What helps teens make the right choices?

By J. Isaac Conde, 16, South Gate HS
Print This Post
J. Isaac Conde dreams that he will one day direct his own movie.

I used to be a bad kid back in ninth grade. I would write myself fake hall passes during algebra class. I sagged my baggy Levi’s so much I could hardly walk, which I thought was way cool. Once, I gave some stink bombs to my classmates. After they put them in the hallway, someone snitched on me and I got 10 hours of detention. I was known as a troublemaker. My teachers blamed me if they found tagging on the desks and sent me to the dean. I said it wasn’t me but no one believed me.

After school I went to hang out with the gangster posers I thought were my friends. We’d go cruising in someone’s car, checking out girls and yelling names at all the other chowderheads that were out cruising. I’d get home late. My dad would yell at me and I’d talk back. I refused to do any chores or help my little brother with his homework. At times, my mom would scream at me, "You’re not going to get anywhere in life!" "Yes, I will!" I told her, but inside I doubted it.

One hectic evening after coming home from school, knowing I’d failed several quizzes, my mom told me we were going to a meeting. I was like, "Whatever." We went to a big room full of cops and kids. All the kids, including me, had to stand up and apologize to our parents for all the bad things we had done. Some kids had gotten in fights. Others failed in school or smoked weed. Some stole car radios and broke into houses. One kid arrived late and flipped off a cop when he was told where to sit. That aggravated the cops, who already seemed to be grouchy. Three of them threw him against the wall. He screamed, "Leave me alone! I’ll press charges!" The cops just laughed. This was Juveniles At Risk, a 16-week program intended to make us change our ways. I was furious with my mom for throwing me into this hell.

Saturday after Saturday we ran through physical obstacles and two-mile runs. We had to sit on the cold floor for a two-hour "integrity class" in which they lectured us on our morals and attitude. We all sat there looking at the clock, getting hungry and mad. One Saturday we had to box each other. I had to fight a big ugly fool who beat me up while everyone watched.

Every other Saturday the cops asked us what our future plans were. One girl said she planned to drop out of high school and get a job. Most had no plans. Listening to everyone, I felt sad they had no goals. I started to wonder where each teen would go. Would they change? Would they be safe? Would their lives turn out OK? I thought about that, and how the cops were telling us if we didn’t change now it would be even harder later on. I saw cholos pass by outside my house—going somewhere but getting nowhere. I didn’t want to be like them. I knew nobody was going to make change for me but my own self; and so I did.

In 10th grade, I was a totally different guy. Instead of hanging out with partyers, I got shy. Listening to depressing Depeche Mode music brought crazy ideas into my mind, inspiring me to draw nude people, explosions and bizarre architecture. My art got me into writing: I wanted to tell the stories that were in my drawings. Plus, I figured writing would help me communicate better.

I started spending all my extra time at the library, reading and writing. The dark and lonely literature section was my favorite area. I was happy discovering my creativity, but at the same time it was hard becoming someone different—a writer, a loner. Teens around me were having the time of their lives, while I sat reading books. My classmates started leaving me alone because they thought I was weird.

I found out that the library had tons of screenplays I could just grab and read. I enjoyed reading the horror movies, which were filled with the same twisted stories of jealousy, betrayal and deadly payback that I wanted to write about. I was fascinated with Hannibal Lector, the crazy killer in The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll never forget the part when Lector devours his food like a hungry pig, licking it straight from the dish. These screenwriters wrote their ideas onto paper, no matter how disturbing or explicit they were. It inspired me to begin writing all the sick stories I had in mind.

My mom thought I was in a gang

I began getting home late again—but this time for a positive reason. I’d bring stacks of screenwriting books from the central L.A. Library. I was so absorbed in reading I would barely talk to my family or even answer the phone. My mom actually thought I was in a gang. I told her I was at the library but she didn’t believe me. I just ignored her comments. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my dream of becoming a writer. I spent all my extra time reading, looking up new vocabulary words and submitting essays to contests.

But my mom thought I was a big fat liar. She assumed I was involved in something evil. One day in school I was summoned out of class by the school shrink. She asked me stupid questions, "Are you suicidal?" I laughed and said no. "If you were an animal, what would you be?" Her question seemed so stupid to me that I gave her a stupid answer—a camel. She began giggling. I began to laugh. Suddenly, she got quiet and stared at me. I felt like a fool. I guess she was trying to "help" me but instead she made me feel like a preschooler.

When I arrived home that day, I asked my mom why she called the psychologist. She told me I needed to change my attitude. I told her I had changed and I was still changing but my mom wasn’t buying it. She followed me around the house, lecturing me on how I should be "buena gente" (a good person). She told me I should stay out of trouble, help around the house and show her more respect.

