'I am my own parent'

Photographs by Andre F. Chung [Sun photographer]

Second of four parts

Herman Harried, Lake Clifton's basketball coach, eased his SUV to a curb on Harford Road and deposited one of his players, a lanky senior named Iven Bailey, into a raw evening of early February. Harried, an imposing former forward for Syracuse University, was known as a rigorous coach. Any player who missed practice had to run laps with a brick in each hand. His six-day-a-week sessions went on hour after hour, long after the building had otherwise emptied.

But Harried had ulterior motives in keeping his players so late. He knew that if his kids were in the gym, they were safe, a certainty he didn't have once he discharged them onto the streets of Baltimore.

Now, after tonight's victory over Carver, he was dropping off Iven, but not before issuing his usual stern warning. Go straight home, he told him. Stay out of trouble.

The boy protested: "Coach, I don't do that. I'm going into the house." He slapped five with his best friend, Gary Sells, whom Harried would drop off next. The car pulled away.

Iven and Gary were seniors at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School. They had become friends after sharing a secret with one another: Each was living on his own, apart from parents or any other guardians. They were among Baltimore's 2,289 homeless students.

The streetlights cast odd shadows across the block as Iven made his way. Ahead of him, he spotted a group of boys he knew hanging out on a porch.

"How'd the game go, Iven?" someone called.

Iven climbed the steps to join them. No harm in jawing with them for a few minutes, he thought.

Then, he said, he heard shots and registered the ping, ping, ping of bullets hitting a metal roof. Without hesitation, Iven's legs were pumping, putting distance between himself and the gunfire. He sprang over one porch rail after another in frantic flight. Above the sounds of his own panting, he heard someone shout: "He's been shot! He's dying!"

In moments, he was in the living room of his rowhouse, peering through the curtains. Other kids in other places might not have had to think twice about what could happen if they stopped to banter with their buddies. But not on Tivoly Avenue.

Soon enough, Iven saw kids he knew being shoved into squad cars. Worried that the police had come for him, too, he grabbed a phone and dialed the number of one of the few adults he knew would come pick him up, a Lake Clifton teacher named Cheyanne Zahrt. Would she come get him and drive him to Gary's, where he'd be safe for the night? Zahrt agreed, and shortly, he heard her car horn honking outside his door. He scrambled into the car, and soon the two were sitting in a fast-food restaurant. "I could have got killed," he told her.

Perilous neighborhood Iven knew as well as anybody how perilous Tivoly was. He also knew that he loved it.

He liked walking down the block to buy candy at the corner convenience store with his cousin, Isaiah Brooks, at 5 a miniature version of Iven with his own chin-length dreadlocks. They didn't dwell on the carcasses of empty buildings that surrounded them or the garbage piled nearly as high as Isaiah's waist.

Even in his short lifetime, Iven had seen the neighborhood deteriorate. He could remember a time when the street was almost pretty, when every third house wasn't boarded up or burned out and the frame porches didn't sag.

Iven liked that he knew just about everyone as he and Isaiah sauntered along. He could say who lived across the street and who had lived there before them. People moved at a leisurely pace here, and talk was plentiful. Iven always ran into friends from grade school or their brothers, sisters, parents or cousins. They sometimes came to cheer him on at basketball games, filling a bleacher section.

He liked seeing the children on bikes looping up and down the street or his friends, standing in bunches, cracking each other up. He liked hanging out at the little store, which was barely recognizable as a business from the outside. He'd idly listen to the gossip while perusing a wall of photographs from the neighborhood, of girls glowing in their prom dresses, of boys playing football in numbered jerseys, of smiling mothers showing off newborns.

Word spread quickly about what had happened the night of the gunfire. One brother had accidentally shot and killed another. Iven knew the shooter, knew his brother, too.

Police say the 2700 block of Tivoly is one of the worst in that area of Northeast Baltimore. About half the houses on the block have been raided for drugs in the past couple years, said Sgt. A.J. Bickauskas, head of the drug squad in the Northeast District. Heroin and crack cocaine are sold openly; marijuana is everywhere.

In 2004, within a five-minute walk of where Iven was then living on Tivoly, 12 people had been shot and four others murdered. It was no better where his friend, Gary, lived almost a mile to the south. During the same year, three people were killed in Gary's neighborhood and 12 others shot. Most of the casualties were under 30.

Drugs were the cause of most of this violence, as it was much of the tumult in the lives of the boys. Both of Gary's parents had been addicts, and his mother had died of an overdose. A cousin was in prison for a drug-related murder of a clerk at a neighborhood store, just three doors from Gary's home on Guilford Avenue. Gary himself had been shot while selling drugs his sophomore year.

