50/50 Series: Demetrius: At a Crossroads

December 18, 2008

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Teenage boys can face tough choices as they advance toward manhood. But the choices Demetrius Davis is making are critical. He knows he can go the way of his two older brothers—one of them is dead and the other in jail—or he can reject street life and focus on graduating high school. Demetrius attends Robeson High on Chicago's south side. People at the school are working hard to keep him from dropping out. The question is whether Demetrius can change direction.

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"I been doing wrong for so long...I just figured it was time to hop on another bus and fly right."--Demetrius

In order to understand the story of Demetrius Davis, it helps to hear from his mom, Mary.

MARY: Before I got locked up my kids was like, at a distance from me. To me they didn't acknowledge me because of my drug use and stuff. But after I got out of jail in 2004 and they seen that I was being a mother and trying to do the right thing, me and Demetrius and my other boys we started spending a lot of time. Starting the year of they birthdays. Since 2004 I never missed one, it's just been so great.

She doesn't miss Demetrius' 8th grade graduation ceremony either. A Robeson teacher handing out the diplomas gives Mary the mic and she glances over at her 16-year-old son slouched in a chair.

Demetrius is a large kid with several tattoos, and a good poker face. So it's sweet to see him break into a big grin when she makes a fuss over him.

MARY: I just want to say how proud I am of my son, because he had came a long way. I want to thank all you teachers for helping him. I'm just so happy, you all got to forgive me. I just want to take a picture of him receiving his diploma one more time I came rather late.

Demetrius' mom has been late for most of his life, really. Like the last 14 years of it. And now she's trying to make amends.

ambi: family in the apartment

He's recently moved back in with her and both mother and son are still figuring out how to live together in the family's apartment. Demetrius plays cards on a Sunday afternoon with his younger sister Mercedes. He takes out the garbage. His mom buys him stuff he used to buy for himself, and wakes him up to get to school on time.

DEMETRIUS: She make sure I get up every morning. If I look like I'm having a good sleep she'll wake me up anyway.

But once you've been a grown up, it's hard to go back to being a kid. Demetrius has already fathered three babies, with two different young ladies. And, like his mom, dad, step-dad and brother, Demetrius has spent time in confinement.

DEMETRIUS: It ain't a place you'd like to be like. Like on some ‘Oh, I'm going to be locked up I'm gonna have all the new cool friends and the girls.' It used to be like that when I was young, dumb and didn't know no better.
CRYSTAL: Well back then, he was a sweet little boy. He was nice.

Crystal Rounds over for Sunday dinner. She's known Demetrius for 5 years. They met by the corner store.

CRYSTAL: Well, he think he so handsome. He's kind of loyal, he kind. Sweet hearted a little. And he just like it his way. Everything his way.
DEMETRIUS: I been doing wrong for so long I just figured it was time to hop on another bus and fly right. To see what can I get out of doing right. And now that I'm doing right, I like it. My favorite teacher in Paul Robeson is Ms. Ford.

Ms. Ford's forte at Robeson High is building relationships with struggling students—the kinds of bonds that are proven to keep kids from giving up on themselves and school.

Ms. Ford won Demetrius over, and they became close. So close he began to ask her difficult questions.

FORD: He asked me once: 'Ms. Ford, how can a mother just leave her child?' You know, he'll say these things in a question, knowing the answer. And my thing is she loves you the way she knows how to love you. That may not be the love you think, but it's the way she knows how.

Ms. Ford teaches in a small school within a school called the Robeson Achievement Academy. It's for kids who are too old for elementary school but still need to graduate. In the Academy students must make up 8th grade and freshman year in 9 months.

If they can't do that, they do summer school.

Demetrius stirred up a lot of trouble when he first arrived at Robeson. Now he's a sophomore and he's been suspended three times already this year. He says the anger management issues started after his oldest brother Gerald was shot and killed. Demetrius was 11 then.

DEMETRIUS: I used to come to school just mad at the world. Nobody knew the problem but that's what it was.

Another older brother Robert who's now in prison took Demetrius under his wing. Ms. Ford has a good handle on Demetrius' role in the neighborhood.

FORD: He lives the life, he's definitely in the life. And a side of him wants to go that way with the life and the other side, 'No this is not right I know what the end result will be.' And I feel for him because it's eating him up.

Ford goes overboard to steer Demetrius away from trouble. One day she kicks him out of class. He was rude to a girl he felt wronged him over a piece of candy. When he comes back to make amends she brings him into the hallway.

FORD AND D IN HALL: FORD: Everytime I tell somebody not to mess with this summer who did I tell them not to mess with? DEMETRIUS:Your baby.
FORD: And who's my baby?
DEMETRIUS: Me.
FORD: And you still are! Did you get my book for me? Did I show you my personal business and let you into my life?
DEMETRIUS: Yeah.
FORD: Did I show them? Okay. Come on you still my baby, you still number one. But you got to be the leader and the girls with them we got to treat them different. You got to be the man, head of the house. Right?

Other teachers also look for ways to get through to Demetrius. Ms. Murphy teaches a course called Reading, Writing and Your Career. She made the mistake one day of asking him to read aloud.

MURPHY: I didn't know at the beginning and I called on him to read and he just shut down! He just shut down. He said I can't do this. He didn't do anything he just sat on the floor outside.

DEMETRIUS: If I'm reading and I'm trying to read fast I stutter and I hate for people to help me with words. That just kills me. I hate when somebody correct me. I'd rather just struggle and figure it out, sound it out, that even make me feel better and then I be like ‘I got it.'

Ms. Murphy confers with Ms. Ford on how to best teach Demetrius. When Ford tested him last, he was reading between a 5th and 6th grade level. She recommends lots of guided teaching and going over the problem multiple times. He does well presenting the work aloud, rather than writing it. Still, this year Demetrius' grades are slipping. Really slipping. Almost all F's.

DEMETRIUS: Actually I just slowed down and didn't notice it. It ain't nothing I can't handle. Like I said next semester I already know how my grades are going to look.

So far he has been working harder. And he's still here. He's going to class. It's a low expectation, but it's one that is meaningful nonetheless.

DEMETRIUS: Because where I was, mostly everybody locked up. And every day I hear somebody over there getting shot. So I be like I'm glad I made the decision that I made.

There's still a semester to go to get Demetrius back on track to graduate. Those closest to him, the ones routing for him to make it, they are still looking for a strategy that might work. 

Tomorrow our 50-50 series finds out what district administrator Rodney Thomas is cooking up to help keep struggling students from giving up on school.

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