I was anxious on the first day of my first college class, The Individual and Society. It was a sociology class that my adviser had suggested I take. I did not even know what “sociology” meant when I signed up. I certainly did not know that something in that class would make my own life clearer to me.
I went into the room expecting a lecture class full of students, but there were only 15 people. As class discussion started that first day, I realized that the other students knew more about all the class content—literature, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology—than I did. I had been a star at my high school in a residential treatment facility, and I was used to helping others. I felt inadequate around such wisdom, and it was not a good feeling.
There was a time when I would have responded negatively to feeling insecure. However, I read all the class assignments and learned how to take good notes, which helped me complete the assignments. I wrote down every unfamiliar word and looked them all up. Receiving my first A on an essay boosted my confidence that I could complete the course.
We studied the sociologist Charles Cooley’s theory of the “looking glass self.” Cooley wrote that people’s ideas of themselves have “three principal elements: (1) the imagination of our appearance to the other person; (2) the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and (3) some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification…. The thing that moves us to pride or shame is…the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind…. We are ashamed to seem evasive in the presence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of a brave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one, and so on. We always imagine, and, in imagining, share the judgments of the other mind. A man will boast to one person of an action—say some sharp transaction in trade—which he would be ashamed to own to another.”
To put it more simply, the way you imagine other people perceiving you affects the way you feel about yourself, which in turn affects your attitude and even your appearance. And you may change the way you present yourself depending on who you’re trying to impress or fit in with. I realized that the looking glass self applied to my own life right at that moment.
It took me until my first year of college to start changing my outward appearance and attitude to show others the man I wanted to become. I had realized back in 9th grade, however, that I wanted to change the future I was heading for.
The Path of Anger
My mother died from cancer when I was 11. I was sad, then angry. I was angry that her death left us without a stable income, and I missed having my mother around to support me. During my sophomore year in high school, I was living with my father and brother, and we were in and out of shelters.
One day, a month after my mother’s funeral, I was in the cafeteria at school. I was in the 6th grade. I usually sat at the table with the cool kids, mostly because some of them paid me to do their homework. One kid in a different 6th grade class yelled to me, “Hey, can you do my homework too?”
I said, “There is a small fee of $5 involved.”
He threatened me, “I’m broke, but you’re still gonna do my homework.”
I replied, “Just ask your parents for $5, and then we can do business.”
He said, knowing I had just lost my mom, “Forget it then. I’ll just go ask your mother for help with my homework.”
Adrenaline and rage shot through my body. I stood up and hit him so hard his glasses broke and his eye started bleeding. “Now go ask your mother to buy you a pair of new glasses, punk!” I yelled.
All the cool kids and even some of the 7th and 8th graders ran over and asked what happened. My homeboy, the one whose homework I was doing, said, “Just don’t disrespect his mother and you won’t end up blind, like that kid.”
Everyone started laughing and high-fiving me. Many of the 8th graders complimented me for sticking up for myself. Talk of me hitting this kid spread throughout the school.
This group of nine homeboys who hung out on my block also heard about the fight. They were boys ranging from age 13 to 18 who mostly grew up in single-parent households. They cut school and hung out a lot, and even though I was only 11, I joined them. We were not part of a bigger gang, so we called ourselves a crew. We robbed people but did not really get into fights over territory like a gang.
When an argument arose among the homeboys, we would fight each other. We lived by the rule, “No talking, just fight it out.” I was a good fighter. I began to receive respect from my homeboys and from some kids at school for being tough and fearless.
I liked the principles of the crew: confidentiality (telling anyone what we did could lead to arrest), toughness, and progress. Progress to us meant getting money, which we imagined would eventually buy expensive cars and big homes. My crew’s version of progress was simple, and for a while, that was enough for me.
We mostly fought each other, but if someone jumped a homeboy of ours, we would retaliate. I would fight anybody, anywhere, at any time. I would try to scare strangers or insult them by cursing a lot. Feeling as if I could beat the world turned me into a thug.
