Coming of Age American High School

“What the fuck do you want?”

The question Jimmy’s brother asked was straightforward. The answer, however, was not. 

“My teacher—you see—my teacher, she gave us an assignment. I'm supposed to write a letter or something like that,” Jimmy replied, rambling while trying to maintain his composure. “And I thought you…”

“Get the fuck out of here, you piece of shit. I don’t care about your fucking teacher or your goddamn assignment.”

Jimmy had thought his commonality with Jamaal would be an asset but, in an instant, he started doubting the choice. The two brothers had almost identical origin stories. Both had attended Jefferson high school. Both played on the varsity football team, and Jimmy had quickly become one of Ms. Silverman’s favorite students—just like Jamaal had been ten years earlier. Jimmy faithfully did his homework and listened to his mother, but so had Jamaal and yet later, Jimmy’s older brother had joined a gang, killed a man, and was now rotting in the state penitentiary. 

As a youth, like most younger brothers, Jimmy had thousands of questions and, no matter what, Jamaal always had time to answer. It was a child’s memory that had brought Jimmy to Jamaal but the adult reality was far different. Walking into the prison had made Jimmy uncomfortable, being guided to the visitors room even more so, but seeing what had become of Jamaal was almost unbearable. With every fiber of his being, Jimmy wanted to hang up the phone and walk out the same door he had walked in, but for some reason he stayed.

   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   

Ms. Silverman had given the class an assignment. She had been teaching Creative Writing and made a point to tie all work to a useful skill the students might need in the future.

“Creative writing,” she had said at the beginning of class, “is the gateway to polite society. Whether it be a resume, a project proposal, or even a letter, your writing will become your way of introducing yourself and overcoming a world prone to prejudicial misconceptions.” 

The rest of the class descended into discussions about Instagram posts, Discord chat rooms, and greeting card notes, but the students were engaged. 

“I want everyone to write a letter to themselves,” she said, just before the bell rang. “It can either be to your ten year younger self or to your ten year older self.

“Why?” Jimmy asked.

“Because today is just a snapshot in time,” Ms. Silverman answered. “The journey is what’s important. How did you get to this moment? What does today tell you about tomorrow? It’s about time you knuckleheads thought about more than what you’re going to do this weekend.”

Ms. Silverman always called her students knuckleheads but she didn’t mean it, and her students knew it. They would talk shit about Mr. Briscoe in gym class and comment on how fine Ms. Gardner looked in her tight sweater, but no one disrespected Ms. Silverman. 

“Ms. Silverman, do you have a few minutes?”

“Of course, Jimmy. What can I do for you?”

“I don’t like the assignment,” Jimmy began. “It isn’t real. I can’t change the past or predict the future.

“It could help improve your writing, Jimmy. You have so much potential. Just like—” Ms. Silverman paused mid-sentence. “I tell you what. Make me a better offer. What would you like to write?”

“I want to write a letter from my ten-year-older self to myself today.

“Advice to you, from you?”

”Exactly, would that be okay?”

“That’s a fantastic idea, Jimmy. I wish I had thought of it myself.”

“I could go see Jamaal,” Jimmy said, as he stood to leave.


“Yeah, he was just like me. Maybe I won’t. I don’t know. Thanks for your time, Ms. S. I’ll see you on Monday.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   

“Three questions,” Jamaal said, holding up the appropriate fingers on his right hand. “Then you get the fuck out of here and don’t ever come back.” 

What am I doing here? Jimmy thought to himself as he tried to figure out which three questions to ask his brother. Jamaal looked nothing like what Jimmy remembered. He had a prison tattoo on his neck and the letters K.I.L.L. inked just below the knuckles on his right hand. I’m so many ways Jamaal seemed to be the last person to go to for advice but Jimmy was going to try anyway.

“What would you do differently if you had the chance?” Jimmy asked, finding his voice.

