Shawn Johnson, 18, strode down the dark street, rushing home from the library early one evening, when a lady walking in front of him abruptly stopped and dropped her bags. There she stood, frozen, until Shawn walked past.
"It was kind of sad. She thought I was going to mug her or something," Shawn says, shaking his head. "And I was just thinking about getting home and working on [a school] project."
The woman's reaction did not faze Shawn. It is something he and his younger brother, Gerald, 16, are accustomed to. They are good, church-going young men who have never been in trouble. But they realize that many people assume the worst about them simply because they are young, male and black.
The Johnsons know the awful facts: 56 percent of young black men in Baltimore were in trouble with the law on any given day last year. Homicide is the leading cause of death among black men aged 18 to 24 in America. As many as half the students in Baltimore public schools drop out. And the students most likely to fail are black males.
"You know all of this worries me. I worry about my boys out there. Not worry, worry. But I think about them," says Charlotte Johnson, a 57-year-old swimming pool aide and former foster mother who struggles to raise her sons as a single parent. "All I can do is monitor my boys as much as possible. I don't let them just hang out, and I stay involved in their lives. And I ask them a lot of questions before they go out of the house."
In part because of the prodding of their vigilant, religious and selfless mother, the sad statistics don't define how the brothers Johnson view themselves. And, so far, they are beating the odds. They are in school, off the street and clear of trouble. But, still, they can't escape the shadow cast by 56 percent of their peers.
Shawn is a senior at Edmondson Westside Senior High School, a place clear across town from his family's small, semi-detached home in Northeast Baltimore. He rides two buses and the Metro to get to school. The entire journey takes an hour and a half. At Edmondson, Shawn is a senior and a member of the Air Force Junior ROTC program. He has serious ambitions about going to college, then joining the Marines. He is eyeing Clark Atlanta and Temple universities.
Gerald is a deeply spiritual youngster with a manner easy enough that some of his schoolmates playfully needle him by calling him "Rev." He is a sophomore at Frederick Douglass Senior High School, where he is enrolled in the music careers program and sings in the bass section of the choir.
To be sure, the Johnsons are young men who would make any parent proud. But, to many, that reality is often obscured by the images many people hold of young black men. Strangers on the street try to avoid them. They've been rudely rousted by police. And God knows what thoughts their very presence sends through the minds of some teachers and potential employers.
"When you walk by some white people on the street, they clutch their purses," Shawn says.
Chuckling, Gerald adds, "Their attitude is, 'just don't hurt me.' "
The brothers admit that their presence incites fear and a dubious reaction in blacks as well as whites. It is as if young black males are marked for trouble, they say. And that attitude causes the Johnson brothers to question how they are treated each time they enter a new situation.
Shawn worked last summer at Towson State University as a member of Upward Bound, a program that helps prepare students for college. He worked in the cafeteria, in the kitchen.
"That was a big experience. Mostly, they tried to keep the blacks in the back," he says.
One day, he says, money was stolen from a purse in the cafeteria. Immediately, he says, black Upward Bound students became the prime suspects. Shawn says he was questioned and told to write a statement for police.
"They tried to put me on the spot," he says. To his knowledge, the crime was never solved.
Gerald also spent the summer with Upward Bound. He remembers crossing paths with a nervous man on a foot bridge on the Towson campus.
"This guy was gripping the rail and just asking question after question," he says. "I don't know why he wanted to talk to me. But the look on his face said, 'Be my friend. Don't bother me' ."
That they incite that kind of fear leaves the Johnson brothers somewhat bewildered. But intellectually, they understand the fear because their lives bring them in close contact with other young people who are causing mayhem.
They are quick to say that most people they know want no trouble. But many others do. Their experiences prove it. They've rumbled with bullies and been picked on at the neighborhood swimming pool. They've seen schoolmates beaten by bands of hoods for no apparent reason.
Gerald has watched thugs in his school squirt a substitute teacher in the face with a fire extinguisher. And he just shakes his head at the food fights that erupt regularly in the cafeteria.
"A lot of kids, like, doing things that you think would turn on 2-year-olds," he says.
Shawn has shuddered as thugs used a golf club to smash the window of a bus he was riding. The flying glass cut a fellow student. He's seethed as pistol-brandishing hoods taunted boys who ride his bus from school. Once, he says, a girl ran her hand across his broad chest and asked admiringly whether he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. Others have asked whether he ever was locked up.
When he heard gunshots late one summer night, Shawn found out what happened simply by asking some guys he knew in the neighborhood.
"They were just shooting up in the air," he says, to his mother's surprise. "I guess it was what they would say was 'for fun.' "
Also, he says, a lot of guys in his neighborhood are into stealing cars. Some, attracted by the money, also are beginning to deal drugs.
"It seems like drugs have gotten bigger around here in the past year or two," Shawn says. "Everybody wants to deal."
Of course, all of that is scary. But the Johnson brothers seem to handle it as routinely as they go to school, the library or church.
"I go wherever I want to go. All you have to do is watch your back and conduct yourself a certain way and people don't bother you," Shawn explains. "You separate yourself from people you don't know. Not give them the shrugs, but something like that."
All of the potential trouble in the street worries Miss Johnson. When her sons go out, they are under a curfew. Midnight for movies, and 12:30 or 1 a.m. when they go to parties. They are told to call if they will be late.
"Of course I worry if they are late," she says. "How do you know what's happening when they come in the house at 2:30? You can't help but worry with so much going on."
Gerald, less streetwise than his older brother, says that on top of his mother's efforts, he mostly tries to steer clear of the "nonsense." But even at that, he sometimes has ended up in the middle of the action.
Two summers ago, when he was working a Blue Chip-In summer job with the city, Gerald found himself face down on the pavement, in the middle of a drug bust. He says he was on a break with his work supervisor, leaving her "godfather's" house near Memorial Stadium, when the chaos began.
"We were back into the [work] van and, all of a sudden, all of this banging went on," Gerald says. "All I saw was a silver pistol [looking into] the van. It was the police, and they made us get out of the van and lie on the ground."
Two people, including Gerald's supervisor, were arrested in the bust, which yielded 39 packets of suspected cocaine, according to a police report. Police, meanwhile, placed Gerald in protective custody.
Miss Johnson says she was hysterical after receiving the call from police to pick up Gerald.
"Even though I knew he was all right, I just started crying," she said. "It was just the thought of him being down on the ground with all of those gun barrels staring at him."
Guided by their mother, the Johnson brothers are moving forward despite the lawlessness and negative perceptions that swirl around them.
"If every parent stayed behind their children like she does and took the time and energy to check on them, there would be fewer problems out here," said retired Col. James L. Wyatt, Shawn's ROTC teacher at Edmondson.
And while the young men have an up-close view of the lures that ensnare so many of their peers, they remain unimpressed.