By Miguel Quesada – The Beat Within
Seventeen years ago, at the age of 16, I sat in a juvenile hall holding cell waiting to be booked in on first-degree murder charges, three attempted murders, a gun and gang enhancement.
In writing this, I had to think about how I ended up in that holding cell. What advice could I give that would help you avoid some of the mistakes I made? How could I put into words the destruction I caused in so little time to myself and so many other people in a way that could be a lesson?
I asked myself, what went wrong? What did I miss? Why did no one stop me? What I realized is, people did try to stop me. Things did happen that were the lessons I needed to put my life back on track to avoid that holding cell. There was plenty of advice but I did not care to hear or see them for what they were. They were signs telling me to slow down, to stop, that I was moving too fast. So I will sum up my life lesson, using the signs I missed along the road.
Really, take street signs. We all know them. Their purpose is to get a driver safely from one place to another by avoiding the dangers of the road. Some signs tell us the speed limit, others indicate the potential obstacles like a cliff or railroad ahead with the most important being to STOP. If you do not respect the signs, you will eventually wreck hurting yourself and others, perhaps fatally. That was me. I drove my life recklessly, not caring about others or myself.
My lack of respect for signs began around 12 years old: I decided that I did not want to listen to my parents. What did they know anyway? At the time I thought I knew everything I needed to know to get by in life. I was my own person. When they told me to not be out late at night because something bad would happen to me, I would just say, “Yeah, whatever,” and do my thing. When nothing bad did happen, this led me to believe that I was right. I got the idea that I did not need to pay attention to the signs, and they applied to everyone else but me. My road to prison had begun.
Soon, I began to run the streets with my friends. All we did was go out, play football against other neighborhoods, and get in some fights. People would get jumped, so I decided to carry a little tiny knife for protection. After one fight, I was arrested and taken to the juvenile hall and did about a week for the knife. I thought I was cool; the hall was nothing. I was put on probation and did community service. This was a sign telling me to slow down, that I was moving way too fast, but I kept pushing.
At about 13 years old, I joined a gang. I thought it was the natural thing to do. All my friends were in one. I went from carrying a little knife to carrying a sawed-off one shot 16 gauge shotgun. I thought I was the hardest dude in my neighborhood. I am not even sure if the gun worked, but I felt respected and feared when I had it. When my homie was caught with it and went to juvenile hall for a year, instead of saying sorry to him or telling myself I should change my ways, I thought I got away with it and bought me a pistol. This would be another sign along the road that I missed. I was going to wreck but I could not see it.
By seventh grade, I had to go to probation school. By the ninth grade, I was a straight F student. I dropped out in the first weeks of high school.
Some of my friends were shot, others killed. Because it was not me, I thought I could go on moving at the same speed. After one fight, I was ran over and ended up in the hospital nearly paralyzed. The doctor who did the surgery on me said I was lucky to be alive and to get to walk again. I completely misread that sign because all I took from it is that I was invincible.
At fourteen, I had begun smoking weed, drinking, and using meth with my friends. Honestly, I never was into drugs but I did not want to be left out. Before I knew it I was hooked and my life became about getting high. One night after being awake for several days I overdosed while standing outside of liquor store at two a.m. I felt my body go cold, my eyes close and that it was it. Three days later I woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with my parents sitting at my side. Out of all the signs that was the most crucial that I should have listened to. Literally, this sign nearly stopped me dead in my tracks. Instead not even a year later, I was back using meth, drinking, and smoking weed. I was on the move. I missed another sign.
The last signs came in a rush. They were in the form of my parents, sisters, probation office, and teachers. From the age fourteen to sixteen that is all I heard from all of them: go to school, get good grades, you are going to end up in prison, you are going to end up dead. Stop hanging out with your friends. I responded to all of them in the same way I did to my parents back when I was twelve. I just said “yeah, whatever” and did my thing.
They all reached out to me seeing what I refused to see that I was on a road to nowhere, headed to a dead-end, somewhere that I did not want to go. They saw my speed of travel was way too fast, everyone had seen it but me. I was in a hurry to get to where I was going – that holding cell I found myself in 17 years ago at the age of 16.
My final sign was not on May 10, 1998, that day I sat in a juvenile hall holding cell. The final sign came as I stood in a courtroom in front of a judge and he sentenced me to serve a 45-year double-life sentence. The earliest possibility at parole would be in the year 2040. I would be sixty-one years old. No school teaches you to calculate that math. There was nothing to add up. My life was simply over. There were no signs left. The road had ended.
That is what I had to tell you about my life. Perhaps it is not good advice. Maybe you think that my life today could never be how yours may end up. I hope that it does not turn out this way for you. Maybe it can. Consider it. Think about this letter. Think about the things and people in your life that were trying to put you on that right track. These all may be your signs. These signs are telling you to slow down. They are telling you to stop, to look around you. That there are things coming your way that you do not want to get in front of. They are warning signs. They are telling you that that you are going to wreck and it is going to be bad.
After all these years, I believe that to have found myself in the holding cell was not bad luck; it was inevitable to the way I was living and the choices I was making. I missed many signs, ignored others, and simply sped through all. I crashed and burned. That is what happens when you do not respect the signs. Respect your signs. This is my advice.
Since 1996, The Beat Within has been leading weekly writing workshops inside juvenile hall and beyond. This story from Miguel Quesada, a juvenile lifer, was submitted after The Beat’s initial writing workshop at San Quentin State Prison with juvenile lifers, known as KidCAT.