“I wouldn’t get caught,” Jamaal answered with a grin, “What the fuck kind of question is that? What do you want me to say? I wouldn’t have killed that fucker? He had it coming. When you’re in a gang, little brother, it’s about respect. That piece of shit flipped me off—so I shot him.” Jamaal leaned back in his chair, made a gun with his thumb and finger, and pretended to pull the trigger. “That’s one.”

“That’s what you regret? Getting caught?” Jimmy asked, horrified by the answer. “You wouldn’t change anything else?”

“Well, fuck yeah I would,” Jamaal answered, making a fist and flexing his biceps. “I would have lifted more weights and come in here stronger. There are two types of motherfuckers in prison: those who get their dicks sucked and those who suck dick. If you don’t want to be a cocksucker, get strong. It’s better to have a bitch than to be one, know what I’m sayin’??” Jamaal sat back in his chair and clicked his tongue. “That’s two.”

“So I have no hope?”

“Hope? Fuck no. You’re black, poor, and stupid.”

“I’m not stupid. You weren’t either!”

“Shut the fuck up, bitch. You want advice? Join a fucking gang. Get strong because I’m your future.”


“But nothing. That’s three,” Jamaal said as he hung up the phone and stood up. “Guard! Get me the fuck out of here. This pussy is pissing me off.”

   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   

“Did you see your brother?” Ms. Silverman asked Jimmy as he turned in his letter.

“Yes. He told me I didn’t have many choices.”

“Oh no, Jimmy, I hope he didn’t…”

“It’s okay, Ms. Silverman, he helped me a lot. I couldn’t have written this letter without him,” Jimmy said, handing Ms. Silverman an envelope. On the outside in block letters, it simply read: “To Jimmy, from Jimmy.” 

Ms. Silverman pulled out the letter, adjusted her glasses and began to read. 

“You wrote this?” Ms. Silverman asked.

“Yes, why?”

“You’re seventeen.” Ms. Silverman looked back at the letter.

“I know, but it’s supposed to be from me in ten years.”

“Would you read it to the class?”

“I can’t.”

“The person who wrote this letter can,” Ms. Silverman assured him with her trademark smile and wink.

“Okay.” Jimmy said, relenting and taking the letter back from Ms. Silverman.

“Class, a few of you have been asked to share your letters with the class. I’d like Jimmy to go first.” 

Jimmy cleared his throat and began. 

Dear Jimmy,

As I thought about what advice I’d give you, I kept coming back to one basic fact: I don’t exist, not yet. No future is set by circumstance, no outcome is preordained. You will create me with every decision you make for the next ten years. You will determine our character, our personality, our ideas, our dreams, and our future. I think it’s also important to understand that it’s not just the choices we make but also the ones we don’t. But it will take courage. The kind of courage to stand up to peer pressure, to defy low expectations, to see the path that diverges in the woods and take the road less traveled. I guess what it really comes down to is who do you want us to be? Figure that out because the answer to that question will guide all the choices you make. You get to decide. When you do, your path, your choices, and your future will be clear. I am here waiting. I’ll see you in ten years.


Finished with the letter, Jimmy looked up and around the room. All he heard was collective silence and all he felt was unexpected hope.

May 20, 2022 19:48

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Shea West
18:08 May 28, 2022

Thom! One thing I can expect from you every single week is consistency. The ability to produce a story that is strong in character and rich in tone, EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK. That is no easy feat! I hope you know what a talent you have in that respect. Second--I love cussing, so much. Whoever said that cussing is sign that someone is uneducated or lazy in in speech is incorrect! I think there are times and places for it and within your story you executed the delivery of the dialogue with the brothers so well! The teacher was lovely, as I thi...


Thom Brodkin
00:43 May 29, 2022

I think I’m going to print this response and keep it in my wallet so every time I don’t feel like writing I can pull it out and read it. It’s one of the nicest most encouraging comments I’ve ever received. Thank you so much.


