the decision that I made. Later, I learned the rest of the story; according to my mother and other relatives, my dad wasn’t happy about the whole situation because he felt that they had taken me from him. He fervently expressed his disagreement to them, but later gave in to my wish. My mother was such a nice lady and later that day we walked several blocks to where she lived. I met my brother and sisters that day, and my mother showed me pictures of us being together before I went to live with my dad. I got along really well with my brother and sisters; I was accepted by them, and we had a lot of fun together. I came to know a very loving and caring woman who put her family before herself, a woman that is my biological mother. She taught me much about life; I learned a lot of good things, and useful information, from my mother, and I watched her exemplify what a good woman really is. She was not perfect, and she faced a number of challenges throughout her life, but throughout it all, she stood strong and worked hard. Many times she put her life on hold in order to take care of her five children. She was a very hard worker and came home tired almost every night, only to wake up the very next day ready to do it all again.
I had the same love and respect for my biological mother that I had for my step-mother, and years later, I still have a very good relationship with both of them. It felt good to re-connect with my mother, even though I did not remember her from birth. My brother was one year older than myself, and my mother told my brother to take me with him when he went places. Sometimes he would go to the park to play, sometimes we would go other places together where we would play and have fun. Sometimes, however, he did not want to be with bothered with me, and he would run away and leave me on my own. My older brother remembered when we used to live together previously, and he told me plenty of stories. I enjoyed hearing these stories, and was eager to make a connection with the life that I had before going to live with my dad. We began making new memories each day; my mother was very instrumental in encouraging us to do things together, and with her. I learned nursery school songs, word games (start with a word and continue until you run out of words that rhyme with it), and the name song, where you rhymed your name with other words. My mother was very active in our lives, and she spoke to us about a lot of different things, frequently checking to see that we were alright.
My mother was happy to have me back with her, and was hesitant to allow me to visit my dad’s; she feared that he would not send me back after my visit, and declared that she would not allow that to happen. Despite the fact that my dad was initially unhappy concerning the situations that led to me living in Delaware with my mother, he decided to reach out to her in an effort to convince her to allow me to visit him. He said that he would send me back, but my mother denied his requests with a simple “No.” For a few years, he let the issue alone before asking if I could come and stay with him during the summer time, or during the Christmas holidays. My mother remained hesitant, but ultimately, my Uncle Mokeem was very instrumental in convincing my mother to allow me to visit my dad. He vowed to my mother that he would ensure my safe return to her if she would allow me to visit my dad’s; my uncle saw the importance of maintaining a relationship with both my parents. My Uncle Mokeem is my dad’s brother, and he drove me down to Alabama to visit my dad and other family from the south. I enjoyed living with my mom, but I really did want to see my dad again; I had a lot of good memories of when I lived with my dad, even if he was a very strict disciplinarian. I always got in trouble whenever he got home from work; once he even punished me for having difficulty learning how to spell my last name. But I still wanted to see him.
My dad lived in Montgomery, Alabama, the capitol city. At the time, I did not realize or appreciate the rich history that existed or the significant role Montgomery played in the Civil Rights Movement. During the 1960s, the famous year-long bus boycott took place, Martin Luther King, Jr., pastored one of the local churches, and it was the destination of the famous march from Selma. During the 1970s, there was a low key element of criminal activity. When we started our drive south, I attempted to stay awake as long as I could but soon fell asleep. It seemed to take forever; I must have asked my uncle countless times, “Are we there yet?” Every time he stopped for gas, I woke up thinking that we had gotten to Alabama.
When we finally arrived at my dad’s house I was embraced and accepted by everyone, and I was just as excited to see them as they were to see me. My dad took me to visit a lot of other family members who lived nearby. Some of them I did not remember, and often I would be asked the question, “Do you remember so-and-so?” I was reunited with my brother and sisters on my dad’s side of my family, and we had a lot to talk about and many things to catch up on. My step-mother appeared to be very happy to see me also, and my dad gave her the money to take me shopping for clothes.
During this visit and the ones that followed, my dad took me to my grandmother’s house out in the country. There were a lot of dirt roads near her house, and she had chickens and hogs, and grew vegetables. My grandmother, as well as my aunts and uncles, always maintained an old school approach to life and a belief in the implementation of “tough love.” Any of the adults were responsible for, and could discipline, any of the children. I always learned a lot of good things from my grandmother, even though I was not able to internalize some of those lessons until later in life. Many years later, while sitting in prison, some of her lessons and messages would randomly come to mind, and the truth of her wisdom always hit home. My grandmother’s words have inspired me to become a better individual. I learned to make do with the things I have. An example of how they made do is a “black and white” picture of me. The picture is of me standing in front of a sheet that was hanging on a clothes line and used for the purpose of a background. I was around four or five years old at the time, but the picture came out badly because of the funny look on my face; I am very glad that it is not shown in this book!
