D. was neither the youngest nor the oldest child of the 10 children his mother had given birth to in 11 years. Two of the babies had died. His mother wasn’t yet thirty.
There were two or three fathers involved. Well, involved at conception, but MIA as soon as they realized what their wild oats had sown. Sadly, the children thought it was normal to pack their belongings on the 29th of the month so Mom could sneak them out of the house in the middle of the night, before the rent came due on the 30th. During the time I knew D., they moved several times. The way he told it, I often wondered if the only time they saw their Mom was on moving day. They weren’t a family. They were strangers who passed in the night. He’d walk in the backdoor of a neighbor’s home at 3 a.m. because he knew the men were up playing cards. His Mom wasn’t home. Probably had no idea where he was either. Worst yet, she didn’t seem to care. Not with so many mouths to feed.
D. was third in line of the survivors, as I came to think of his siblings. A handsome kid with skin the color of caramel, he had way too much street savvy for a child his age. With some reluctance he followed a schoolmate to the Center, encouraged by his friend’s promise that we offered free snacks. Free food appealed to the thin 8 year old boy, but he didn’t like the strings which came attached: homework first. There were three things D. was wary of: the police, school and white people. He felt none of them should be trusted. And there I was, some pale stranger offering to help with his homework while calmly explaining that the police were there to help us.
That first day D. glared at my lily white face with an attitude which signaled loud and clear that I was not to be trusted. And then he declared the only good cop was a dead one. I took a deep breath, smiled, then casually asked him to open his book and show me how I could help with his homework. His stony face suddenly registered little boy surprise. It would be a while before I realized that D. lived in a world where people MADE him do things. They didn’t ask what he needed. Most of the time, they didn’t even notice him.
Eyeing me so hard I felt he was plumbing for the depths of my soul, if white people had a soul, he asked coolly, “And if I do, I get a snack?”
“Yes,” I’d replied. “In fact, I could use a helper to hand them out. You interested?”
His stomach won and we bonded then…over the promise of cookies and juice. The next day, he brought his younger brother and sister. For all those street smarts, D. considered his siblings innocent little kids. Homework was merely a momentary delay to snack time. D. watched over them, raising an eyebrow when his little brother spontaneously hugged me…and I hugged him back. It took 6 months, but one day D. sidled up to me, muttered his thanks for something, hugged me and then ran off as if touching my skin might burn him alive. After that, none of his family left without a hug, either in greeting or goodbye. Most of the time, it was both.
Now in all fairness, D. could try the patience of a saint. He studied people. Learned to read them. Some days, he’d push as many of my buttons as he could to see if the white lady would finally dismiss him, like the rest of his world. Not aiming for sainthood personally, there were times I was tempted to snap at him, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” But I couldn’t. I knew acting out was how he covered what was really going on. His unspoken mantra was be a man, be tough and never cry. Besides, if we didn’t help him teach him about manners, that kid would’ve been stuck in an empty house, all alone, for a very long time.
Unfortunately, the Director often gave in to frustration, screaming at him to get out. Sometimes for a day, often for a week. I’d cringe, knowing the Center was the safest place for him. How can you learn if people keep throwing you away? In retaliation, he’d smart off again at the Director, determined to have the last word as he exited. He never looked me in the eye at those moments. I understood why. He feared finding disappointment. Even when he made me angry, we always talked things through. He never slammed a door in my face. When his siblings showed up the next day, I’d ask about D., telling them he was welcome to return as long as he brought his manners and left the attitude at home, preferably in a closet. They always giggled…and he always came back.
His return never included an apology. Just a sheepish grin which summed it all up: I know. I lost it. I shouldn’t yell at adults. I’m sorry. Are we done now? His first words were usually to tell me, quite sternly, that he’d only returned to help me with Math. The kids all knew I hated Math homework. Why? Because I’d confessed one day to illustrate that if you don’t ask questions, you grow up to dread something which might not be all that horrible. D. would never admit it, but the Center was his haven from reality, a safe port in the family storm where he could get help, understanding…and a peanut butter sandwich.
Over the years, D. grew comfortable enough to ask me questions. Or confess. As long as it was one-on-one without witnesses, we talked about the things HE needed to talk about. Homework. Dumb older siblings treating him like he was stupid. A cute girl…not that he wanted to talk to her or anything. A one day school suspension for fighting. We’d discuss that sometimes, it took a bigger man to walk away from a fight than get sucked into one. He acknowledged that maybe the police actually did help people. No, they hadn’t arrested his uncle for no reason….his uncle had been dealing drugs. But it was his favorite uncle. It wasn’t fair.
Life isn’t fair, I agreed. And sometimes that sucks.
I tried to end these talks with the fact that life was a series of choices and consequences. For the most part, he understood. And he tried. Really. It was a struggle, but he was learning to explain things to the younger ones rather than stand over them and scream. Like his Mom did to him. Turned out he was a math whiz. Soon, he was voluntarily helping the younger kids.
So you can get a break, he’d explain with a grin.
Ah, that grin. When that child was happy his face lit up as if powered by pure love and goodness. I saw him grow from an angry little boy to one learning that knowledge is power. I praised him when he deserved it and tried to calmly point out why his anger didn’t make things go smoother. I still remember one conversation when both of us were completely frustrated with the other and I blurted out, “You know D. you’re a smart guy. You can be anything. But you have to learn that life has rules. You’re either going to grow up to be CEO of your own company….or you’re going to go to jail for life, without parole.”
Oddly enough, that made him laugh. Choose your friends wisely, I would always conclude. He’d try harder. For a week or so. Then we’d do this dance again. It had to wear a kid down to enter a house where home life was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But I saw D. grow from someone who believed life meant moving in the dead of night to understanding he could grow up to be anything he put his mind to. All he had to do was try.
The day came when they moved again, this time across town. I don’t know who was sadder. I actually missed those times when it felt like he was cross examining me on the witness stand in order to get a whole answer instead of an easy one. When he hugged me goodbye that day, there was a warmth and caring I’d never imagined possible.
Six months later I heard his Mom, pregnant again, had allowed D. to go live with another family whose son was in his class. A two parent, white family. One which believed in homework and curfews. I grinned, knowing he’d gone gratefully into what the 8 year old D. would’ve considered the enemy camp. A month later I saw him at the movies with that friend. Now 12, he’d grown taller, filled out. He was wearing clean clothes, NEW clothes, and his expression was polite rather than confrontational. When my husband stepped away for a moment after their introduction, D. leaned over and whispered, “He looks like a nice man. He take good care of you? He better.”
I nodded with a smile. My street smart smart aleck had finally learned to surround himself with people who could help him be the best he could be, not those who would drag him into their problems by shouting, “You gotta go with us now. No questions asked.”
Three days ago there was an article in the local newspaper. A 16 year old boy and three men had gone into a home to buy drugs, with the intention of also robbing the drug dealers. For some reason they thought drug dealers wouldn’t have guns. It all went bad very fast. As the four ran out the door to jump in their getaway car, the last one, the boy, was shot in the back. The adults jumped in…and left the boy behind. Alone. He died at the hospital 30 minutes later.
Yesterday, I found out that boy was D..
And I cried.
Choices have consequences. I only wish he’d had someone there to help him make a better choice. He would’ve made one helluva CEO.