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Fending off despair with lessons of hope

The Baltimore Sun

Most were mothers, with a few fathers scattered in the wooden benches. Either way, they were angry to find themselves in a city courthouse listening to some official types implying what miscreants their kids were and - by extension - what failures they were as parents.

All had received a letter recommending that their children be enrolled in a truancy court program. Now, here were a judge, law professor, public defender and principal showing them a video on "educational neglect," yet insisting they were only there to help.

As the speakers continued, parents and guardians hissed complaints to one another.

And then another man, a very large man in a dark green suit, stepped forward and said a few words that changed everything.

"You parents are blessed," he said.

He recalled how much he had relished taking his daughter to school and how he would never have that pleasure again.

"She is no longer with us."

The room went silent.

The man, Anthony "Bubba" Green, once a Baltimore Colts lineman, now runs a mentoring program for students in the truancy court. He has loved working with kids nearly all 49 years of his life.

But he never realized that helping young people would be the way to save himself and the way to keep himself engaged in this world. Then again, he never realized such things were necessary. Until a freak accident in a church softball game that made front-page news a year ago, he never realized how quickly you could lose what is most precious to you.

Deanna Camille Green was a stubborn child, a lefty who played first base right-handed. She had her father's wide-set, almond eyes and her mother's lighter skin and thin eyebrows. She grew tall like her parents: 5-foot-8 1/2 by age 14.

Candor was a trademark. After her dad lost his job at a foster care agency in fall 2005, she got mad at him for complaining. One day in the car, she smacked him on the ear, as Yolanda Adams sang "Victory" on the stereo.

"Daddy, listen to the words of the song," Anthony and his wife, Nancy, recall her saying. "Daddy, where is your faith?"

Truly I been through the storm and rain / I know everything about heartache and pain / But God carried me through it all. ...

As her love of fashion and big hoop earrings and gabbing on the phone increased, so did Anthony's vigilant monitoring of her clothing and makeup. He permitted the earrings, which grew larger every year in the annual school pictures, but everything else had to be conservative.

The first time she and her friends went to the movies without a parent, he and his wife and their other child, Tony, four and a half years older, sat in the parking lot peering into the lobby to make sure she was behaving like a lady. She was.

A girl with a voice

What distinguished her most was her voice. By middle school, she was training to sing opera as a lyric soprano, and her parents shuttled her to singing, piano and acting lessons.

Her maestro thought she could be the next Kathleen Battle, one of the country's most renowned lyric sopranos. Deanna sang at an 80th birthday party, at a family reunion, at a banquet for the city Housing Department, where her mother works. She brought a church crowd to its feet with "O Divine Redeemer."

Yet she was shy about her abilities. When an aunt asked to hear her opera singing, she shut herself in the bathroom and sang from there. She didn't tell friends what she was learning to do.

Last spring, Deanna was weeks away from her eighth-grade graduation at Deer Park Magnet Middle School in Randallstown. She had been accepted into the music program at Carver School of Arts and Technology.

Most days, Anthony drove her to school.

That Friday morning, May 5, 2006, Anthony was heading to a Colonial Baptist Church men's retreat in Leesburg, Va., and he asked Nancy to drive Deanna to school. But at the last minute, he took her. In the school parking lot, Deanna kissed her father goodbye. He reminded her he'd be away overnight, but he would see her the next day.

That day he played golf, and in the evening gathered with the other men to share life lessons in the retreat center. Then, suddenly, cell phones began ringing and vibrating. Wives at a church softball game in Baltimore were calling. There had been an accident.

When Anthony spoke to his wife, she said Deanna had fainted. His first thought was that his weight-conscious daughter hadn't eaten enough. As he and a friend started to leave, Nancy was on the phone again: "Get here now."

At Sinai Hospital, Anthony was led to a room packed with family and friends. There, on a bed beneath the covers was his little girl's lifeless body, still in her No. 18 softball jersey. For hours, he held her and prayed for a miracle.

He can't remember when he first heard the word electrocution. The doctors probably told him as night turned into morning, but he didn't want to hear.

