It is a winter night and the room is dark and the clock on the wall says 3 a.m. But the clock is wrong: It is not 3 a.m., not here, in this quiet West Baltimore rowhouse.
The quiet is wrong, too. No sneakers pounding up and down the stairs. No cartoons blaring from the television. No "Ma, I'm hungry" or "Ma, where's the wash rag?" or "Ma, can I go outside?"
The only sound is the video sliding into the VCR.
The mother pushes a button and settles back in her chair. She is alone tonight -- her husband at work, her mother at home -- though their chiding voices still echo in her head. Kaye, let the boy go around the corner. Kaye, let the boy grow up. Kaye, you can't watch over your child forever.
Yes, I can, she would think. For as long as I'm breathing, I can. He is my son and my job is to protect him.
When the videotape begins, the screen flickers and fills with color. Grassy fields, crooked trees, low mud-colored buildings. And then boys, so many boys, in khaki shirts and blue shorts, squinting in the sun as they wave and grin at the camera. A woman calls out their names. Terrell. Sherlock. Derrick. Donte.
And finally, Jerrell.
The mother springs from her chair. "Hi, baby!" she waves at the television. "Hi, my son!"
It is a little after 7 p.m. in this West Baltimore rowhouse when Kaye Yarrell, for the first time in months, sees the face of her only child. Sees his round, smooth cheeks. Sees his wide, bright smile. Sees him raising his hand to answer a question in class.
Kaye leans forward and shrieks. "Go, my son! Go, baby!" She points at the teacher, a tall man in a baseball cap: "Call on my son ... he know the answer! He's doing like this -- she pumps her arm in the air. "Call on him!"
But the teacher cannot hear her. Her voice would have to travel thousands of miles, across ocean, across desert, to the continent of Africa, to the country of Kenya, to a patch of land at the equator, to a place called Baraka, where her son and 35 other Baltimore seventh- and eighth-grade boys go to school.
Kaye turns and looks at the wall.
3: 15 a.m.
As long as he is gone, she will keep her clock on his time.
This is a story about a mother who did something no mother should have to do, which is put her son on a plane and send him to the other side of the world because she felt it was the only way he'd have a shot at a future. But it's also about something every mother has to do, which is know when it's time to let go, even when her heart screams hold on.
During the tearful months before she heard of the Baraka School, Kaye would stand beside her son's bed and watch him sleep. On those nights, Jerrell looked so innocent, snoring under his X-Men comforter, that it almost seemed as if nothing had changed -- that he was still the infant who slept on her chest, the toddler who followed her everywhere, the little boy who crawled into her bed because he saw ghosts in his room, and only his mother had the power to protect him.
But something had, in fact, changed, and Kaye knew it. Standing there, in the dark, her head pounded with questions. Who are you? What is happening to you? What kind of child are you becoming? He was a stranger to her now, her 11-year-old boy, and she was scared. Scared by the fights and failing grades. Scared by the rough friends and lies. Scared by the condoms under the bed, the suspension slips in the bookbag, the call from the officer: Do you know your son hasn't been in school, ma'am?
Scared because she didn't know what more she could do. She'd spoiled him and coddled him; she'd punished him and hollered at him; she'd visited his school so many times she began to feel as if she worked there. And for what? The boy who'd missed only five days of school in his life would miss 48 days of sixth grade. The boy who'd been on the honor roll was bringing home 55s and 60s. If something didn't change, she knew he'd end up on the streets.
And all Kaye had to do was look around the city -- at the dealers and addicts and drugs and guns -- to know what the streets could do to her child. All she had to do was think of her big brother James, shot in the head, dead at 34. He didn't use drugs anymore, she'd told Jerrell when he was younger. But he'd hung out with people who did.
From her wrist dangled a gold bracelet inscribed "#1 Mom." It was a Mother's Day gift from Jerrell, bought with hoarded lunch money, back in the days when ghosts were imaginary and solutions were oh-so-simple. In the days when Kaye wrote a poem to ward off spirits, and she'd hear her son chanting at night in his room.
I'm not scared
I can fight
I'll take my fist
And knock you out.
