On the way home from school, a short walk down a broken sidewalk, across a busy street, 6-year-old Tyrika Washington skips over broken glass, happy with what she has learned today and will learn tomorrow.
"Nine times nine is 81. Can you spell brontosaurus? Can you write in cursive? Will you teach me how?" Tyrika chirps. Her little hand is warm and trusting inside the bigger one she clasps.
"I read today, faster than anybody."
Tyrika has read for the governor of Maryland. She has read for the academic researchers. She has read for her classmates, and she out-reads them all.
A tiny first-grader, Tyrika has been reading with second-graders all year. She could probably move even higher at City Springs Elementary School, but people there worry that she would be intimidated by the big kids.
At City Springs, Tyrika is easily the best reader in a first-grade class that overall is doing much better than others before it. In Harriet Brown's class, 10 children called the Eagles will end the year ready for a textbook that its authors say is third-grade level.
Along with the Eagles, Tyrika and another classmate, Kevin Davis, defy the stereotypes and put to a lie the notion that inner-city children can't perform as well as suburban kids.
Sure, these City Springs children are poor. Mostly, their mothers are single. Mostly, they live in public housing, some of it so miserable it is to be torn down.
They are what demographers call "at risk."
And yet, these children seem to have the important things for which statistics can't account. They have eager, inquisitive minds that delight in learning. They have parents who care.
Most of all, they have parents who care about education.
Tyrika's mother, Yvette Benton, is very clear about that.
"I just try to take it one day at a time, and I let them know how hard it is and I am struggling, and if they want to get something out of life, they have to go to school," Benton says.
Benton is ironing her uniform pants on a towel spread on top of the washing machine in their cramped apartment in Perkins Homes.
It is 3: 30 p.m. and Tyrika and her brother, Dominique, 8, are just home from school.
Benton has to be at work in an hour. She cleans office buildings after other people go home, emptying their trash, swishing a brush around in their toilets.
Normally, Tyrika and Dominique go to the Boys' & Girls' Club where the baby sitter collects them to keep them until Benton finishes work.
But today, their mother has visitors who want to know why Tyrika is so smart and how she learned to read.
An early reader
"I didn't do much," Benton is saying. "I just told her the words when she asked."
Tyrika knew her ABCs by the time she was 3; not long after that, she was reading STOP on the sign.
By the end of kindergarten, she was gobbling up short sentences. From what Benton and her teachers say, Tyrika seems to be one of those blessed children for whom reading really does come naturally.
"The whole last summer she read. Her teacher gave her 20 books. A lot of people don't think she can read like that," Benton is saying. "But she can."
Tyrika tries to read the newspaper, asking about the words she doesn't understand.
She reads the bills that come in the mail, the fliers that come through the door.
"Tyrika is the type of child you don't have to push," Benton is saying. "But she does need more of a challenge."
Yvette Benton was smart in school, too, but when she got to the 11th grade, she stopped going. She is sorry about that now.
"I tell them I didn't finish school and they don't want to have a job cleaning up," Benton says.
"Tyrika used to think cleaning up was a good job. I tell her it's not."
Life gets scattered for Benton, and she will be the first to admit it. At 29 years old, she is struggling to patch together part-time housekeeping jobs and pay the rent.
Dominique's and Tyrika's father is in the neighborhood, but she doesn't get much help from him.
Sometimes, in the morning on the way to school, Benton takes her kids to the 7-Eleven for a sandwich because there is nothing to eat in the house. But their apartment is spotless and she tells them constantly that it's not where you live but how you live.
Plans to get out
As soon as she can get enough together, they are going to get out of Perkins.
"It's hard to raise them right when you live around here," Benton says. "My children don't get to go out and play.
"I keep them in the house because I don't want them picking up bad habits, bad language, walking around with their pants hanging down. I don't play that."
Crack vials, syringes, AIDS, drug dealers -- the kids know all about those. Their uncle died of AIDS; their little cousin is sick with it, but it's OK to play with him.
These are facts of life on Herring Court -- the "worst court" -- in one of the city's more derelict housing projects.
"There's trash on the ground," Tyrika says, wrinkling her nose. "I don't like it here."
"There's shooting," Dominique volunteers. "What would you do if you heard gunshots?"
They did, and they ran.
Places not to go
Benton doesn't let Tyrika and Dominique go to the Perkins Homes community center, even to check out books; she'll get books for them from school or from the city library.
Benton goes to school; she checks their homework.
This day, Benton's sharp eye catches something on Dominique's page. "Dominique, how did you get that answer?"
He laughs. "Tyrika told me."
"That's not funny," Benton says. "Don't be getting somebody to do your homework for you."
