A youth with a long history of behavioral problems describes how participation in an alternative school for at-risk, talented youth helped him turn his life around. As the name of his school indicates, this is an account of a “Lost Prize” reclaimed.
Even when I was in elementary school, I had trouble with authority. Back then, I was disruptive – I was a kid with a short attention span and a school yard bully who got into a lot of fights. Letters were always going home to my mom, who was called to the school on a regular basis because of my behavior. At a very young age, I began to get a bad reputation.
By junior high, things had gotten out of hand. I started hanging out with a bad crowd, drinking heavily, and smoking pot. To get money to maintain this “going nowhere” lifestyle, I began stealing from businesses, homes, and even people in the street. I was also selling drugs. The police visited my home five or six times a month, and they sometimes took me down to the police station; I think this was to try to scare me into going “straight.” It didn’t work.
The first time I was placed in the Youth Center (6 months for repeated breaking and entering [B & E]) I was 14 years old. Later that year, I was in the Center again (this time for only 7 days) for another B & E. It got worse: 14 months for yet another B & E when I was 16. Two months after being released from that incarceration, I got 21 months for robbery, B & E, assault, and drug possession. It was not a happy time, and I couldn’t see anything good in my future.
One night, while serving the last sentence, I couldn’t sleep. I heard the phone ring in the dead of night, and I had a premonition. When the counselor came to see me first thing in the morning, I already knew “my dad was dead. He had been killed in a car accident that involved alcohol. I started to wonder how long it would be before the same thing happened to me. To make matters worse, I didn’t know if I would be permitted to attend his funeral: There was a concern that there would be drinking at the house afterwards and that I would get involved. I finally was allowed to go. I also decided that I was going to try to get out of my current lifestyle.
I was sincere in wanting to become more responsible and to make my life better; however, I didn’t know where to begin. School was the only place I could think of. Because my track record was so bad and I had missed too much of the first semester, I wasn’t admitted back into school right away. Luckily, the principal referred me to a program for high school dropouts called Lost Prizes. I hadn’t even gotten to high school, let alone had the chance to drop out, so I was very nervous. The principal told me that if I did well there (taking career awareness, problem solving, and work experience courses), I could get some credits and enter the high school’s mature student program for the second semester. I attended classes regularly (which I had never managed to do before), worked hard (another first), earned my credits, and got back into the mainstream. It wasn’t easy, but I finally graduated from high school in June 1995, at 19 years of age. To make matters even better, people had begun to notice and buy some of my artwork. I had never had an art lesson, but everybody said I had talent. I began to believe it when, in November of that year, I was one of seven students selected to present artwork at the National Association of Gifted Children Conference in Tampa, Florida. What excitement! It was my first flight, my first trip to the United States, and my first try at public speaking. My art appeared on the cover of a book about Lost Prizes, and people at the conference were asking me to autograph their copies. It was a better high than anything provided by drugs! Many of my sketches and paintings were sold, and I was asked to illustrate another book cover and do some work for a magazine. I now had a future. It wasn’t where I had been that mattered, it was where I was going. I had come from nowhere and now was doing something productive.
Other good things started to happen. I had met my girlfriend, Carla Wise, on New Year’s Eve of 1994. She believed in me and helped me stick things out during the tough times. I had someone to share things with. In April 1996, we had a little girl, Cheyanne Dakota, and on December 1st, 1997, our second daughter, Shawntae, arrived. we’re a happy family!
There were some setbacks, of course. After high school graduation, I felt I was ready for more, so I enrolled in an advertising art course at the local community college. I thought I was ready, but I guess I wasn’t. I couldn’t handle the increased demands and dropped out after a few months. So much had happened so fast “I think I was still a little immature. I still believe that when I look at where I was and where I am now, I have accomplished a lot. There haven’t been any miracles, I guess, but I have many achievements I’m proud of:
I have stayed away from bad stuff for several years now. Now that I have the kids, I don’t want any illegal activities going on. It’s hard to believe, but I intend to be a good role model.
I’ve plugged away steadily at jobs to support my family. I was employed at a bakery for a year and in Alberta on the oil rigs for a while. I now have a full-time job on a farm driving tractors and trucks (loading grain and canola) and helping with chores.
Carla and I have stuck together and built a family. A few years ago, I didn’t think I would ever be able to do that. We are taking good care of our girls and working for the future.
I have graduated from high school and intend to go back to community college in September of 1999. I'll never be satisfied until I get more art training and a diploma in that field “I want that real bad. Now I know the hurdles I have to get over to reach my dream, and now I think I have the self-discipline to do it. Carla will graduate from high school in January 1999, and she is planning to study nursing. Together we may be able to have careers and provide well for Cheyanne Dakota and Shawntae.
I haven’t done all I had hoped, but I have sold some paintings and had some of my artwork published. It hasn’t been easy “we’ll see how it works out.
I now take much more pride in myself. We learned about nonverbal communication in one of our Lost Prizes courses, and I paid attention and followed through. I don’t have many clothes (my dress outfit is khaki pants with a button shirt), but people have noticed how much better groomed I am now. I feel better about myself and I walk straighter!
My attitude is better in general. I know what to expect, I’m better prepared, and I’m confident I can hang in there and make it. I have many people to thank for helping me, and I try to do that by giving them paintings. It has been quite a transformation, which I plan to continue working on!
This feature: Gauthier, R. (1999). From down-and-out to up-and-coming. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 7, 4. pp. 197-199.