Iven was no stranger to substance abuse, either. A cousin of his was in a group home because a parent was addicted to drugs, and Iven had been arrested for selling crack the summer after his junior year.

Iven and Gary smoked marijuana. They emptied the tobacco from cheap cigars and rolled weed in the paper. Both said they drew the line at using cocaine and heroin, which, from their observations, they regarded as too dangerous. They had no compunction about selling it; they just didn't want to use it.

A lone, familiar figure Iven was on his way to school one winter morning when, he said, he glanced down the alley from Tivoly and saw a lone figure. It was his mother. She was less than 10 feet away, and he looked straight into her green eyes.

She never acknowledged him, never even smiled. She held his gaze for a moment and then, without uttering a word, she walked right past him.

For as long as he could remember, his feelings toward Janet Bailey had been a stew of affection and resentment. What kind of mother would float in and out of her child's life? He'd seen how parents indulged their children with the latest styles, even as he made do with his old jeans. He saw fathers pick up their boys every night from basketball practice, while he walked out of the gym and into the cold and dark. He knew parents who coddled teenagers who had dropped out, but no one would take care of him, a boy who went to school every day and was trying to graduate.

But Janet wasn't that kind of parent. He said that weeks might go by without a word or a visit from her.

Still, he loved her. Two winters earlier, he had her name tattooed on the backs of his hands in fancy script - "Janet" on one hand, "Bailey" on the other.

And he knew that she loved him, too. She had a way of turning up at moments when he didn't even dare hope for her presence. She had gotten him out of jail the previous summer after his arrest on the drug charge. She had made it to one of his basketball games and yelled his name. One day, she had walked miles to give him a few dollars for food when he had called to tell her he was very hungry.

"My mother," he'd say, "she ain't no real bad person. She is a sweet person."

Sometimes he felt he was the one who took care of her. Since he had turned 18 in October of his senior year, he had been handing over nearly half of his Social Security death benefit to Janet. In January and February, she began showing up regularly at Betty Jones' house. He came home some nights, he said, and found his mother sleeping in his bed. He'd retreat to the basement or a friend's house for the night. Once she woke him up to ask him for money, he said, complaining that she was hungry. He refused. If it was food she wanted, she could find some downstairs in the refrigerator.

He said she often dissolved into self-pity, crying about the death in 2002 of her husband - Iven's father - and saying that she would get the family back together soon in a real home.

Iven would see her, and he would feel depressed.

The truth was, Iven did blame her. "You can't trust nobody. Because I feel like I have already been hurt. I been lied to. You get too attached to someone, you trust them. Then they mess up your trust. I've been messed up by everyone. That's how I feel."

Janet Bailey said she and Iven had to live apart so he could continue his education at Lake Clifton. She said he could always find a way to reach her if he had to.

As to whether Iven was all right on his own, she said she wasn't concerned. "I am not worrying about Iven living out there. He is fine. I don't have to worry about my child getting in no trouble, because he has never been no troubled kid. As long as you don't bother him, he won't bother you."

Then, as if confirming Iven's sense of their role reversal, she added, "He worry about his mother, but he don't have to worry about me because the Lord going to take care of me."

Whether Iven could forgive Janet her parental lapses, he eventually concluded that he needed less of her, not more. It got so that when he came home to find his mother at his landlady's, he would just turn around and leave.

Quiet is disrupted At the same time that Iven was gaining distance from his family, his best friend Gary Sells was being drawn closer to his.

Gary was living in his father's boyhood home on Guilford Avenue - without heat or utilities - with his 19-year old cousin, Kevin Braxton. His father had left Gary on his own in 2003 after Gary's mother died of a drug overdose. Gary had made do in the Guilford home. It was a spare existence, but he enjoyed the order, the quiet.

But then in February of his senior year, his three sisters informed him that they were being forced out of the house where they were living. They needed a place for themselves and the six children they had among them.

Gary felt he had no choice and invited them to move in with him. "Y'all might as well come over," was all Gary could say.

"Some things you don't like you just have to deal with," he observed.

Everyone squeezed into Gary's carefully arranged bedroom - the only one rigged with electricity and a space heater. "They took over that room," he later complained. "They were doing whatever they wanted."

Displaced, Gary and Kevin moved to the unheated middle bedroom with its one small window. Gary set about making it his own. He meticulously pinned 40 black trash bags to the damaged walls to form a scalloped pattern and hung his baseball caps. The room was gloomy, but it was neat.