Society saw me as a menace. People would clutch their belongings tighter when I passed them on the street. I liked that “looking-glass self” of threatening thug. In the eyes of the other punks on the block, I was the man. Being tough impressed certain girls, and earned the respect of my homeboys. I had money and nice clothes. I now had two mirrors reflecting back to me: scared strangers and admiring homeboys and girls. I liked the way I looked in both of them.
Still, while I talked back to my teachers, I always did my homework. I was rebellious, but I was not stupid. I knew school could be a key to success. Most of the older men on the block, who had also been in crews, suggested I stay in school, but they also applauded me for being a fighter.
A New Vision
When I was a freshman in high school I realized for sure that I did not want a thug life. I was a strong student in algebra and the teacher applied math to real-world topics. One day he asked me to solve a statistics problem, and I did within minutes. He was surprised and praised my accounting skills.
Ever since that moment, I have wanted to be an accountant. And that meant changing my behavior, attitude, and appearance. In the corporate world you cannot impress people by how many people you can beat up: You impress them with your intellect and skill. I stuck with school through many obstacles and enrolled in a business college.
I studied hard and did all the work, but I had not completely left my thug self behind. In my first-semester computer class, I was very disrespectful to the professor. He wanted all eyes on him, but I wanted to talk to girls in the back of the class. When he reprimanded me, I told him to shut up.
I was still attracted to the hood reflection of myself as a wise guy. Unfortunately, the computer professor started to view me as a menace, and I knew I had to change. I wanted a corporate looking-glass self, not the hood version. Therefore, I had to do things to impress corporate society, not hood society.
The inner change had already happened. I had already embraced the principles that accountants must follow: confidentiality, honesty, accuracy, and faithful representation. I like that in accounting the path is clear, because there is a specific way to succeed. Good accountants are smart, responsible, diligent, logical, stable, and most importantly, honest. Besides accounting, I am also studying general theories of business and management, which teach that the most ethical leaders are the most successful.
Making it to college a year early and making the dean’s list my first semester helped me believe I had all those good accountant qualities. I liked these better than the qualities that made me chief of the homeboys.
The Limits of Gang Power
Furthermore, I realized that my homeboys were never going to get anywhere. Gang power is limited. If you become a chief, you have to protect your ground. Most gang members spend more time protecting their turf and their reputation. You are always defending; you never move forward.
There are gangsters who have the mind of a leader, but I am not interested in their version of success. We homeboys did some of the things I hope to do as an accountant. We saved money and we dreamed of mansions, expensive cars, and vacations. However, we got money the wrong way. Instead of pursuing success through ethical behavior, diligence, and leadership, the homeboys stuck to gangbanging.
Gangbanging brings out nothing positive in you and only leads to jail or death. All that mischief caused stress, which made me speak in a vulgar, disrespectful way. Not a lot of people wanted to talk to me.
Since I was 5 years old, I knew stealing was wrong. I did it because I had no way to provide for myself at an early age. What helped me put an end to my stealing was learning to delay gratification. I want to live a comfortable and profitable life. I would like to be wealthy enough to donate to foundations for unfortunate children. I feel bad for the people I robbed and hurt, and I want to give back. Since I have not been in any criminal trouble as an adult, I can start my career with a clean record.
I realized that college was a good place to try to get people to accept me as a future accountant. Imagining other people looking at me made me want to look like a future businessperson.
I stopped letting my pants sag and I bought cardigan sweaters and button-up shirts. Sometimes I even wear Trump ties with my Dockers or my Italian shoes. I tried to speak more articulately by using formal language. I listened and asked more questions. I networked with accountants and recently applied for internships in finance.
Change Inside and Out
My attitude as a college student has altered since I began to change my appearance. I smile more, and think less about the sad parts of my life. I strive to get the best grades I can and to make business connections. My changed appearance also makes others around me feel more comfortable. With less stress, I am more articulate and can keep a conversation going better.
Now that I feel, talk, and dress like a success, I treat people with the respect I would like to receive. Wearing a suit and tie makes me feel successful, and that feeling brings out the good in me and makes me smile. That makes people respond to me with integrity instead of fear. As I adopt the qualities of an ethical, honest, and diligent accountant, I can see myself more clearly as that person. Society, in turn, no longer views me as a liability but rather as a long-term asset.