Change Yourself and Change the World

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All of us during our lives as children, adolescents and eventually adults need some encouragement. As the individuals we are, we tend to learn differently, have different perspectives and take risks on different levels. For those like myself, words of encouragement were really needed in my life to fulfill my true potential in the activities that I engaged in.

Always being in juvenile hall and camps as a kid I did receive a lot of encouragement to break out of my shell and try to think differently. It took a long time for me to grow, but I hope for you it comes quick.

Knowing that many of you in detention centers may possibly hear or read these words gives me the feeling of talking to myself when I was a kid. Many thoughts enter my mind: What would I tell myself? What have I learned since? What has impacted me? Was it worth it?

Regardless what your ethnicity is, I was you in juvenile hall, I was you in camp, I was you possibly going to the California Youth Authority, and I was you charged as an adult.

Now here I am in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile, 16 years and still on a level four [prison] yard with more to go, but I’ve turned my negative into a positive and if you allow me a few moments of your time [I’ll] share a very serendipitous moment of my life.

Growing up I was always reserved and was never the attention seeker or class clown, but like all of us I did crave attention and acceptance. Unfortunately because of this I missed out on a lot of activities, fun and possible friendships I could have made. Eventually the activities that my friends and I engaged in helped me break out of my shell because of their encouragement to go for what I wanted. Their reasoning was that since in my mind I already felt that the answer would be no or that I would fail, then how much more could it hurt if I actually tried and got a no or failed? But what if I did not fail or get a no?

Applying this approach to my studies, situations or attempts of success only helped me gain self-esteem and confidence, especially when I received a yes or I achieved my task. Never sell yourself short. I never did again.

Many would think that being 17 years old and given a sentence of 69 years to life for attempted murder that I would hate life, be angry, depressed and completely heartless. Well, in the beginning, I was all of those things. I was never getting out; unless I made it go, I was going to die in prison. My mother would pass away while I was in here, maybe my sisters as well.

Until I began my journey of discovering myself, of growing up and coping with my situation. I did this by playing sports, exercising and reading books. I found ways to get out of here and find interests in something.

While I was doing this, my family was out in the community working, going to school, living their lives and my three sisters were getting older; so was my mother. Couple more years pass by and letters aren’t really coming in anymore, I’m getting fed up with being in prison and my sisters are in junior high messing up. Here is when my journey really came into bloom.

Unfortunately, I robbed myself of being a big brother to my sisters, I robbed myself of being there to support them and I deprived them of a positive role model. I was fortunate enough to be eligible to enroll in college courses offered at New Folsom Prison. That is level four 180 design [the highest security level in California], so just being offered something to do was a blessing. There was so much going on at that time, it was hard to focus on anything, let alone something positive.

When I started my first college course, counseling, I liked it. It was nothing like junior high or high school, I really cared about what I felt, what the information meant to me and that my opinion not only mattered, but was essential.

Around this time, my sisters began to do bad in school: Their grades were not so good, not doing homework, don’t want to go, stressed; you know, all the growing pains we all have. New friends, new school, new adventure and an entire new outlook of life. I was a teen before the whole world changes when we discover relationships, parties, drugs, alcohol and everything else that comes with.

When I would speak with my mother I would share all that I had learned and how so much that she taught me was now completely realized. I would constantly share my discoveries with my sisters, life lessons only now seen. I began to really feel bad for all the pain I had caused my mother after finally seeing the bigger picture of life. Just like when I realized there is more to life than school; well, there is more to life than gang banging, drugs, money and girls.

I would have great conversations with my mother and other adults about current events, life and the impact of crime against myself and my family, and the victims. I became another adult nagging at my sisters, writing them every time I had an “aha” moment that I attached to a life experience. I did the best I could through communication and example and it paid off.

Many of my friends were proud of me for taking initiative to better myself. My girl was proud, my cousins, ex-girlfriends and friends. My words and thoughts expressed not only were accepted completely by my sisters, but were put in use. My sisters picked up their grades, they love school and are interested in college; some of my childhood friends went back to school to earn their GEDs, and some went on to learn new skills for a better job. One friend of mine became a teacher!

The sole motivation was “Now if he is in prison and doing this, then I should too.” Many people saw me in a different light. I saw myself differently. Many came to me for help on how to start their own higher education journey. This accomplishment of earning my AA degree changed my life and those around me.

As I speak to you, I am speaking to my 13-, 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-old self. I was you. I was immature, the hood was my world, my friends were my world. I grew up in Sylmar Juvenile Hall, Central Juvenile Hall, camps McNair, Gonzalez, Munz and Mendenhall in Los Angeles County.

Sadly, I would only last 30 days out before I went back in. I missed out on life, experiences and most importantly my family.

No matter how young or old you are, you can always find and learn new life lessons. Let my mistakes be yours, learn from my mistakes and improve your life. Start with one small goal, like I will read a book and do a book report on it, I will learn algebra and do my best at it or I will do 50 push-ups straight.

Then go to your next goal. Never be afraid to fail, because if you do fail it’s still a win. It’s still a win because you have learned something about yourself so the next time around, you got some experience.

You never know whom you will inspire, whose lives you can enrich by one action. Imagine accomplishing a goal for yourself and in turn you caused five others to accomplish something they never would have done. Be positive, change yourself, change the world.

Michael Arreygue is serving a sentence of 69 years to life in Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California, for attempted murder.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio 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.

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