His sisters' arrival did have at least one benefit; they paid the utilities. "We got lights," Gary said. And hot water, too.

On a day in March when school was closed for snow, Gary and Kevin passed the time playing video games and listening to rap music in their small room. Occasionally, children crawled or walked into the room to pester Uncle Gary to entertain them. Although he was usually patient with them, eventually he couldn't stand the noise and their little feet tripping over the video cables. Finally, he shooed his nieces and nephews out of the room and locked them out.

It didn't help. They just banged on the door.

Dull and difficult Iven's state of mind was hardly any better than Gary's. The shooting in February, discouragement over his mother's behavior and his lack of playing time on the basketball team all depressed him. As he walked to and from school in February and March, he kept his black hooded sweat shirt pulled tightly around his head, his face, usually so lively, an impassive mask.

Iven lost track of his mother's whereabouts, and it didn't bother him much. He consciously decided to stay away from Tivoly whenever he could, especially after two close friends from school were robbed at gunpoint after visiting him at Jones' house.

For Iven, time had become dull and difficult, something to be used up rather than savored. He turned to books, reading memoirs of famous African-Americans who had escaped life on the streets or slavery. He had recently finished reading a biography of Tupac Shakur, the rapper who had lived in Baltimore and left the neighborhood but was killed in a Las Vegas shooting. Then Iven started reading Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery.

In a sense, he began working on his own memoir, writing in the form of long letters to his father and his mother that he composed in a black-and-white composition book. He had kept a tight rein on the anxiety and sadness he had felt for two years but now poured out his feelings on these pages.

He wanted to believe there was a purpose to his sorrow. He turned in a familiar direction. God must have had a reason for delivering him such a painful adolescence, for taking his father away. He kept up his attendance at various churches, finding the two- or three-hour services soothing. He believed they strengthened his resolve to stay away from the "corruption" of his neighborhood.

He also drew comfort in the idea of a God who had expectations of him. "I just ain't going to be a lost soul," he said.

Iven's life was not without pleasures. He liked being in school and loved playing basketball. Sometimes, he walked home with Gary.

And now he had a romance. For weeks, Iven had pursued Kendria Manning, a willowy, startlingly pretty senior. He handed her letters he had written and chatted her up in the hallways at school. Kendria was unimpressed. But, by Valentine's Day weekend, she had relented and agreed to a date.

"It was one of the best weekends I ever had," said Iven. He hadn't felt that content since his father was alive. "I felt a little like my old self."

His efforts in school were far from consistent. He most enjoyed English class with an engaging teacher named Michelle Backhus. He wrote rough drafts of essays at night and then reworked them during lunch. Despite horrendous spelling and grammar, which sometimes made Iven's essays hard to decipher, Backhus thought they contained a kind of poetry.

At the end of class one day, Backhus handed students a form that their parents were expected to sign. Waiting until all his classmates had left the room, Iven wrote his name on the form and returned it.

"You signed for yourself," Backhus said.

He replied quietly, "I am my own parent."

A far-fetched scheme The idea of getting out of his neighborhood remained fixed in Iven's mind. "When I graduate, I am out," he said. "I am not coming back around here." But graduation was only part one of his plan. College was part two.

It was in many ways a far-fetched scheme. Hardly anyone in his immediate family had graduated from high school, let alone thought about college. Few of his classmates were interested in college, and Iven didn't know anything about the process of applying: the tests, the applications, the deadlines. By the time he began, most college seniors across the country had already completed the application process.

After school one day, Iven went to see Lake Clifton principal Lisa Tarter for help. She asked her secretary to assist him in searching the Internet for possible colleges. He needed the help. Computers were not second-nature to Iven.

The secretary set him up with an online questionnaire that claimed to match kids with the qualities they were looking for in a college. Iven knew what he wanted. With no real home, he needed a college dormitory. He didn't have strong grades, so he should probably aim for a junior college that didn't require good SAT scores or have high standards. Above all, he wanted to be far from Baltimore, beyond the reach of relatives.

Iven punched one key at a time, and the search engine spit out a prospect: a college called Newbury just west of Boston, Mass.

"Where is Massachusetts?" Iven asked.

He surveyed the Newbury Web site. The more he looked, the more he liked it. "Oh, yeah, I could go here," he said, his face lighting up. "I have to star this one."

