Crystal Vallee and Idris Rahman spoke frankly to freshmen and sophomores at Linden High School as part of the “Steered Straight” program, which shows teens that there could be dire consequences in the future to bad decisions made today.

Crystal Vallee addressing students  Idris Rahman addressing students

By Gary Miller

It’s one thing to tell students they need to make good decisions. It’s another thing to have that message driven home by someone who paid a heavy price for making bad choices in their youth.

The Linden Municipal Alliance presented an assembly called “Steered Straight” to Linden High School ninth- and 10th-graders on Wednesday in which speakers told the students in blunt language that choices they make today can affect them for the rest of their lives.

“Never did I think in high school when I started drinking or I started smoking weed that down the road that would be the only way I knew how to deal with my life,” said Crystal Vallee, one of two speakers who addressed the students. “Never once did I think I was going to become a prisoner. Never once did I think I’d have a felony. Never once did I think I was going to lose as many people as I did to the streets.

“You have choices. You have decisions.”

Without getting into specifics, Vallee told the students that she spent seven years in prison, and that she traced that back to decisions she made in high school. She said she grew up in a dysfunctional home, but that didn’t excuse her bad choices, which only made matters worse.

“You can’t keep control what happens to you, or around you, where it is you’re growing up, who your parents are,” Vallee told the hushed crowd. “But you can control how you deal with these things. It’s OK to feel negative feelings. It’s what you do with them. I dealt with them the wrong way.

“I always say, if you’re hurting, why hurt yourself more? It makes no sense.”

She urged students to talk to someone if they need help and to focus on their education.

“What you do right here, right now and for the next four years in this school will set you up for your future,” Vallee said. “You can be whatever you want to be. The sad thing is that when I was a sophomore in high school, I started giving up on things. … But the only person I hurt by these choices was myself. So be the one to pull yourself up; focus on your education. It will set you up for your life.”

speakers with member of the Linden Municipal Alliance

The Steered Straight speakers with members of the Linden Municipal Alliance. Front row from left are Municipal Alliance coordinator Sandy Vazquez; Linden Public Schools Student Assistance Counselor Kathleen Volker; speakers Idris Rahman and Crystal Vallee; Mayor Derek Armstead; and LHS Principal Yelena Horre. Back row from left are committee member Robert Pendleton; LHS social worker Shamona Patterson; and committee member Rev. Manuel Donelson.

The second speaker at the assembly was Idris Rahman, who told the students that his bad choices in high school led to a life of addiction and 22 years in prison.

“I know that a lot of young people today buy into this faulty way of thinking that if I made an error today, that because I have youth on my side, I have enough time to correct it later,” he said. “I’m here to dispel that myth. I’m here to tell you that a decision you make today can impact you for the rest of your life.”

But Rahman also wanted to focus on the positive decisions he’s made, including breaking his cycle of substance abuse and returning to school to get three college degrees, graduating summa cum laude.

“You all have the ability to make some great choices,” said Rahman, who now works as a social worker and addiction counselor. “Make the choice to be the best possible student you can be, and I can almost guarantee that your life will be significantly different. If you engross yourself in acquiring an education, your life will greatly improve.”

Rahman echoed Vallee’s sentiment that circumstance should not dictate the decisions teens make.

“Wherever you go in your life is up to you,” he said. “You can’t blame other people for where you’re at and you certainly can’t blame other people for where you’re going.

“It is up to you.”

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The assembly offered resources for teens who need help. The students were given wristbands that offered a website (2ndfloor.org) and 24-hour-a-day help line (888-222-2228) where they can get the help they need.

Steered Straight’s website at steeredstraight.org also offers resources for parents and tips for having difficult conversations with teens.