"WHAT," Pam Reaves asked her sons, "is the task at hand?" They might have been naughty, might have made a bad decision, might have become upset and angry. Whatever the situation, if Michael, Brandon or Antione seemed to be headed the wrong way, Pam Reaves pulled them back with that question.
"What is the task at hand?" she asked.
"To beat the odds," Brandon said.
"To beat the odds," Michael said.
"Antione, what is the task at hand?"
"To beat the odds."
And what were the odds? It's right there in the front of a book titled "Beating the Odds" by Freeman Hrabowski, the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County: "Today, young black men are more likely to be killed or sent to prison than to graduate from college."
Years ago, a representative of an outreach program at the Johns Hopkins University put it differently. "Statistically," she told Pam Reaves when her boys were in elementary school, "you will lose two of your sons to drugs or violence." Unless Hopkins could intervene and help Pam Reaves, a divorced single mother on welfare, her boys would easily slide into trouble on the streets of East Baltimore."'Statistically,'" Pam Reaves recalled the other day. "I didn't like that word. The woman [from Hopkins] was saying that this was doomed to happen. ... My grandmother was a nurse's aide in nursing homes for years, and in 1956 she was able, as a single woman, to buy her own house. My mother was a nurse who worked at several different hospitals. She was a very, very hard-working woman. I was raised in a house with working women."
And from the time she was 17 and pregnant with her first child, Pam Reaves had worked - a clerical job at what used to be called City Hospital.
Later, after she had married and given birth to two more boys, she would rise at 5:30 a.m., drop Brandon off at "Miss Edna's on Monument Street," take Antione to her mother's house so a niece or nephew could later take him to school, then drop Michael off at St. Veronica's Day Care in Cherry Hill. Then she'd go to work at a health center and, in the afternoon, pick the boys up and head home.
She only spent a couple of years on welfare. That was right after her divorce from the father of her two youngest boys, Brandon and Michael. Reaves got a General Educational Development diploma through what was then Essex Community College. She trained to be a beautician and opened a seven-chair salon at Sinclair Lane and Edison Highway. She called it "Simply Pam's." Later she went to work for Super Fresh in customer service, and works now at the company's store in Bel Air.
"I worked and worked," she says. "I wanted to show the boys that anywhere you want to go, anything you want to do, anything you want to be ... they could do it."
And they could beat the odds.
"What is the task at hand?" she frequently asked them as the boys became teen-agers.
"To beat the odds," they said.
A new man entered Reaves' life, and he helped her raise the boys through their teen years. Reaves and her sons lived in her grandmother's house in East Baltimore. The boys stayed in school, though Brandon seemed more committed to graduating than Antione or Michael, his older brothers. The older boys had a tough time in high school and dropped out.
"Antione didn't feel he was learning anything," Reaves says. "And you've got to remember: Where these boys went to school, they had to worry about whether they were going to get home alive."
One day, as she washed clothes, Pam Reaves smelled marijuana. She discovered that Michael and Antione had been smoking reefer.
"I can't hold your hand and go out there with you and choose your friends," she lectured them. "You know right from wrong. Don't be going out there and making a liar out of me. Don't be acting liked you weren't raised. ... I refuse to take my hard-earned money and spend it on lawyers and bail bondsmen."
The boys never made Reaves do that. Antoine worked off and on in restaurants and at a supermarket. He and Michael studied for their GED, as their mother had years earlier. Michael worked with his father, doing some home-improvement carpentry, earning some money.
In October, he took a few days off and went to Delaware and southern New Jersey with some friends who were students at Morgan State University. Michael told his mother he was going shopping for clothes, then to a sports event, an amusement park and at least one party. Pam Reaves worried. As Michael packed for the trip, she cried. "You've never been on a trip with no one but me," she told him.
"Mom," Michael said, "you're acting like you're never going to see me again."
What exactly he did in Burlington County, N.J., is still not clear. The only thing clear about the trip is that it ended in a nightmare.
Someone got into Michael's motel room in Maple Shade, N.J., and, during a struggle, stabbed him to death. He was 18 years old. Police suspect Michael was robbed. The crime is unsolved.
Last month, Pam Reaves made the final payment on the headstone for Michael's grave. The same day, she ordered one for Brandon's.
Someone killed her youngest son Aug. 17, near Brehms Lane Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore. He and two chums were walking home from a cookout at another friend's house. It was late at night. Some older boys confronted them, perhaps to rob them, and chased them. Brandon was shot in the back.
Pam Reaves was with her new husband, Grayland Reaves - they had been married in July - in Virginia and did not learn of Brandon's death until she returned home the next day. Brandon was 16. The crime is unsolved.
Pam Reaves has buried two of her three sons in 10 months. She wrestles with the bitter unfairness of it.
Michael had his GED. He was thinking about trying to get into Morgan. Brandon was doing well, had a part-time job, liked school. He had found a pastor he admired, the Rev. Leroy Gilliard, and had introduced his family to Gilliard's church, Mt. Carmel Baptist on E. 25th St. That's where his funeral was held.
In her apartment in Northeast Baltimore, Pam Reaves holds two white valises from March Funeral Homes. "This is what I have, these two white envelopes," she says. "In here I have the birth certificates and death certificates for two of my children. That ain't right. Something is wrong with this whole picture."
She had done so much to help her boys grow up along the margins of a violent, drug-infested world. She set an example of hard work, resilience, love and faith. The boys had stumbled here and there, but they had avoided "the chemicals" - heroin and cocaine - and they had avoided jail.
"I was taught compassion and tried to raise my boys in a house filled with love," Pam Reaves says. "They had it better than a lot of kids."
And still they could not beat the odds.