In pristine white tails, Iven Bailey strode through a pungent alley and emerged, like a performer from backstage, onto sunlit Tivoly Avenue. Waiting for him there was his audience, neighbors eager to have a look at the cleaned-up senior on the evening of his high school prom. His two older sisters danced around him, giggling and snapping pictures. Car horns honked in approval. A woman yelled from her front steps, "Oooh, you look good. I wish I was young enough to go."
As collected as a movie star, Iven paraded around the block accepting compliments. Then he borrowed a cushion and placed it underneath himself before sitting down on the steps of an abandoned house. He wasn't about to risk smudging his pants.
His little cousin, Isaiah, squirmed up next to him. Music blared over the block from a stereo. A little girl inspected him, the lone disapproving soul. "You got too much glitter," she sniffed.
Iven did glitter, from the gold fronts on his teeth to his sparkly gold tie to the gold outlining the soles of his black shoes.
Iven and his best friend Gary Sells planned to wring every bit of fun from this night. Both boys were about to graduate from Lake Clifton-Eastern High School after a year that entailed so much more than schooling: incarceration, violence, arrest, homelessness and hunger. They were among 2,289 homeless Baltimore students.
Each still faced great uncertainty. Iven didn't know how he'd pay for Allegany College, the junior college in Cumberland to which he had been admitted. And Gary had no idea what he would do after graduation. Soon both boys would be out of money.
But now, as their high school careers came to a close, they felt they'd earned the right to celebrate.
Weeks ago, their dates had ordered their dresses from seamstresses after long negotiations with the boys to coordinate the colors of the tuxedos and gowns. Gary paid his prom expenses from $350 he had won in a dice game plus some money his father had kicked in. Iven used savings from an account that he had set up with the help of Lake Clifton's principal, Lisa Tarter. The money had come from the Social Security benefit he received as a result of his father's death.
Iven had once envisioned picking up his date, Kendria Manning, in a horse-drawn carriage but had conceded that was not a practical idea. On his part, Gary had been unable to borrow a fancy car from a friend.
For two usually impulsive teenagers, Iven and Gary had planned meticulously. Gary would play it cool. He would lounge on his front steps until just before it was time to go. He wanted to arrive late at Martin's West, when the event was in full swing. Iven, on the other hand, had gotten dressed early to leave plenty of time to show off in front of friends and neighbors on Tivoly.
He was enjoying all the attention while affecting an air of nonchalance. Then he spotted his mother.
Janet Bailey was sitting on the concrete steps outside Betty Jones' house. Iven had boarded with Jones for a few months earlier in the year.
When Janet had walked up, she was unsteady on her feet, and Jones had worried about Iven's reaction. "He is going to be so upset when he sees her," Jones said.
Iven had thought his mother might show up to see him on his prom night. He had deliberately distanced himself from her these past months. Seeing her now was bittersweet.
He walked over to her, looked into eyes that now glistened in the soft afternoon light and reached out to take her hands.
She gazed at him and began to wail. "I love you. My baby, my baby. You made it. Oh, my child made it." The words were joyful, but there was unmistakable sorrow in her voice. Iven teared up.
"Please don't cry," she begged. She was practically screeching.
The moment was interrupted by a pounding noise. Everyone turned in that direction and saw several teenage boys splayed on the sidewalk as men in black clothing held guns to their heads. Two doors down from where Iven and Janet Bailey clasped hands, other men dressed in black forced their way through the front door and began herding young men outside.
When the men with guns turned their backs, the white lettering on their shirts revealed who they were: "POLICE." They were carrying out drug raids on two houses. Unmarked police cars, their doors open wide, blocked the street. A police officer began putting plastic handcuffs on the suspects. The crowd on the street thinned as people retreated to their porches or went inside.
Iven could see it was time to go, and he climbed into a car driven by a friend. Off they went to pick up Kendria.
At their house in a middle-class neighborhood of brick duplexes, Kendria's mother and father watched her descend the stairs from the second floor. "Where is the rest of the material?" McKenneth Manning said, eyeing his daughter's short black dress. Kendria told him that the dressmaker had cut it a little shorter than she had expected. She yanked on the hem.
Manning told Iven to take good care of his little girl and not bring her home too late. Iven assured him. But right now, he wanted to show her off back on Tivoly.
After returning, Iven strolled down the street with Kendria to more oohing and aahing. Even the cops who were finishing up their drug bust smiled at the couple before the pair drove off to Martin's West.
In Gary's neighborhood, his family was out on the sidewalk waiting to ogle him, too. But he refused to be rushed. He was getting dressed not in the Guilford Avenue house, which had no hot water or electricity, but at the apartment of his girlfriend, Alexis Lewis.
At last he was ready. He wore a dignified black tuxedo. His hair was cut shorter than usual and his beard carefully trimmed. He looked older than 18. "I got my tickets, got my keys, got my wallet," he said, taking inventory.
Gary Sells Sr. arrived to see his son and pinned a lavender rose on Gary's lapel. Alexis was dressed in a sparkling lavender floor-length gown. Nearly dark now, it was time to present themselves on Guilford Avenue. Pictures were snapped and hugs exchanged with Gary's sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts and cousins.