But when I got my first report card in my junior year, and my grades went from C, D, Fail, to A, B, C, my mom was astonished. She stopped hassling me when I came home late. She believed in me more. She didn’t know what a screenwriter was, but once I explained it to her, she supported my goal 100 percent.

I began doing all my homework during class so I could write after school. Every day I read, looked up new words and kept a list of story ideas for my screenplays. One day in English class I had to read a personal essay describing my goals—it was filled with so many big words that even I didn’t know what most of ’em meant. My classmates had that "what-the-heck?" look. They already considered me a teacher’s pet because I spent lunch and nutrition with my history teacher so I could write.

I applied to the Scriptwriters Network, a special program to help teens learn screenwriting, but I was turned down. I felt discouraged. Maybe writing wasn’t for me. But I noticed that the letter also told me to keep at it and try again next year.

As I worked harder, entered more essay contests and showed my interest in writing, my English teacher was excited for me. She loaned me poems by Edgar Allan Poe and let me write my screenplays on a computer in her classroom, even when she wasn’t there. She let me borrow her camcorder to submit my work to InnerSpark, the summer arts program where I studied film and video for a month.

With all the support my teachers gave me, I devoted even more time to writing. I spent nights in the garage writing the hell out of my mind, rewriting paragraphs and finding just the right words. Even though I’m not yet done with high school and have a life ahead of me, it’s unbelievably fantastic being a young screenwriter. I enjoy the feeling that I can write about anything, anybody.

This year I reapplied to the Scriptwriters Network, which is held at Universal Pictures. I wrote a thriller about a guy and his girlfriend who lure girls into their basement to kill them. With this script I got into the program. I felt all my hard work had paid off.

At the first meeting at Universal, I felt proud of walking on the back lot. Tourists looked at me from their trams, assuming I worked there. But when I got to the building where the meeting was to be held, I had to give my name to a coordinator. I felt embarrassed because my name sounds so Hispanic. Would I be the only Hispanic there that day? He couldn’t find me on the list. Was I gonna get kicked out? Just then I saw one of the other people from the program. He vouched for me and I got in. I found a seat and waited for the program to start, trying to shake off the feeling of not belonging. One of the guys called my name. I stood up and everybody clapped. I felt pretty good even though I wondered if they meant it.

Since that day, I have tried my best to look like a normal educated kid, not a cholo. I have tried to walk like a businessman with somewhere to go. I stopped saying "You know I mean?’ and using Spanglish. When I bleached my hair, my mom teased me, "Don’t think you’re a white boy, you’re a Conde. Con-de."

The first screenplay I wrote in the Scriptwriters Network was about a couple in their 20s who hack into their friends’ computers to send online users bloody pictures and death threats. It was fun to write it but then my mentor, he wrote all over it with his big black marker, correcting my structure, grammar, word choice and crossing out all the words he thought were unnecessary. "What is this? This doesn’t go here," he told me. I felt like I didn’t know how to write English. I wondered if maybe he was just crossing out words to be a jerk and I hated him, but after a while I realized he was right. I have to admit he has helped me.

I’m really making progress

Meeting with a mentor, I feel like I’m something—a screenwriter. When he invites me to special screenings and loans me books to help me really understand what screenwriting’s all about, I’m glad he takes me so seriously. My mentor doesn’t care where I come from. He just wants to help me write a good script.

But in South Gate where I live, it’s hard to focus on my passion. My neighbors bump their annoying music and make it hard to think. I don’t have support to write.

My sister calls me a dumbass and gets mad when I’m online because then she can’t talk to her so-called boyfriends. She tells me I’m not a real writer, because a real writer wouldn’t be ashamed of his race. She tells me I’m ignorant, and I tell her that’s how I feel because of what I see on TV—Hispanics often committing crimes and hurting innocent people. I don’t want to be like them.

At school some of my classmates treat me with respect, while others are trying to bring me down. One day someone pushed me in the hall and made me drop one of my scripts on the floor. Another day some guy hit me in the face with a water balloon. I think they’re jealous because they see that I want to become something different, something more than what we’re supposed to get in South Gate.

What’s hard is when I run into old friends walking home from school, the ones I was the closest to. I used to talk so easy to them. But now I consider them losers. I take different streets, different crosswalks to avoid them. I don’t want to go back to being a low-life, being someone just waiting for weekends so I can party, see a fight or check out girls.

I want freedom, respect, money, a home and true friends. I can get those things if I’m strong, motivated and push for my goals. My plan is to keep writing, finish high school, get out of South Gate and study communications and architecture at an out-of-state university. I know I’m going the right way, but don’t know where I’ll end up. But I’ll see. I’ll see.