What Do You Want to Be?


Warning: What you are about to hear I wish on no one. That is why I am writing you this letter.

Now, close your eyes and imagine this: You’re 14 years old and just graduated from the eighth grade, summer is here and you cannot wait for your final summer vacation before high school begins. Your future is so bright; your vision is not yet clear on who or what you want to be; maybe a teacher, fireman, professional athlete, computer technician or an engineer.

Then you wake up one morning and there are cops at your front door calling out your name and saying, “You are under arrest for murder.”

“No! Not me!” is all you kept saying as they walk you to the cop car. You can feel the cold handcuffs squeezing tighter.

You see your parents and your siblings crying, not knowing what is to happen with you. One bad decision and your life is crushed. How can this be happening to me?

One year in Juvenile Hall and another in the county jail fighting the case. Then, “Bam,” the hammer drops: 25 years to life in prison is your sentence. You are so numb and shocked it is difficult to accept the reality that lies ahead for you.

Even though you were just a teenager, they still send you to a Level Four adult prison. Now, keep in mind that you stand 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh “a buck nothing.” Seeing so much violence in prison, the vicious things you see every day, scare you to your bone, you can’t sleep with chill running to your dome. Crying for your mom and missing home.

Now, open your eyes. Could this be you? Really, think about it, could it be you?

This is a true story about my life. At 14 I thought hanging out with my so-called friends and my now ex-girlfriend was all that mattered.

I always thought I knew it all and had everything under control. I thought I was the one making the decisions in my life. Only to find out it was only half-true. Yes, it was my decision to make, but most of my decisions were based on a distorted belief of what I thought I had to do or who I had to be.

I was a follower and made decisions based on my insecurities because I wanted to be accepted by my peers. I wanted to be respected, and I wanted to be thought of as a cool guy who could be trusted, relied upon. That belief got me into a lot of trouble and made my life miserable.

I didn’t care about whom I hurt or anyone’s feelings. All I cared about was myself, and this false self-image that I had of myself. I didn’t care about any consequences or what I was doing to my community.

Nineteen-plus years later and 34 years of age, where are those friends now? They do not ever write, let alone visit me.

Guess who writes and visits me? My family and my elementary school teachers; the ones whom I never listened to before. Yeah, you heard me right, my third- and sixth-grade teachers still write. They are my true friends!

Even though I did not pull the trigger, in the eyes of the justice system I am just as guilty: “guilty by association.”

What does a true friend mean to you? Here is what it means to me now: someone who has my back, and I don’t mean have my back when I get into a fight. By having my back I mean being there when a situation like a fight is about to happen; but before it happens pulls me to the side, tells me it’s not worth it and takes me away from the situation.

I wish I had listened to those friends in my life. Instead, I chose the friends who thought fighting was the right thing to do. Look at me now! Not knowing if I will ever see home again. I was sacrificing today for tomorrow.

What are your dreams, goals and vision? Most important, what do you want to be? The choice is yours and only yours to make.

Pao Yang is serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder at the adult Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California.

This column appeared in The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.