"Grandma," he shouted as he put his arms around his maternal grandmother. "What's up?"
Alexis gently wiped the sweat off Gary's forehead.
"I am so proud," one relative said.
Finally, Gary asked, "Alexis, you ready?" and held open the passenger door of the old Grand Marquis that he had borrowed. A few relatives worried whether he'd get lost driving to Woodlawn.
As Gary had intended, they arrived fashionably late. They quickly found Iven and Kendria at a table near the dance floor. Not long after the greetings, the boys ditched their dates.
With their arms around each other's shoulders, they went off together to survey the scene, circling the halls with their friend, Trevon "Bones" Smith.
Once the slow music began, they came back for their dates.
"Now he wants to come get me," Kendria said, rolling her eyes.
The couples sliced into a sea of shimmering chiffon, silk and nylon, disappearing between Cinderella gowns and bare, come-and-get-me dresses. Some danced modestly; others ground against one another. By the end of the night, the girls carried their strappy 4-inch heals and wore flip-flops.
At midnight, Gary turned the key in the Grand Marquis. Alexis, Iven and Kendria all jumped in, laughing and slamming doors. Then they were off.
Gary planned to put all his belongings at a cousin's house in South Baltimore. He would stay with Alexis and her mother around the corner for a while, and the rest of the family would split up into different houses.
After school, Gary and Kevin started jamming what they wanted to keep into black plastic trash bags and throwing the rest into a corner.
Gary grabbed a big green ceramic vase in the shape of a fish and dumped its contents. "My birth certificate, can't lose that," he said. From under his mattress he pulled a handful of photographs.
It took all of 20 minutes to pack his life's possessions into six bags.
One of Gary's little nieces asked Gary if he had a house.
"Do I have a house?" Gary said. "I'm homeless. Just like you."
Iven had mailed the federal financial aid forms before the March 1 deadline, but he had unwittingly used his late father's Social Security number rather than his own. The mistake had proven significant - his application was never processed. Alerts had gone to his former address on Tivoly. When he stopped there, Jones had told him she had no mail for him.
Mail was a continuing problem for someone who was homeless like Iven. He had never received his admission letter from Allegany. Neither had he gotten requests for information from Dean College in Massachusetts, originally his first choice, and Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. As a result, those schools did not consider his application.
"Good morning, Ms. Tarter," 256 graduates said back to her in a sing-song reminiscent of an elementary school classroom.
"Welcome to the final graduation of Lake Clifton-Eastern High School," said Tarter, elegant in a white silk suit. As everyone knew, Lake Clifton was closing at the end of the school year as part of a reorganization of high schools.
Valedictorian Raynelle Holliday soon began her speech, taking a moment to praise a science teacher who had helped her as well as Iven and Gary throughout the year. "She was there to give us a push when we needed it," Raynelle said. "She is our biggest cheerleader."
Cheyanne Zahrt wiped tears away and waved at the class of 2005 from the side of the auditorium amid applause and shouts.
Julian Myers, the salutatorian, delivered his address tent-revival style. He asked the African-American men in the class to stand. When they rose, he said that while the rest of society might think of them as heathens, thugs, drug dealers, and menaces, he knew better. "Stand here and stand strong as the future doctors, entrepreneurs ... presidents." After they left the neighborhood, they shouldn't forget "to look at that little boy in the 'hood that's going through something," he said.
Then Tarter came forward to bestow two principal's awards, to members of the class who had persevered through adversity. One recipient, she announced, was Iven Bailey, whom she called her "adopted son." He also got a $500 scholarship.
Iven stood up in the front row, turned and pointed at Gary, many rows back. Gary rose part way out of his seat and pointed back. Sherita Bailey, Iven's sister, sitting next to Iven's mother, screamed from the back of the auditorium.
At last, it was time to hand out the diplomas. Iven stood with the other graduates, lined up in alphabetical order, boys in blue gowns, girls in yellow. When his name was called, Iven dropped to his knees, held his palms up and mouthed a prayer.
Gary was nervous as his turn came, but on stage he was composed. When he hugged Tarter, he held on for several moments. That morning, he had removed the bracelets he had worn all year to remind him of his ambition to graduate.
The Lake Clifton graduates on June 4 represented about a quarter of the 1,060 students who had started in the ninth grade. From that class, a few dozen were in other city schools, and some were believed to have moved to the counties. The majority had dropped out. (Among African-Americans nationally, two studies show, the high school graduation rate is about 50 percent.)
In Lake Clifton's graduating class of 256, only eight students had earned a B average or better. Twenty-nine had been accepted by colleges or universities.
In the school's crowded hallways after graduation, Gary and Iven found each other and hugged. Gary held Iven close and whispered in his ear. He told Iven that he loved him. The he gave him some advice: "Don't be up on that block acting a fool."