While I really enjoyed being able to visit my dad and the rest of my family in the south, the time to return home came pretty quickly and I left again with my uncle. It felt sad to leave, and I may have shed a tear or two when it was time to go. After my safe return to Delaware, my mother was confident that my dad would send me back whenever I went to visit him, and it soon became normal for me to visit my dad each year. On one of my visits, I discovered the truth behind his lifestyle: my dad was involved in the drug trade. While I didn’t know the extent to which he was involved, I chose to disregard the severity of this truth. My dad was probably my first real-life hero, and I held him in very high esteem.
In a way, I wanted to be like him and possess the strengths that I noticed he had. I was impressed with how strong he was as an individual, and by the fact that he did not take any mess from anyone. Despite the lifestyle that I now know he lived, he didn’t openly promote any of the negative behavior associated with such activities to his children. His method of teaching probably came from the idea, “Do what I say and not what I do.” My dad did his best not to expose his children to the life which he lived, but seeing as I was a very inquisitive child, I quickly began to notice certain things.
My life started out pretty good, but eventually it began to take a gradual slide backward toward the dark side. As I entered my teenage years, I began making my own decisions, some of which were not good. I initially had a good perspective of life, and I was considered a smart child; soon, however, I began to decline in my academics and teachers started sending home notes about the fact that I was having difficulty paying attention in class. I became involved in delinquent behavior instead of working hard at a job or other productive project. I slowly began to transition from a smart young boy into a lazy, irresponsible young adult. It can sometimes take only a minute to get into trouble and a lifetime to get out of trouble and I fell into a habit of finding those crucial moments. Within a mere couple years, I unknowingly followed dad down the wrong path. I developed a sense of low self-esteem, and I did not feel good about myself at all. I had no idea of who I was, as a person, or what I wanted to do in life. Despite the goodness around me, I felt very empty deep inside my heart. This emptiness begged me to find something, anything, to fill that void.
Whose Problem Is It?
I can’t blame any one person for the vicious cycle that I was born into; while we all individually made poor decisions, I am the only one to blame for my participation in it and for the choices that I myself made. We all had a choice to do something other than the wrongs which we did. I made poor decisions; my dad made poor decisions, my younger brother made poor decisions, and a few of my cousins made poor decisions. I also have uncles who made poor decisions throughout their lives. Each of us faced a variety of challenges in our lives, but facing challenges was never, and will never, be the problem; everyone on this journey of life has a very high chance of facing challenges. The problem, then, lies in how we each respond to those challenges. The common denominator within my family, the common response to life’s challenges, was making poor decisions. Some of our intentions may have been good, in a way; I can say that my intention was based merely on wanting to make things better for myself, to be able to buy new clothes, to take better care of myself and be able to help others. Regardless of what our intentions might have been, however, our individual actions eventually led us to a common place, and that common place was prison.
When I entered my teen years, I found myself overwhelmed with a variety of negative feelings which included low self-worth, lack of confidence, and a lack of faith in both whom I was and who I could become. I attempted to minimize these feelings by self-medicating. I did not like the person that I was or the financial situation my mother was in. I knew that I didn’t want to be poor for the rest of my life, but I did not realize that I was making matters worse by allowing the negative feelings to take control. Metaphorically, I guess that I was attempting to ease the pain by punching the sore. I had become very frustrated and angry about my own life, and I eventually decided to get involved with the drug trade as an avenue to earn money; my dad was a drug dealer, and he had plenty of money. As well, the thought that I was bucking against a system through which I seemingly did not have any opportunities to succeed gave me a sense of empowerment.
While I now realize that my perception was flawed, the reality was that my young heart was full of hurt and pain, and I did not like the person that I saw when I looked in the mirror. I chose to accept a number of lies about whom and what I could become, and I began medicating my problems with drugs, and sometimes alcohol. Very quickly I realized that once I was sober, the problems were still there, and that I then had to get high again in order to minimize the pain; I got sober again, and the problem reappeared. Each day, this process was repeated, but I soon found that getting high and living the life which I was living was not my only problem. There were other deeper issues also going on for me, my younger brother, my cousins, and some of the guys that I grew up with in the housing projects. We each had our own issues to deal with, and we each made our individual choices in response, many of which ultimately led us to prison. It was like there was a carrot dangling in front of our faces which distracted us from the big picture; the big picture shows us the destruction behind the glamour, and the damage which we were causing, or would cause, within our own communities.
The vicious cycle within my family was similar to the reality for many of those within the housing projects in which I was raised. Many of my close friends were sent to prison, as were their family members—dads, sons, grandsons, brothers, and cousins serving a variety of sentences—and this was considered normal. Sometimes families hated each other, and fought against each other as enemies; I never experienced this in my own family, but the ramifications of my actions on those around me are as damaging as if I’d chased them down with a loaded gun. We have all heard the statement, “One bad apple can spoil a bunch,” and I am here to admit that I have been a bad apple on many occasions. My decision to get involved in the drug trade forced me to mislead others; many of my poor decisions affected both my own life, and the lives of those around me. My younger brother has been to prison on more than one occasion, and while I am not sure whether this was directly or indirectly related to my behavior, I do know that I could have done a better job as a big brother.