Tyrika's handwriting is sloppy. "Your teacher should correct you when you make letters like that," Benton says.
Tyrika just giggles. She skips up the stairs to get her favorite book, a castoff reader from school. The cover is tattered but inside are the tales that Tyrika loves. "The Ant and the Grasshopper." Other fables.
"I'm going to read it with expression," Tyrika says and she does.
" 'You can PLAY but I will WORK!' said the ant," Tyrika squeaks in an insect voice. " 'I will have food when the snow comes.' "
Tyrika likes the ant. The ant is smart.
"He knows you have to work to eat!"
Benton smiles to herself. That's a good lesson. There's another one she doesn't want them to forget.
"You have to have an education to be something," Benton says. "Tyrika and Dominique know they are going to finish school."
Myra Perry got her family out of Flag House. It wasn't easy to look for a new place, working four days on, one day off, six days on, one day off.
But she desperately wanted to leave the high-rise housing project with its chain-link walkways that looked like prison corridors and its horrible stairwell that smelled of cat and human urine.
And the people who hung around. She didn't want her sons, Kevin Davis and George Robinson, growing up to think it was OK to be like that.
Perry, 28, could do better. She finished high school and she wanted to go to nursing school.
A life on hold
But first she had to get a job and then she got pregnant with Kevin and things got put on hold.
After George came, she went back to school and became a certified nursing assistant. She got a good job in a rest home.
She'd like to go for a higher degree, but that will come later. The boys come first right now.
"I tell Kevin, you don't go to school to show off," Perry says. "You go to school to learn and listen."
And he does. Kevin, 6, is one of the best students in Harriet Brown's class. He reads with the Eagles and his papers come back with smiley faces.
His name never goes onto the blackboard for bad behavior. When a rowdy girl pokes him in the back, he moves his chair and keeps his eyes on the book.
"I sure do like school," he confides, but only after class when it is polite to talk.
When Kevin was not even 2 years old, Perry heard an ad on the radio for "Hooked on Phonics." She knew about phonics; she wanted the tapes for her son.
Her father, James Perry, bought the first phonics series for Kevin's second birthday and they haven't stopped coming in the mail since. George, 5, started out on phonics, too.
The boys' fathers pay support, but Myra Perry has turned often to her father for the important things. Retired now, James Perry, 72, worked dozens of years on a city trash truck and then as a carpenter and finally as a bricklayer to provide for his family.
He gets the boys after school. Kevin favors him.
"Show me your snags," he teases. Kevin breaks into a grin to show the gaps where four teeth used to be.
Kevin smiles more than he speaks, and his eyes, big round liquid pools, say more than his words. He is taking it all in, watchful and serious but happy, too.
"Curious George" is his favorite book, but "Green Eggs and Ham" is a close second and he'll gladly read it for a visitor, plowing through page after page without a mistake.
Her boys are off to the right start, but Perry still worries. She is afraid the things that other children do will rub off on them.
She found a piece of paper in Kevin's ear one night, from another child who was flipping spit wads. Someone stole his hat when he was in kindergarten. A little girl tried to fight him over a pencil.
"I try to work with them. I push them -- I shouldn't, but I do," Perry says. "I don't want to put too much pressure on them, but I want them to go to college, if they want to."
Perils of the street
Perry knows all too well what can happen to young men who find their way to the street instead of college. Her brother, Darryl Perry, was arrested on his 17th birthday and went away for 15 years.
Shortly after he got out of prison three years ago, he was talking on a pay phone when someone came up behind him and shot him in the head five times.
"One of my fears is death," Perry says. "It was worrying me so much that my brother was taken."
The worries are always there, but they have eased some lately.
In April, after 3 1/2 years in Flag House, Perry moved with her father and her sons to a Formstone-clad rowhouse. From their marble steps they can see the shimmering emerald of Patterson Park. Afternoons now, when homework is done, Kevin and George play baseball with Perry's fiance.
A different world
They are a mile and a half from Flag House, but they might as well be in a different country. They have moved beyond the boundary for City Springs Elementary but Perry wants her children to continue to go there.
Her father doesn't mind taking the city bus to school with the boys; he made it clear to his daughter a long time ago that a good education is worth sacrifice.
"I was going to drop out of school at first, and my father encouraged me to stay in," Perry recalls.
"He would tell me, there's a lot of times he wished he would have stayed in school to get the education I have. He told me to stay in so I could help my kids when I had them. You have to think about your kids in the future."
About this series
Part of a long-term series of articles on the successes and failures in teaching children to read by third grade, or age 9
Pub Date: 5/20/98