Officials later described what happened at Druid Hill Park as a "perfect storm." Shortly after 8 p.m., Deanna was stretching in preparation to bat when she put her foot against a metal fence and grabbed another fence a few feet away. An exposed tip of the post of the first fence was in contact with an underground electrical cable. By touching the second fence, Deanna completed a deadly circuit - her body the conduit.

Her mother was there to catch her as she fell. Though the Greens were protective in all the ways that parents could be, they were powerless to save their daughter.

When Deanna died, a friend cautioned Anthony that people wouldn't know what to say, what to do for him and his family. Just receive the love, the friend advised, and they did, and it was overwhelming.

Fellow members of "The Pews," close-knit families from Colonial Baptist, sat with them in silence when they came home from Sinai. At the funeral, sixth- and seventh-graders from Deer Park told them about how Deanna was always nice to them when other eighth-graders were not.

During football season, Anthony and Nancy traveled to nearly all of their son's games, home and away.

On March 21, the day Deanna would have turned 15, Anthony, Nancy and Tony took two carloads of her friends to the movies. They saw Daddy's Little Girls and ate dinner at Applebee's.

For Nancy, it is comforting to sit in her daughter's room and listen to tapes of her singing rehearsals. ("Keep the mouth open," the maestro, Brother Glenn Roscoe, says in the background as Deanna approaches the end of the scale in an aria from Porgy and Bess.)

Anthony can't bear to hear her voice, but he, too, finds peace in her room. It has barely been touched, but a memory box from classmates and sympathy letters from politicians rests with her dolls and stuffed animals on the turquoise and brown bedspread.

On her dresser are the necklaces she wore when performing, metallic blue pom-poms, a silver pocketbook, hair rollers and big sunglasses, the lenses dusty now. The mango and mandarin body lotion and Bora Bora perfume she snagged from her mom, a quarter, a nickel, two pennies, and an MTA bus card from April 25, 2006.

When Anthony looks at his daughter's photos, he especially treasures one of her wearing a khaki baseball cap and white eyeshadow that he'd only let her wear on special occasions. It makes her look older, giving him a glimpse of what she might have looked like as a young woman.

A constant reminder

Amid the sadness, the truancy court gives him something to hold onto. The work is both a lifeline and a constant reminder of what he lost. Many girls he meets remind him of his daughter, fussing over boys, stressing over peer pressure, contemplating four years early what she'd wear to her senior prom.

The court operates in five elementary and middle schools, administered by the Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore's law school. Judges meet with students and parents to determine the source of attendance problems and link families with social services. Truancy is often seen as the precursor to crime and other social ills.

Anthony began volunteering with the program before Deanna died. Last fall, the university found money to take him on part time and then, last month, full time.

He was a senior in high school when he first decided he wanted to help young people. He grew up the second of four kids in a small southern New Jersey town called Woodbine. His father, a police officer, left home when Anthony was 13.

Dyslexic, he never envisioned himself as college material. But his football coach helped him get recruited by North Carolina State University, where crowds of 65,000 screamed his name and where he met a young woman from Virginia, Nancy Arrington. He wanted to do for others what his coach did for him.

He left school early when the Colts drafted him as a defensive tackle in 1981. For a year, he lived his dream of playing in the pros.

When a knee injury interfered, one love gave way to another. He found a succession of jobs allowing him to work with youths: running a snowball stand with Nancy where they hired teens for the summer, coaching football at Morgan State University for a decade, managing after-school centers for the Baltimore County Police Athletic League.

A new mission

In the truancy court, he meets with kids and their parents as they wait for the judges. At night, he follows up with phone calls, 15 to 20 households at a sitting, three times a week. No success is too small for him to report to parents, and the positive feedback often surprises them, softens them after some initial resistance.

Kids often resist his help, at first, but those who know he once played pro football ask for autographs. His boss, Barbara Babb, calls him a great role model.

He picks his moments to introduce Deanna's story. When a boy at Barclay Elementary/Middle told Anthony of his desire to be a musician, he scoured the garage for her old keyboard. When the stepbrother of a girl at Barclay was killed, he talked to her and her grandmother about the importance of counseling.

Since Deanna's death, he approaches work with a new mission: to get kids thinking beyond their insular worlds, about what they want to be and who can help get them there. If they, too, were to die young, he wants them to have lived for something. And he wants their parents to have done all they could for them. If he and Nancy can find any comfort in what happened to Deanna, it's knowing there are no regrets.