But that was a long time ago. Now, when night came, it was the boy who slept soundly and the mother, full of fear, who wanted to raise her fists and fight. She blamed the school system, the teachers and Jerrell's peers; she blamed a city that didn't seem safe for children.
But she also blamed herself. Maybe, if she hadn't been so overprotective, if she'd been more willing to let go, Jerrell wouldn't be rebelling against everything she believed in, slipping away even as he snored under the covers.
Protecting Jerrell used to be easy -- or if not easy, at least there was plenty Kaye could control. When he was an infant, she could rush him to the doctor if he didn't finish his bottle, or if a tear dripped from one eye and not from the other. She could call home from work and pester her baby-sitting mother. "What's Jerrell doing? Did I leave enough milk? Did I leave enough Pampers?"
Her son's father was out of the picture; Kaye's jobs -- as a bartender, and then as a teller in the vault at First National Bank -- supported them. She believed in her ability to raise a son on her own, believed that if she was attentive and involved, if she watched over him constantly, she could keep him safe and make his life successful.
So when other mothers dropped their children off at preschool, she stayed in his classroom as a volunteer. In later years, when she worked a day shift, she called his school in the morning to make sure Jerrell had arrived. She spent her free time taking him on bike rides and to movies; she bought him every toy and electronic gadget a boy could want; she helped him with homework and cheered at his games. "Why'd you knock down my son?" she yelled at the other football players. "Why'd you tackle my boy?"
She swept vials and glass from the neighborhood playground.
And when she met Tony Yarrell, the man she would marry, she told him that no matter how much she loved him, her son would always come first.
Jerrell was happy and healthy; he did fine in school, but the older he got, the closer his mother wanted to hold him. She kept him in the house when she wasn't home and watched him play outside when she was. Her voice carried down the block on warm summer evenings: "Jerrell, where are you? Jerrell, come back home!" She once ducked behind a car to watch him walk to the corner store.
"Ma," Jerrell sighed when he caught her. He was 12 years old, happy-go-lucky and curious. "I'm all right. You can't be with me all the time."
"As long as I live," she responded, "I'll be behind you wherever you go."
And she meant it. When her phone began to ring with calls from the assistant principal at Lemmel Middle School, Kaye knew it was her job to get her son back on track.
At first, she thought she could help him on her own. She'd use a friend's address in the county and send her son to a county school. She'd have a police officer come to the house and scare him straight. She'd help form a group to patrol the halls at his school.
But when the people from the county called, she forgot to lie about her address.
The scare from the police officer wore off.
When she wasn't watching him in the halls at school, his behavior was as bad as ever.
Panicked, Kaye even thought about giving up her day job, earning her paycheck at night, and sitting beside Jerrell in each of his classes, following him in the halls and keeping him out of trouble.
And if he didn't like it, too bad. She would do what it took to save him.
What she didn't know was that he wanted to save himself.
The Baraka School, then a one-year-old experiment funded by the Abell Foundation, recruited its students from the sixth-grade classes of city schools. As Jerrell tells it, one day in early 1997 he was walking down the hall and saw a few kids with Baraka School brochures depicting elephants and zebras and bearing the statement: "Where the blessings of Africa change boys into men." Inside the brochure was the promise of a rigorous, disciplined school day broken up by sports and study halls, mountain climbing and camel safaris. "Your past grades do not matter," it said. "Your ability to pay tuition does not matter."
Cheryl Paige, the middle school's parent liaison, remembers Jerrell asking her for a brochure. She gave him one, but with this caveat: "There's no way your mother's going to let you go."
But Jerrell had his mother's determination. "Ma," he said when he got home, "I'm going to Africa."
To which his mother responded: "Boy, get outta my face. You ain't going anywhere."
Jerrell was, it turns out, an ideal candidate for the Baraka School, aimed at Baltimore boys in danger of becoming dropouts or worse if they didn't get the chance to study and live in a different environment. Most of the class had tested below grade level and had problems with behavior and attendance; a few had been in trouble with the law.
All had the ability to do better.
And all had someone willing to let them go, for two nine-month school years, separated by a summer vacation back in Baltimore.
What made Kaye change her mind?
This is the application she filled out early last year:
Explain why you think going to The Laikipia Baraka School would be a good experience for the applicant.