Some may argue that the dynamics within low income housing projects like those in which I lived, namely the economic status, social status, and limited educational opportunities, are the underlying causes of these realities. While I believe and understand that there are correlations between these factors, I also hold fast to the idea that individuals aren’t born to behave in such ways. There are two questions you may want to ask those of us who grew up in the aforementioned communities, first: “How can a person throw away their own life for a place such as prison?” and, second: “How can a family throw away their own generation to a place such as prison?” Someone looking in from the outside might say, “The family should be able to wake up, and just stop doing wrong.”
As someone who was raised in various housing projects, I can tell you that to simply “stop doing wrong” is often not that easy a thing for a family to do. It is crucial to understand that the vicious cycle was initiated by a particular act at a particular time in the past, and each additional act only contributes to that cycle.
The ability of most parents to effectively guide their children and steer them around the many arrows that sit and wait for them is, the majority of the time, nearly impossible. Ninety-five percent of the families in our housing projects were headed by single mothers; many of these single women did a great job raising children in the absence of fathers and worked very hard. Some held two or three jobs in order to sufficiently provide. This meant that, while the mothers were out working, the children were left to hang out with friends, learning both good and bad habits and behaviors from one another. In many cases, the habits and behaviors learned were not conducive to becoming a productive human being.
In addition to such external influences as the absent dad epidemic, there are internal factors that also contribute to the vicious cycle. There were many occasions, I found myself holding on to the hope that something good or better was just around the corner. When things didn’t go how I expected them to, I often became discouraged. At an early age, my hope began to diminish. While there are a few who become lazy and expect others to give them what they want, I quickly decided to take what I wanted on my own, at any cost. I wanted money, and I would sell drugs to get it. Negative pressures from media and social networks often portray this mindset, and I, along with many of those around me, bought in to it.
The prospect of getting what I wanted correlated well with the sense of low self-esteem that plagued my community. I knew that many of the teenagers and young children in my neighborhood also experienced these feelings, and I would learn many years later that a lack of love for one’s self is often closely connected with poor decision making. Selling drugs in the streets is actually putting one’s life on the line, and this makes it very easy for us to hate one another, in addition to ourselves. The absence of good formal education further pushed us to doubt our ability to succeed outside of street life. Few educational opportunities resulted in a lack of a GED or high school diploma, pursuit of a vocational trade, and marketable employment skills necessary within the competitive job market; what remained was a ubiquitous sense of discouragement and worthlessness. I thought with such a mindset, and I did not believe in my potential to succeed via the “American way.” While I respected others and did not bother anyone who did not bother me, I was angry and bitter, and had many thoughts of dissatisfaction running through my mind. I viewed drug dealing as the only way possible to get what I wanted; I envisioned myself becoming a successful drugs dealer who would retire rich; the reality, however, is that the odds of making it in the drug game are low.
After making the decision to become a drug dealer, things didn’t change in the ways I expected. My dissatisfaction with life drove me to turn to drugs for my survival; my perceptions of myself, as well as of the world around me, were the determining factors in my decision-making process. I would learn later, however, that my perception of life at this time was wrong. I didn’t realize that what I wanted and deserved in my life could not be found in drug dealing, and my decision began to add to the vicious cycle, or curse, within my family and community. I viewed being a drug dealer as a positive change to my life; I saw that my dad was successful, and there were many others in the game who lived attractive lives. I disregarded the realities of certain negative personal experiences, and was accepting of the truths of life on the streets. The reality is that everyone is not promised to come out alive, and many times those who did come out of bad situations were beat and banged up, both mentally and/or physically. I gained many permanent scars during this time, both emotional and physical, but I foolishly saw these things not as a sign that I was making poor choices, but merely as familiar components of being a drug dealer.
My family life was filled with many different dynamics. Though my family was blended, I had, and still maintain, a good relationship with both sides of my family, my mother’s and my father’s. As with any family unit, there were many situations that various members experienced that were good, bad, and ugly. While I understand that this is common, I think it is necessary to highlight the fact that we each responded to these types of situations differently. Within my family, there were many of us who did not do a good job when it came to dealing with bad, poor, and even some good, situations.
An average family may be able to outline a number of accomplishments within their unit, as well as failures they have experienced. From my earliest memories, there were a number of good things I enjoyed and celebrated about my family and I was thankful for the family that I was born into. There are also components of my family that I am not necessarily proud of; I guess that these could be categorized as failures. During my teens, I stepped in stride with the cyclical mistakes of my family; I came of age by joining various family members on the streets. Yes, I made my own decisions and lived with my mistakes, but collectively, my family consistently found themselves in trouble with the law. If it wasn’t one family member it was another, and I played a major role in contributing to this reality. I did not see my actions as negative, but merely an acceptable response to the realities around me.
While my mother spoke shamefully of street activity and participation, the majority of those around me seemed to ignore, or even disbelieve, the idea that practicing criminal behavior would continue to set us back and further contribute to the increase in incarceration, homicide, and other crime rates. This life in my community and neighborhood was simply accepted. As a young teenage boy, I was oblivious to the importance of “waking up” to the many traps that existed around me, namely, the means by which I chose to escape from the reality of life in low income housing projects.
Check out books by Author, Mark L Baynard “100 Years: A Journey to End a Vicious Cycle” and “These Are Your Flowers” available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00TLXK5L6