THE BOY'S mother has been in prison most of his life. His father has been out of sight, too. According to his grandmother, the boy's role model was a guy named Mackey, but this Mackey is now dead and buried, victim of the street violence in Baltimore.
So, all that considered, there should be little surprise that this boy, 15 years old, had to take a seat at a table yesterday afternoon in a Baltimore juvenile court. He'd been sent to a state detention center after a police officer caught him holding cocaine one winter day on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore. There were days when the boy would skip school -- and he's skipped 100 times since September -- because he could make $200 to $300 a day in the drug market.
Now he was in court, dressed in a sweat shirt and jeans, awaiting what the lawyers call "disposition." He's one of the thousands of kids who grow up the hard way, in neighborhoods infested with drugs, and who find in the entrepreneurial cool of the drug dealer the male role model they never otherwise enjoyed. He comes to us this afternoon silent and glum, maybe a little frightened.
What do we do with such a boy?
The public defender wants him to get probation and go home with his grandmother. But the prosecutor and staff of the Department of Juvenile Justice want the boy to spend about six months in a supervised group home.
So does the grandmother.
The grandmother, a stout woman with a stack of curls on her head and large-frame eyeglasses, came to court to ask for help.
The boy has lived with her since he was 6 months old. She had raised four other, older grandchildren, too. "I didn't want to see them go to foster homes because their mothers were on drugs," she says.
The four others had grown up without causing heartburn.
But this 15-year-old, the one at the trial table, had been a headache.
Once, the grandmother says, the boy joined some friends on a television-stealing caper to Glen Burnie.
He doesn't listen to her.
He constantly violates his 9 o'clock weeknight curfew. He violates his 11 o'clock Saturday night curfew, too. He doesn't get home until his grandmother is "well in bed." And she's not about to wait up for him. She has a day job. She's not going to lose sleep over this boy anymore.
"This is why I came here, to get help," she tells Zakia Mahasa, the juvenile court master.
The boy has been hanging around with bad guys, the grandmother says. There was one fellow the boy admired -- this Mackey -- and he ended up a homicide victim.
"I have seen too many young people in my neighborhood end up 6 feet under," the grandmother adds, and what she doesn't say is clear to everyone in the room -- she doesn't want her grandson to end up like this Mackey.
"I want to get him in a program," the grandmother tells Mahasa.
Then Mahasa asks the boy what he wants, and the boy stands and, in a quiet voice with a minor tremble, says: "I'd like to stay home. I want a chance to get some help. I ain't had no chance to get no help. I want to get in the Choice program [a monitoring program for at-risk juveniles]. I want to get back in school."
And then it's Mahasa's turn to speak, and she speaks directly to the boy with a perfect mixture of power and compassion, spiced with just enough street savvy to keep the boy's attention.
"Who put a gun to your head and told you to go sell drugs on the corner?" Mahasa says. "It was ... What was that friend's name?"
"Mackey," answers the grandmother.
"You were out on probation [for malicious destruction to property], and two days later you were out on [Pennsylvania Avenue]. You went and possessed drugs because you wanted to. Take responsibility for your own actions. That's life."
Mahasa's eyes drop to a report. "You have potential, it says here. What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A basketball player."
Little chance of that, Mahasa says. "What's Plan B?"
Mahasa says he'll never learn to be a bricklayer by hanging out on The Avenue.
He was a cute little boy once, Mahasa tells him, and now he's a handsome young man. But, without changing his life, he could end up like his dead friend, Mackey, and people from his neighborhood will be glad he's gone. "Do you want to be one of those that people say, 'Glad he's gone?' "
Did the boy want to spend most of his life in prison?
Did he want to become one of those "old heads" to whom straight time was just "vacation" from jail?
Mahasa decides to send the boy to a group home. It'll get him away from Pennsylvania Avenue, she says. It'll be "chill-out time" for his grandmother.
"This might be a chance to turn it around," Mahasa tells him. "This is not a punishment ... It's a chance to turn it around."
A clerk bangs at a computer keyboard. A juvenile officer snaps handcuffs around the boy's wrists. He puts shackles around his ankles, above the boy's white crew socks and sneakers. His grandmother, who finds the outcome agreeable, watches silently from a bench.