Charlie’s Story

“All that playin’ tag and swingin’ on the swing set? All that just faded away. They call it ‘jumping off the porch.’ In the streets, they didn’t care about my clothes. They was more into me. That’s where I got my love from—the streets.”

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CharlieCharlie grew up in Southeast Washington, DC, in a poverty stricken neighborhood; he remembers being picked on in school for having old hand-me-down clothes. He was often teased for not having the new shoes everyone else was wearing and told he was ‘dirty.’ Charlie also struggled to read which made keeping up in school difficult and being called on to read aloud humiliating. By the seventh grade, struggling with a second grade reading level, Charlie had fallen behind and felt like he didn’t belong there anymore. That’s when he turned to the streets to fit in and try to find the sense of belonging that he was missing in school.

“All that playin’ tag and swingin’ on the swing set? All that just faded away. They call it ‘jumping off the porch.’ In the streets, they didn’t care about my clothes. They was more into me. That’s where I got my love from-the streets. The path I was on led me to stop caring about everything and everyone.”

At the age of 16, Charlie was arrested for armed robbery and was taken to the juvenile unit at the DC Jail where he first met Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. At first, Charlie was angry about being incarcerated and still struggling to read so he was not quick to attend the Book Club sessions. He recalls Tara coming to his cell door every week trying to convince him to come and for months he told her no but “she was persistent and she never gave up on me. One day I asked her if I could get a crossword puzzle book and she said yes, but only if I came to Book Club so I went and really enjoyed myself. After that, I kept going because I could tell it was something I wanted to be a part of moving forward. At the Book Club it didn’t matter if I wasn’t the best at reading, I still felt like I belonged.”

Charlie served six years in federal prison and Free Minds kept in touch with him through letters, books and poetry the entire time. “They never gave up on me. They still haven’t.”

When he first came home, Charlie returned to his old neighborhood and as he says, spent a lot of time sitting on his stoop, observing the world around him. He was struck by the monotony of seeing the same issues he grew up with day in and day out. He decided that he was going to change his life. Charlie called Free Minds to ask about the Reentry Support program—and he was hooked. He called so often that if a day passed without a phone call from Charlie, Free Minds staff would call him to ask why they hadn’t heard from him that day.

Since returning home, Charlie has completed the Free Minds Apprenticeship Program and taken on an active role as a senior Poet Ambassador; speaking at local schools to try to prevent young people from traveling down the path he once took. “I tell them, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is not something to be embarrassed about.” Charlie also facilitates weekly outreach programming at New Beginnings, a juvenile detention center where he was once detained as a teenager. He uses his experience to connect with the young men there that remind him so much of himself, acting as a mentor to help them realize their own potential through poetry, writing and group discussion.

Charlie was recently promoted to a supervisory position at Clean Decisions, a local cleaning and landscaping company, and he attends weekly study sessions with a tutor as he prepares to take his GED test.

Charlie is now the proud father of two small children. He says that when his daughter was born, and later his son, he realized that he wanted them to have the childhood and adolescence that he didn’t have, and he’s dedicated to giving them the best possible future.

 

By Seana Drucker

Charlie is one of the featured poets in the Free Minds literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. You can read his profile on page 5. Charlie wrote this poem after he learned to read in the Book Club:

Sitting on the Stoop
By Charlie

I was sitting on the stoop one day
When some cars came past my way
I was sitting on the stoop one day
When some girls came around my way
I was sitting on the stoop one day
When my mom came home one day
I was sitting on the stoop one day
When the police came and took me away
Now I don’t know when I’m going to be home
But I know I’ll be back again
Sitting on the stoop one day

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Comments

  1. Janet Reedy says:

    I like the rhythm of this poem. The image of somebody just sitting on the stoop while things are happening around him and to him is very poignant and it conveys the uncertainty of the future.
    I have been chalking poems on the sidewalk in front of my house and I wonder if it would be okay to chalk Charlie’s poem, giving him credit for it, of course.

  2. Aysha Prince says:

    I am very proud of you Mr. Curtis.

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