Do you feel like you can exhale?
“Noooooo, not yet,” is the quick reply from Justin Hughes. “Not yet.”
Sitting on the floor of a Chicago gym surrounded by a forest of heavy bags, he is smiling and energized after teaching a boxing class.
“I still wake up nervous.” He is more serious now. “Is a bullet gonna fly past me?”
The 25 year-old trainer and amateur MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter’s expression tells you he wants to exhale, but he can’t yet.
Justin grew up in South Chicago, where street signs delineate gang lines.
“We’re raised in a war zone, you know? You gotta learn how to survive while you’re trying to pursue your dreams.”
In that order.
“Surviving is more important than doing homework or track practice or going to the library, because you can get shot going to any of those.
“As a kid, I was a punk. I used to always get beat up. I had glasses. I was skinny. And I had no big brothers.” That meant no one to help him out in a fight. “No retaliation means they’re gonna do it again. And keep doing it.”
Wherever there is a void, something enters to fill it. Guys in the neighborhood did what they could to protect the young boy Justin from the streets.
“They used to tell me, ‘Go in the house, they’re about to start shooting.’ So, you know, I used to run in the house and then hear the gun shots.
And like many boys Justin knew, he didn’t have a father in his life.
“We can talk about me not having a dad. But that’s everybody!” he says, his arm sweeping wide. “Nobody had a dad.
“So we looked up to the guys in the neighborhood. They would make sure we stayed in school. We’d get punished if they’d see us ditching.”
As Justin got a little older, the ways they protected him became less parent, more peer.
“There’d be times where we’ll be fighting with other neighborhoods, and we’ll be sent to go shoot at them, and they’ll pick certain ones like, ‘no, you can’t go.'”
Sometimes Justin was among the ones who couldn’t go.
“It’s like being surrounded by water. And you’re trying to get to another land that you see over there.
“You gotta know how to swim. So eventually I had to dive into it. I had to learn how to swim with the sharks for a while.”
Even though his dad may have been absent, his mother was fully engaged.
“My mother is strong!” he smiles. “She’s like an Army general.
“And my mother was real strict. ‘Gotta be in the house before the street lights come on,'” she’d say. “And we used to have to ask to get water out of the refrigerator,” he laughs. “I don’t see where THAT came in…” But he understands what she was doing.
“There were a lot of kids that were very disrespectful to their mothers out there, and I guess she was making sure we would never EVER be like that. So it was good. She raised me good.”
Tough Times and Turning Points
The influence of people outside was growing. And darker days were coming.
“I kind of lost my way around 14,15. My mother definitely didn’t want me going down that path, as you can imagine.
“I’d come home with scratches, or the police would bring me home and tell my mom ‘your boy was fighting.'”
As Justin’s trouble increased, so did his mother’s pain. He remembers her crying. He remembers her trying to get through to him.
He didn’t want to listen. But she persisted.
“I’d go in the bathroom to take a shower, and there would be a letter there. She’d write me letters and leave them where I’d find them.
“They would say things like, ‘You need to slow down, son…'”
He stopped to think about that.
“That stuff always made me cry.”
He knew she cared, and beyond that, she was also highly intuitive when it came to Justin.
“I am inches and seconds away from getting into some crazy trouble,” he remembers. “And she’ll just call my cellphone. At first I’m ignoring her. But I can’t ignore my mom, because I’m in fear of her.”
So he’d answer, and hear her voice down the phone.
“‘What are you doing? Huh? What are you doing? Get back in the house!'”
Shaking his head, he smiles then laughs. There is a hint of awe.
“My mom is THE angel,” he beams. “I’m talking about THE number one angel!”
Justin’s mom, good grades and participation on sports teams kept Justin attached by a string to hard work and honest living. But increasingly he was marking time outside of school by more brushes with the law, violence, guns, selling drugs.
Even so, he graduated from prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, then went away to Champaign for college. He loved art class. His professors saw promise in him. A new day was beginning.
But old patterns followed Justin, and his world changed again: Felony possession of a defaced firearm.
“They gave me a two year suspension from school. There was a trial…”
And a little jail time.
Justin went home to Chicago. And back to the streets.
“I had no direction. I was getting in trouble every day. Just selling drugs and surviving. My mom kicked me out a couple of times.
“It was to the point where I was like, man, I gotta do SOMETHING, you know?”
When things were on the mend, you could find Justin at home on the couch, playfully fighting with his mom over the television remote control. His mom would win.
“I was sitting there watching HGTV, and I was like, ‘Mom, this is BORING’.
“After a while, I was like, ‘They should have made the kitchen THAT color. They should have put the towel over there.’
“And one day a light bulb clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘I might actually LIKE this stuff.’
“I had started learning about colors and color therapy and how colors make people feel, and I felt art was deeper than what the mind can see.
He thought to himself, “I might need to pursue this. What does this cost?” He got on the internet and he searched.
He sought out the Illinois Institute of Art.
And he got in.
“Art school was very expensive, and you gotta get art supplies. I was applying for jobs, but they weren’t coming quick enough.
“So I started selling drugs even harder. I was out at 6:30 in the morning. I needed money. And I used that money to buy my books and art supplies.”
It got him through. That and a lot of hard work. Across his chest, a tattoo in all capital letters reads HARD WORK. Justin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture.
“I feel like college is a good point for finding yourself. I felt like the professors I had really helped me — the way they related the lectures and the work to life.”
Justin is meeting new people and developing new interests. New passions are being revealed. He has a talent for MMA and has become an amateur fighter. He wants to win a title belt. He found he not only has an aptitude for boxing, but also for teaching the sport. He is a personal trainer. Instead of selling crack, he now makes his money at the gym. He has an apartment of his own. Justin is starting to think about dreams a little more and basic survival a little less.
His yesterdays are still not far away though. When he visits his mom, he walks a fine line with some people from his past.
“When I come back, I can feel some resentment. But it’s my home.
“I’m trying to drag some of the little guys out of that life. They still look up to me. They see some of the stuff that I’m doing now. And they have seen where I came from. So they listen to me sometimes.”
Wherever Justin can find success, he plans to use it to help young people.
In martial arts: “I want to coach kids. I want them to be the best.” In music: “I love making beats. I want to help kids make beats.” In art: “If I get the chance to open my own design firm, I’d like to hire some kids as interns. I want to show them there’s other things than playing basketball and rapping.
“Now, it’s not about ‘What do I want to BE’. But ‘What do I want to CREATE?'”
Justin wants to dream a bigger dream for kids than they do for themselves.
A football coach once did that for him. In his senior year of high school, Justin was new to the sport. When the team’s middle linebacker got hurt, Justin says coach Tim Franken summoned him.
“‘I want you to play middle linebacker,'” he said. Justin’s voice jumps in disbelief at the memory. “I’m thinking, ‘What? I’m 5’7”, a hundred and some change, soaking wet!’
“Coach Franken said, ‘I think you got heart. I see it.’
“He instilled so much confidence in me in that one sentence. ‘I think you got heart. I think you can do it.’ I swear to God, I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”
He laughs a little, uplifted by the thought of it.
His laugh is contagious and bright and transcends hardship. And it is not a laugh “an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle”, as scripted by Carl Sandburg in his raw rich poem “Chicago”. It is a laugh of joy and battles hard fought, of new horizons in view and of promise. It is a laugh that, when unguarded, vibrates with the sound of youth.
“I’m not lightly breezing through life, but I’m not fighting myself spiritually anymore. I feel like I made it through a very rough stormy part…
“But I think I still got a lot to go.”