Often, though, the families in truancy court are struggling just to get by. One day, Anthony was distraught after seeing a boy in unwashed clothes. Another morning, at Guilford Elementary/Middle School, he asked a teen about goals, and the boy said he had none. Anthony said to think of something.

Passin', the boy replied. His goal was to pass his classes.

Think bigger, Anthony said. How about a career in computers?

No.

Well, what does he want to be?

A surgeon.

Later, Anthony got out several cups with clear water and a water bottle clouded with lemon pepper. He put the water bottle, closed, in a plastic container and started pouring the clean water over it. The water in the bottle stayed dirty. Then he opened the bottle, and as the clean water kept pouring, it became clearer.

The cups represented family members, teachers, religious leaders, anyone who can be a positive influence in the students' lives. The dirty water bottle represented them. If they open up to let others pour into them, their lives will become clearer - never perfect, but better than if they had stayed closed.

At some time in your life, he told the kids crammed into a counselor's office for the mentoring session, you're going to need the help of others. Don't try to face life alone.

In addition to friends and family, Anthony relies heavily on his faith. Believing that everything happens according to God's will gives him some peace.

On May 7, 2004, his son, Tony Jr., was standing in the parking lot at Randallstown High School when gunfire erupted. A friend beside him was shot in the neck and paralyzed. Anthony decided that on that day the Lord decided his son had more to do on this earth. But two years later, God chose to take Deanna to a better place.

Still, Anthony asks, didn't his daughter die because of human error, because someone in park maintenance was careless? After Deanna's death, city officials promised to replace exposed underground electrical cables at the park. If that had been done earlier, wouldn't she still be alive?

"I just can't grab it; I don't understand it," he said in his living room, as Nancy tried to play Scrabble by herself to pass the time. "Why hasn't someone stepped up to the plate to take responsibility? People need to know that these parks aren't as safe as they make them out to be."

A friend who is a University of Baltimore law professor is researching the feasibility of a lawsuit. If the Greens win any money, they'll donate it to a foundation they plan to start: Deanna's Lyrics. They want to pay for children's music lessons and to fund three college scholarships for music students by 2010, the year her class leaves high school.

In the months after the electrocution, Anthony felt he had to hold himself together for his wife and son. By this spring, just as Nancy seemed to regain a bit of strength, he struggled to go on. She returned to work after taking a leave and got a promotion.

"I believe the Lord prepared me to withstand what was happening so I could be the strong one," he said in early April. "Now it's just all starting to come on me."

He left a second part-time job he held briefly at an after-school program at the Dawson Family Safe Haven Center, built in honor of the parents and five children who died when their house was set on fire for reporting drug activity.

"It was too much," he said.

Their house is quiet now. Last fall, 19-year-old Tony left for his freshman year of college at Bowie State University shortly after Deanna's death. He had his sister's face and dates of birth and death tattooed on his arms.

Anthony and Nancy still struggle to get out of bed in the morning. He has been hospitalized three times for kidney stones, chest pains and ulcers - all stress-related. Many nights, he lies awake.

In truancy court, Anthony continues the weekly mentoring and character education sessions after students complete the program. Usually, he starts with a poem:

This is the beginning of a new day. I have this day to use as I will. I can waste it or use it for good. ...

Every morning, as he fends off despair, he prays he can use his own day for good. He thinks of the advice he used to give Deanna before school, "Be a gift to somebody today."

And when his sadness becomes so unspeakable that it feels he can't go on, at last sleep comes, and he dreams of her.

The week of her birthday, it was a dream that got him through.

All his life, Anthony has been terrified of bridges. That fear passed down to Deanna.

In his dream, he was holding his daughter in his arms and standing on a bridge - a narrow, wooden one with broken planks. All around, other parents were holding their children, but they were in the water and it was rising.

As Anthony kept walking, the bridge turned into clouds. Unable to look down, he had to walk by faith to get Deanna to the other side. Once there, she climbed down and motioned for him to go back to help the others.

"It was her telling me, 'Keep going, Daddy.'"

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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