Some days, Edward Tarter, the principal's husband, would pick Iven up. They would go to rental properties the Tarters owned and perform odd jobs. In the evening Lisa Tarter was always pleased to see Iven covered with dirt but content with a hard day's work. All year, Tarter had viewed Iven as smart and sensitive, worth all the efforts that she made on his behalf.
One appointment on Iven's summer agenda was his trial in June on the marijuana possession charge. Iven didn't keep it. As a result, a District Court judge issued a bench warrant for Iven's arrest. The address the warrant listed: "homeless."
Iven had told Lisa Tarter that the charges against him had been dismissed at the trial. When she later learned that was a lie, Tarter took the news equably. She didn't find it unusual for a teenager to lie when he got in trouble, and she believed Iven was usually truthful with her. "He made a poor decision, and to cover it up he lied," Tarter said.
She and her husband continued to take up Iven's cause. Ed Tarter wrote a letter asking for a new court date and requesting that any notices concerning the case be sent to his address.
On the steamy July day that Gary turned 19, he sat on an old plastic chair on the sidewalk a few doors down from his old house on Guilford Avenue, as his brown puppy circled around him on a leash. He said he was looking for jobs and had registered for classes at Baltimore City Community College. His latest plan was to work and take courses in health care. Gary most of all wanted a steady job. He dreamed of an apartment in Owings Mills some day, but for now he was without a permanent address. "I hope I will be successful," he had said earlier, with little conviction in his voice. At a minimum, he said he didn't want to hustle anymore, to sell drugs. "I hope no one will read about me in the paper," meaning the newspaper's crime stories.
Later in the summer, the police picked up Gary for loitering while he lounged in front of a boarded-up house with a sign that said, "NO LOITERING." He said that the police had let him go without charging him. While describing the episode one afternoon in August, he sat on a stoop with a blunt perched behind his ear.
That month, Gary found a job at Procter & Gamble through a temporary employment agency. He made $7.40 an hour packing Cover Girl products into boxes and stacking them. The job was OK, he said, but he never knew how many hours he would work or how much money he would make. It was precisely the kind of hand-to-mouth existence he had hoped to avoid.
He got the idea of becoming a correctional officer and took the state Division of Corrections test. The job paid "nice money," $35,000, he heard. If he got it, he hoped he could take classes at BCCC in the spring. He thought he'd like to become a fireman or go into criminal justice, maybe become a probation officer or even a defense lawyer.
He missed Iven. "That kid's my brother," he said.
On the upside, a friend of his father had just sold him a car for $250. It was an old Chevy, a black Lumina. Maybe it wasn't the camouflaged Cadillac in his dream, but he had plenty of time to make that one come true.
Summer was a time of transition for others, too. With Lake Clifton closed, some of the boys' mentors were on the move. Lisa Tarter was assigned to an administrative job at city school headquarters. Cheyanne Zahrt was hired to teach science at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a small city high school in Northeast Baltimore. And Herman Harried was to continue coaching.
The lesson that day was to turn sentence fragments into correct, full sentences. The instructor, a patient, young woman, reviewed the difference between a noun and a verb and the definition of a dependent clause.
Iven would have to spend this first year in college filling in the blanks of his inadequate high school education. He needed to pass three remedial classes in math, English and reading before he could go on to college-level classes. Many students in remedial classes at Allegany never make it that far.
In the three weeks since the Tarters had dropped him off, Iven had grown more at ease on campus. He relished having his own room, a place to put up a picture of his father.. And he liked the three students who shared his dormitory suite.
His thoughts often drifted to Gary. "It would have been 10 times better if he were here," Iven said. He never got over the feeling that Gary had not been able to imagine himself in college, away from the old neighborhood. Gary hadn't been able to overcome the present and firmly fix on a future. Still, Iven told himself he would always be there for Gary. "As long as I am alive, he will eat," Iven said.
The first week at Allegany, Iven had all but hibernated, venturing from his room only to eat or go to class. Then, in a telephone call, Lisa Tarter ordered him to "get out of your room." He did.
He emerged transformed - at least physically. He snapped out the gold fronts that he had worn over his teeth in high school and had traded in his long white T-shirts for pastel polos. He also cut off the dreadlocks he had worn for four years. He'd been nervous, standing in front of the mirror with a pair of clippers, but now he liked the way he looked. "I was hiding behind my hair," he said.
His changed appearance might have been a symbolic break from his precarious past, but Iven's future remained full of uncertainty. For one thing, the marijuana possession charge was unresolved. Unknown to him, a trial date had been set for Sept. 19, and when he didn't appear, a judge again issued an arrest warrant.
There was also the matter of paying for college. The first year was covered through loans, financial aid, a federal work-study job and scholarships. By the end of his first year, he would owe $6,000 in student loans and would have used most of his scholarship money. As for the future years, he would need the same level of aid. He also had yet to prove that he could handle the course work.
But Iven remained the same combination of naivete and hopefulness that had gotten him through his senior year at Lake Clifton. At various times he had said that, in the future, he might be a teacher or a professional athlete or an anthropologist.
For so many reasons, they seemed like far-fetched goals. But here he was at Allegany surrounded by verdant mountains. A year ago, who would have imagined that?