I think if my son isn't around me all the time he will grow into a stronger man. I protect him a lot. He will get to meet and know a lot of good people.
What are your goals for the child when he becomes an adult?
I would like for my son to grow up to be someone very special and or important. I want him to be able to take care of himself if and when I am not around anymore.
Does the child seem to want to go to The Baraka School?
Yes. He fears for his safety. He wants to improve his reading and his grades. He wants to become a man. He desperately wants to leave Baltimore so that he can stop getting in trouble.
What are some subjects that your child needs help with?
My son needs help in all subjects now. He just doesn't try anymore. He likes to be a follower, not a leader.
Please describe the best things about your child.
He smiles a lot.
When he is with good children, he shines very much.
In the Abell Foundation office, this post-it note is stuck to the file, no doubt a result of the umpteen times Kaye called the school, trying to ensure Jerrell's acceptance: "Really wants her son to go. Scared to lose him."
They said goodbye on a warm September evening at Dulles Airport, standing at a gate crowded with other boys and their mothers.
A voice on the loudspeaker said it was time to board, and Kaye wrapped her arms around Jerrell for the final time. She tried to imagine nine months without him. She thought about how lonely she would be. How she wasn't going to be able to iron his pants or fix his food or do his wash or help with his homework. How when he came back, he might stand as tall as her. How when he came back, he might not need her like he used to.
She held him so long that it seemed like they'd never part. She clung to him, her arms around his neck, her head resting on his. You have to do this, she was telling herself. You have to let him go.
Because what if she didn't? What if he dropped out of school and got into trouble? What if he ended up on the streets? What if he said, Ma, if you had let me go to Africa like I wanted, this wouldn't be happening?
I'll be fine, she thought. I'll be fine, and he'll be fine.
Ma, he said. You all right? You all right, Ma?
Yeah, she murmured through her tears. I've got something in my eye.
When they finished hugging, she wiped her tears from Jerrell's face. "Be good, hear," she said. But he was already walking away, bag slung over his shoulder. "I'm fearless," he'd proclaimed that morning. "I have no fear."
But she could see: He was crying, too.
"You'll be all right, you hear?" she shouted. He was handing over his ticket. He was walking to the jetway. "Mothers, stay behind the rope," somebody yelled. "Behind the rope!"
"Don't lose that passport!" Kaye hollered, pushing through the crush of sobbing mothers as Jerrell fell into line with the other boys.
"You'll be fine ... They're gonna take good care of you ... You got the phone card in your wallet so you can call me ... Put your wallet in your pocket so you won't lose it ... You be a good boy, you hear? ... I love you!"
Then she wrapped her arms around herself and watched her son fly away.
Kaye: What's going on? Talk to me. What's going on? How you been? You having fun there?
K: Jerrell ...
J: What you all doing?
K: We're asleep!
Tony: It's like 3 o'clock in the morning or something.
K: How you been? I mean, talk to me, boy. You don't have nothing to say to me? Us?
J: I've written.
K: I haven't talked to you since the day you left!
K: I said we haven't talked to you, Jerrell, since you left. Talk to us. What's going on? How's your grades? What you doing in school?
-- A phone call in January
For so many years, she tried to know everything about his life. Now, she can only know what other people tell her. Her information about Jerrell comes from videos, letters, photographs, report cards, notes from teachers and the Abell Foundation and three phone calls from Jerrell she has tape-recorded. From these she has learned: When he first got to Kenya, he cried so hard after reading her letters that his stomach hurt.
He has good attendance and has gotten 70s and 80s in nearly all his classes.
He's considered a good, creative student who has the potential to do better. He is still too playful and talkative in class, and he sometimes has problems paying attention and completing his work. Like many of the Baraka seventh-graders, he has gotten in trouble for fighting.
He has ridden a camel, petted a cheetah, dissected a snake, slaughtered a chicken and picked guavas from a tree (Kaye looked it up: they are a yellow, pear-shaped fruit). He adopted a baby bird, and on one video can be seen trying to teach it to fly.
He eats eggs and cheese, which he never used to, and tries new foods, like meat-filled pastries called samosas, and can eat with chopsticks. He recently went into town with a teacher to get new glasses and was called "a perfect gentleman."
