“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.
“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?”
“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.
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.