What Are You Doing With Your Life?
When a teenager tries to break into her home, Joey Garcia asks him an unexpected question.

By Joey Garcia

I was at my laptop working on a poem when I realized that late afternoon had darkened into evening. I should probably close the windows in the front of the house, I thought.

The early evening light was dim but when I walked into the kitchen, I could clearly see the young man straddling the windowsill, breaking into my home.

He was a teenager, 17 or 18 years old. I felt strangely calm, probably because of my two decades as a high school teacher and life coach for teens. So it didn’t surprise me when a sincere question came into my mind:

“What are you doing with your life?”

He froze. I asked again, louder this time, my hands flapping emphatically: “What are you doing with your life?”

Watching me carefully for a moment, he seemed to ponder the question. Then he began to back out of the window.

I told him I would count to three and yell for help.

The young man ran. With shaky hands, I closed and locked my windows, careful not to touch the one he had entered, or the screen he had removed to break in. Evidence, I thought.

When the police officer arrived, he asked me what happened. When I explained, he asked if I knew the young man. “No” I said. The officer narrowed his eyes. “Then why did you ask, ‘What are you doing with your life?'”

I don’t remember what I told him. But the truth is, I feel responsible for all kids. Every child is my child. I believe that every adult is responsible for guiding teens to maturity. We must all help every teenager we meet to navigate a path into a rewarding life.

Looking back, I think I understand why the young man ran away. To be asked, “What are you doing with your life?” is to be acknowledged as if you matter, are loved and are valued.

In the end, I committed the bolder theft. He tried to break into my house, but I tried to break into his consciousness.

With a Perspective, I’m Joey Garcia.

Joey Garcia is an advice columnist in Sacramento


What a perfect depiction of my belief that everyone and everything have strengths and weaknesses.  Everyone and everything have value and deserve respect for that value. And that value, when discovered and nurtured, when respected, makes a better world for us all!


Darwin the dog stank at being a human service dog – he flunked out of the program. So he decided to save the Galapagos Islands instead. (s)

Through Dogs for Conservation, these energetic animals are sniffing out destructive species and helping researchers balance the ecology of the islands.


Yesterday was election day. I had the radio on almost all day as I went about my chores, went for a walk, ran some errands, and basically waited for returns to begin coming in and election parties to open. I was anxious to learn what the next two years were going to look like — locally, statewide, and nationally. I heard a lot of prognosticating, a lot of hypothesizing, a lot of hope and fear and nervous laughter.  Some of the commentary provided good background for many of the day’s races, much of it was rehash and pretty tedious.

My favorite story of the day, however, was one I heard fairly early in the morning. It was about student poll workers in San Francisco. Students from many of the high schools in The City had applied and been accepted to the High School Poll Worker program which allowed them to work at the election polls, earn extra money, gain civic experience, in some cases earn extra credit for a class or fulfill required volunteer hours, and even act as translators.

Just on the surface it’s such a smart program! There’s nothing better at building interest and enthusiasm than getting kids working at real jobs where they are needed and valued and accomplishing something. What was even more powerful, however, was to hear the excitement in the voices of the several high school poll workers interviewed for the story. They were all immigrant kids who were thrilled to get a bird’s eye view of the voting process in this country, and they were awestruck by the democratic process in the United States and its availability to all citizens. They exuded respect for our system of government and all expressed an interest in pursuing careers in politics or public policy. And they liked helping people. Doesn’t get much better than that — for them, or for the future of this country.

Then this morning I picked up the San Jose Mercury News and saw an article entitled, “Students help out at polls.” The article was about students in Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of a young black man by a white policeman several months earlier had caused weeks of civil unrest. In past years only a handful of students had responded to a request from the St. Louis County Election Board for student volunteers, but this year 26 were participating. A civics teacher noted that the summer’s events had prompted a heightened interest in the election process and students were taking advantage of an opportunity to participate in that process in an effort to make their voices heard. Again, these Ferguson students exhibited a respect for the system, as well as respect for themselves that allowed them to recognize their right and ability to be heard in and work within the system.

We hear so much about low voter turnout, especially among the youth of this nation. I’m so glad to have heard this part of the story, the part that tells of students not only wanting to vote but also wanting to participate in the system, and would like to encourage more of just this kind of activity. It clearly helps our young people see just how interesting and important the political process of this country is, as well as understand they can actually have an impact on that political process, that that process is worthy of respect, and that one can work within the process respectfully.


When I sent the manuscript for Resetting Respect out to a number of friends and former publishing colleagues for review, a good friend and very smart, compassionate woman responded with, “After reading your last comment about Christy Porter, I thought of Father Greg Boyle qua respectful person of the decade, and thought I’d mention him, if you don’t know who he is.  I do believe that it is perhaps most challenging of all to respect people who are very harshly judged by society, and a harder sell to others to support programs that accord such respect to them.  I think it’s easier to get behind food that’s being wasted and people who are hungry. Am wondering if the book could incorporate/address that point a bit more?”