He has muscular arms, bigger feet, less baby fat. He has a girlfriend he writes to in Baltimore.
He lives in a room with three other boys, on a compound surrounded by fields on which they play football and basketball. He has started a rap group.
He was heard to respond, upon being told by a visitor how much he looked like his mother, "No, I don't look like my mother. I look like myself."
Not all the news from Kenya has been positive. One night, apparently on a dare, Jerrell ate 18 pieces of packing Styrofoam, sending school officials into a panic until they learned it wasn't poisonous. In the last eight months, the country has experienced its worst flooding in 20 years, an outbreak of a deadly virus, and tribal violence, some of which was near the school.
But Kaye, usually so prone to worry, takes all this news in stride. She says her conversations with the school's sponsors are reassuring, that she trusts their judgment and knows they share her concern for her son. Instead of dwelling on the faraway, uncontrollable threats in Kenya, Kaye thinks about the threats facing boys in her own city. She thinks about the gunfire she hears in her neighborhood at night. The young boys she sees hanging out with drug dealers. The words Jerrell spoke the morning he left, after watching a police car speed down their block, lights flashing: "Ma, this is my last time seeing that for a while. I feel good."
She thinks about last year: The 48 days absent from school, the bad grades, the sullen expression of a boy who didn't seem to care about his future.
And then she thinks this: Jerrell is better off in Kenya than in Baltimore.
She cannot cook his food or wash his clothes. She cannot hug him or hold him. She cannot know at any given moment what her child is doing.
But she knows what he is not doing, and sometimes that is comfort enough.
On March 3, when Jerrell turned 13, Kaye thought of the 13th birthday party she'd promised him years ago: a DJ at the neighborhood rec center, decorations, lots of friends.
Instead she is planning another party, for when he comes home next month for summer vacation. All year, she has been imagining the scene at the airport. Will she run to his outstretched arms? Or will she stand still, frozen by the sight of him?
What has kept her going all these months is her faith that Jerrell is doing well. It's not so much what he says in the letters. It's what he doesn't say.
"He's not whining to come home. He's found things to occupy his mind," she says. "The old Jerrell would have been home by now, with me. I did so much for him."
She still does. She writes him long letters, full of love and encouragement, but also reminds him to work on his handwriting, and to stop playing in class, and to remember that no son of hers is going to sing rap songs that mention guns or whores, as did the song he recently sent her. She tells him to work hard, not just for her, but for himself. And why in the world was he eating Styrofoam?
About six weeks ago, on the first gloriously warm weekend of spring, a furniture truck pulled up to the West Baltimore rowhouse. Kaye had mopped Jerrell's bedroom floor and moved out his old furniture. The room was empty, except for his framed pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and his encyclopedias. But by the time the delivery truck pulled away, Jerrell had a new oak bedroom set: a bed, two night stands, a dresser with a mirror, a chest of drawers, and a VCR to go with his television.
"He's growing up, and I want him to see that I'm growing with him," she said. "I want to get him a computer, too. I'm not going to have it by the time he comes home this summer, but I'll have it by the time he comes home the next time."
According to the Baraka plan, Jerrell will start his second and final year of school in Kenya in September, then attend City College, one of the city's best high schools, the following year. Kaye, whose home is on the other side of town from City College, says she will move -- after a lifetime in the Penn-North neighborhood -- to be closer to her son's high school.
As long as I live, I'll be behind you wherever you go.
When she last spoke to Jerrell, two months ago, he sounded happy, healthy and excited. He sounded like a 13-year-old boy with a future, and for that, on Mother's Day, Kaye Yarrell will be thankful.
Jerrell: We're going to climb a mountain today. Mount Kenya.
Kaye: All of y'all?
J: Most of us. People who don't got asthma.
K: Don't HAVE asthma.
K: What's up with that fight that I saw in the video, you jumping in somebody's else's fight?
J: We's playing!
K: No, no, no, no, no. Them boys was fighting and then you jumped in the middle of it and the boy wanted to fight you.
J: We just playing, we just playing.
K: Yeah. you better behave yourself, Jerrell. (Pause.) How your underwear and socks and stuff?
Pub Date: 5/09/98