When he was finished at the computer, he headed down to the room of teacher Cheyanne Zahrt. She set him up on the computer at her desk and patiently answered his questions: What does liberal arts mean? What's an associate's degree? What's an institution of higher learning?

This search produced another good bet: Dean College in Franklin, Mass.

In the weeks that followed, Iven continued doing computer searches with Zahrt. "I be worried about this stuff, Ms. Zahrt," he said one day.

"I know," Zahrt replied.

Zahrt was endlessly patient. Her classroom was a magnet for kids between classes and after school. She dispensed food, bear hugs and advice. One day, as she and Iven were working on his college search, she noticed that his pants were traveling toward his knees, revealing a good swath of plaid boxers. Unlike Gary, Iven was not tidy. His fingernails were usually long and dirty, and his hair an unkempt mop of dreadlocks.

"Do I have to buy you a belt?" asked Zahrt good-naturedly.

Iven pulled up his pants. "That's my style," he said.

They both laughed.

Exhilarating ride The future that was on Gary's mind those days mostly entailed sitting behind the wheel of a luxury car. A diploma was fine, but what he really yearned to get his hands on was a driver's license.

In early March of this year, Gary squeezed into the driver's seat for his first lesson. The car lurched forward when he stepped on the accelerator. "How your feet feel? OK?" the instructor asked from the passenger seat.

Gary steered down St. Paul Street, sailing through the traffic lights one after an another. "You want to slow down and not go too fast," said the instructor, a middle-aged man who sold real estate on the side. "It doesn't look too good when a student gets caught."

But the instructor couldn't know what exhilaration Gary felt. For a teenager who mostly rode buses, driving gave him a sense of control that was nearly foreign to him. He was free.

"You don't know how I feel right now," he said. He'd imagined himself in a Cadillac that matched his winter coat.

"Whenever you see a camouflaged Caddy, you'll know that is me," Gary told the instructor. He meant to get his license in time for the prom.

Before long, Gary was maneuvering the car with the skill of someone who'd been at it for months. "Some people are just naturals," the instructor said.

At the end of the two-hour lesson, Gary unfolded himself from the cramped car. He arched his back and stretched his arms, and then in the middle of Guilford Avenue he let out a deep-throated cry of both fatigue and joy.

Scared of the future A month later, Gary got his license. He celebrated by staying up all night and driving around in a friend's car.

The next morning, he was too tired to get up for school.

His absences from Lake Clifton were becoming more frequent. Sometimes, when he was in class, he would listen to rap on his headphones.

He knew he was screwing up. "I wish I could be 5 years old all over again. I wish I could relive my whole life over again. If I could start my life over again, I think I would be successful."

Tarter suspected that Gary was secretly scared about graduation. He didn't have a firm sense of his future, and school was safe and familiar. Tarter had seen it before. "I don't really want to graduate," Gary admitted at one point. "I want to stay in school forever."

Gary hadn't forgotten his ambition about graduating. Still, he didn't equate the goal with a commensurate degree of effort. In that, he was no different from hundreds of his peers in city schools.

Over the years, as poverty deepened in Baltimore, school standards precipitously dropped. Students in many Baltimore schools were required to do little more than just show up in order to advance from one grade to the next. Those who excelled were designated for one of the city's selective high schools. The rest packed into neighborhood schools such as Lake Clifton, which was being closed at the end of the 2004-05 year.

In those schools, many students barely mastered reading above a middle-school level or learned to write complete sentences. Hundreds dropped out, and few who remained aspired to more than a passing grade.

Gary's expectations were no higher. At the beginning of a new semester in February, he had asked his English teacher, Williette Darley, if her class was "going to be hard."

"Yes," Darley replied.

That wasn't the answer he wanted. He tried asking it another way. "I failed Ms. Backhus' because I turned in my project late," he said. "Do you accept late work?"

"No," Darley said.

"You don't?" he replied incredulously.

By March, Gary was failing classes, and missing school often. His family was a growing distraction. One day, instead of being at Lake Clifton, Gary answered the door on Guilford Avenue. He held a toddler on one shoulder, and the crackling sound of French fries could be heard from a deep-fat fryer in the living room behind him.

But the stress was taking a toll. In the fall, a doctor had warned him about his high blood pressure, and Gary worried it was on the rise again. And now he was experiencing migraines.

As the weeks passed, every room of the house, except Gary's, had filled with the debris of his sisters and their children. Toys and clothing were strewn everywhere. Trash bags bulging with belongings sat unpacked in corners. Soda bottles and paper littered the floor.

Gary, who craved order, had lost the battle. Chaos had descended all around him.


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