Yes, I do know who Father Boyle is, and yes, I think this whole conversation about respect needs to address the really tough challenges to living respectfully. Greg Boyle is author of Tattoos on the Heart, Jesuit priest, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and human being extraordinaire. I read Tattoos some years ago after hearing “G,” as the homies call him, interviewed on the radio. It’s difficult to come up with the right words to describe the experience of reading Tattoos. The book is poetry, comedy, tragedy, philosophy and scripture. It had me in tears, it had me in stitches, and it inspired me to believe we can all do better, we can all be better, we can all get to the place where we can do the hard work of, as my friend said, respecting people who are very harshly judged by society.

For over 20 years, Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the poorest parish in LA and one dominated by gangs. The pages of his book are peopled with tattooed gang members who, casually encountered, would not likely inspire respect. They have attitude, they have anger, they have addictions, and they have weapons and the willingness to use them. They also have self-doubt, and pain, and problems beyond the comprehension of most of us. As Father Greg says, they “carry more burden than they can bear.”

Most of the characters in this book live with a bravado that, when it breaks down, turns into “I…am…a…disgrace,” or “people see me like less.” Matteo and Julian accompanied Father Greg on a speaking trip to Helena, MT, where they received a standing ovation, and then VIP treatment through the airport and onboard the plane back to Los Angeles. Father Greg noticed Matteo crying after reading through a newspaper article on their presentation and asked what was wrong. The tough-looking young man responded, “I don’t know…it really gets to me. Makes me feel like I am somebody.”

Homies Richie and Chepe went on another speaking trip with Father Greg. For the boys first time in a restaurant, they stopped at a Coco’s for dinner, where the glowering hostess led them among tables filled with astonished, silent, staring diners to the most out-of-sight table in the place. The young men were very aware of the “attention” they were receiving, until their waitress approached with warmth and welcome, “Honey”s and “Sweetie”s,  free soda refills and all the Tapatio they needed through the course of the meal. The boys commented as they left the restaurant about how great she had been and how “she treated us like we were somebody.”

Father Greg met Lula at an Easter egg hunt, the 10-year-old standing alone, skinny and filthy, loosing his eggs to poachers. “My name is Luis, but everybody calls me Lula,” he told “G.” A week later, when Father Greg pulled up to an intersection, there was Lula, just entering the crosswalk. Father Greg rolled down his window and shouted his name. You would have thought I had electrocuted him. His whole body spasms with delight to be known, to be called, to hear his name uttered out loud. For his entire trip through the crosswalk, Lula kept turning back and looking at me, smiling.”

All the stories in the book, like the ones about Matteo and Julian, Richie and Chepe, and Lula, are poignant and memorable. They are reminders of the value of each homie, of the humanity of each, of the burdens they carry, and the respect that we owe them. But the story that affected me the most was about Manny, who had survived a drug-addicted father and jail, whose pride and joy was the childcare center at Homeboy Industries he had helped build, who had recently moved away from the neighborhood with his lady who was pregnant with their second child, and who had confessed to Father Greg that he just wanted to be a good father.  As he drove out of the barrio and onto the ramp for the freeway home after having shared the exciting news with Father Greg that he was going to begin college the following Monday, an old rival saw him and opened fire. After several days the family agreed to donate his organs.

As the two nurses wheel Manny to surgery for the harvesting of his organs, one nurse turns to the other and shakes her head in disgust, no doubt eyeing Manny’s tattoos.

‘I mean,’ she says, rolling her eyes, ‘who would want this monster’s heart?’  The other nurse stops the gurney mid-hallway and turns on her coworker with a clarity that may well have surprised herself. ‘How dare you call this kid a monster? Didn’t you see his family, his friends, his son? He was nineteen years old, for God’s sakes. He belonged to somebody. Shame on you.’”

I’ve thought of that heart. What family wouldn’t want that heart that might well save the life of a loved one? And that’s what it comes down to. We all have a human heart that, under similar circumstances, might well save another life. How much more basic can it get? We all have value. We all deserve respect.

Thank you, Father Gregory Boyle, for the work that you do. Thank you for sharing your story, and the stories of so many homies, with us in Tattoos on the Heart. May the rest of us learn from your stories how to get to the place where we can experience empathy, show compassion, and accord respect to everyone and everything, and, maybe most especially, to those whose burdens are too great to bear. 


Well, that was an interesting 4th of July! Most of the recent holiday was pretty normal for me – a quiet, leisurely day, then over to Santa Clara’s Central Park in time to hear Deja Vu, a high school jazz band, entertain picnicking families from all across Silicon Valley who were enjoying a beautiful summer’s day and awaiting the evening fireworks. I chatted with a number of people I hadn’t seen in quite a while, and then, when Deja Vu was done and the next band was preparing to take the stage, I headed over to the parking lot at the adjacent elementary school where several of my friends had been parking cars all day as a fund raiser for the Schools Foundation. I was surprised to find that they had already completely filled the huge, grassy lot and had posted “full” signs at the two entrances. So I kept my friends company while they made sure no cars parked in front of what would become the critical exits as soon as the fireworks were over.  Continue reading