Turning 21 is a big deal. It is the traditional “coming of age” birthday, the day you really become an adult, and everyone knows it.
It’s the day you can go out for a beer with your buddies, and walk into a bar, legal for the first time.
It’s a rite of passage, one we all look forward to, one we all celebrate.
Back in the day, it was truly the day you became an adult. You got to vote, you could own property, you had all the legal rights of adulthood. Now, we’ve pushed all the legalities back to 18, or even earlier.
Still, turning 21 is still a big deal, a moving into adulthood, no questions asked.
When you’re in prison, the day is just another day. No going out to the neighborhood bar for a beer, no big party. No bartender checking your ID and giving you a thumbs up, as you order your first legal drink.
My young friend called me the other night, on his 21st birthday. It was about his bedtime, and the prison dorm was settling down. He didn’t have a party, and no one made a fuss over his big day. I’d sent him a card, the only one he got. Some of his friends were having a get together, but they couldn’t invite him. He doesn’t live in their “unit”, and he couldn’t be a part of their party of some snacks and a movie.
I couldn’t take him out for a beer, either, but that’s what he needs. He’s been in prison for five years, and has four more long years to go. I’m one of the few on his visitor’s list, one of the few normal ones who show up. Sometimes, his family comes, but that’s a tough day for my friend. Too much insanity, too much manipulation, too much of the old dysfunction. Like a lot of guys there tell me, he thinks prison is the best place he’s ever lived.
It’s a long, long time, his prison time, especially for something that happened when he was supposed to be in middle school, but his parents hadn’t bothered to make sure he went., The relationship he had with a girl was encouraged by all of the parents. Family dysfunction was the theme of his youth, and they kept him away from school and friends. What we like to think of as a normal life, and normal values was foreign to him, until he got to prison. It’s a too familiar story, dysfunction junction.
Not that he’s wasting his time now, though. He’s finished high school, earned an associates degree, and just now is starting on his second degree. He’s taking advantage of all of the on line education the system is offering him, and has a respectable 3.9 GPA.
He’s teaching a lot of the other young men in prison, as well. He’s a leader, and a tutor, and makes sure they are working hard and moving ahead. He’s the junior counselor, the mentor, the older brother a lot of the guys need.
We get together every couple of weeks, to talk about books we’ve read. We’re our own writing group, exchanging essays and poems we’ve written, offering each other some valuable critiques. He reads serious books, and I’ve been sending him some of the classics in philosophy, science, and history. He absorbs all of them, and is eager to have a discussion with me about what he thinks, and what the authors were trying to say.
If we were college roommates, he’d be the guy who lived at the library, and went on to grad school, just because it was fun to study, read books, and challenge the professors with his take on the tough subjects.
He’d still be the guy I’d like to go out and have a beer with, on Friday afternoon, after the last class of the week. He is serious about his guitar, and writes some thoughtful songs, lyrics with several layers of meanings, and chord progressions that please the ear. He laughs and jokes about life, and the dramas and politics in his life.
Yet, when he called that night, the night of his birthday, he was all alone. He reached out to me, making small talk about our writing, good books we’re reading, a bit of music. It was almost everything we wanted, in that phone call, talking as good friends, kindred spirits. All that was missing was the beer.