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Rebecca Miles
15:13 May 24, 2022

I'm an old sentimentalist and a complete sucker for a hopeful ending too. I thought the different registers worked really well in the dialogue and if this is outside your comfort zone (I might be presuming wrong- the aggressive character whose every other word is an expletive or insult?) you handled it with aplomb.


Thom Brodkin
16:53 May 24, 2022

Rebecca, you have no idea how encouraging your feedback is. I don't often try to stretch outside my comfort zone and when I do I usually regret it but this was so affirming. Thanks for not only reading my story but for taking the time to encourage another writer. It is so sweet.


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Maggie Gibbs
00:31 May 23, 2022

I could sing your praises all day. I love your stories… although… when did you change your handle?! Apparently I’ve missed a few things while I’ve been gone lol. Anyway… my most favorite thing about this story might seem like such an insignificant line but it really hit home for me. When Ms. Silverman says “Today is just a snapshot in time.” How often do we forget that. Today is just today and has no bearing on what is tomorrow or next week or next year. What a humbling realization. And I love how Jimmy figures that out firsthand and… alon...


Thom Brodkin
01:39 May 23, 2022

Maggie, I’ve missed you. Thom is my real name. I decided to go back to it because well why not? 😀 Thanks so much for your feedback. You always encourage me and it means a lot. Now write a story so I can read you.


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Mike Panasitti
13:18 May 22, 2022

Thom, this is a valiant attempt to represent issues of toxic and vulnerable masculinity - I explore the same theme in various of my stories. One thing I found slightly unrealistic here was Ms. Silverman, presumably white and Jewish, calling her students "knuckleheads." I liked how Jimmy adapted the assignment to suit his very real need to heal his relationship with Jamaal. Hopefully the older brother comes to his senses sooner rather than later.


Thom Brodkin
16:36 May 22, 2022

Ms Silverman was a mash up of a teacher I had as a middle schooler and one my dad had in New York City. He told me she always called her students knuckleheads and it snuck into my story. 😀


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10:31 May 31, 2022

How I Got My Ex Husband Back.. Am so excited to share my testimony of a real spell caster who brought my husband back to me. My husband and I have been married for about 5 years now. We were happily married with three kids, two boys and a girl. Four months ago, I started to notice some strange behaviour from him and a few weeks later I found out that my husband is seeing someone else. He started coming home late from work, he hardly cares about me or the kids anymore, Sometimes he goes out and doesn’t even come back home for about 3-4 days. ...


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Ace Quinnton
17:23 May 26, 2022

"In the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Once I finished reading this story, this quote is what it desperately reminded me of. Overall, the story is very well written. I'm anxious to see what you write next. Good job, Thom Brodkin. I applaud to you.


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Kate Winchester
19:06 May 25, 2022

This was really good. I liked how the story wasn’t linear. Starting with Jimmy visiting Jamaal made me want to know what was happening. You do a great job of juxtaposing Jamaal’s and Jimmy’s characters. The message of hope at the end was perfect and I’m glad Jimmy isn’t following in Jamaal’s footsteps.


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Calvin Kirby
14:29 May 23, 2022

Thom, a story I didn't expect from you. Wow, did you capture a youth torn by what he could be and what society and his family background could throw in his path. You are such a great writer, you should start writing scripts and turning them into an agency that specializes in television and movies. I so enjoy your stories.


Thom Brodkin
15:20 May 23, 2022

Cal, I’m so glad you read this one. I am deliberately trying to write outside my comfort zone to try to stretch myself. This one is really the anti-Thom but there was still the ending of hope. I guess in someways I’ll always be me. 😀


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20:56 May 20, 2022

I loved this one, Thom! Another warm and wonderful story about self-discovery. Typical of your work -- there is insight, wit, and wisdom packed into every paragraph. I always read your stories for the warm-and-fuzzies. You make your readers cheer for your characters. We even hope Jamaal comes around one day. Your themes offer so much hope in a seemingly hopeless world. Thanks again for the reminder of what humanity is capable of.


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