The PactThree Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream
Riverhead BooksCopyright © 2003 Sampson Davis
All right reserved.ISBN: 157322989X
WE TREAT THEM in our hospitals every day.
They are young brothers, often drug dealers, gang members, or small-time criminals, who show up shot, stabbed, or beaten after a hustle gone bad. To some of our medical colleagues, they are just nameless thugs, perpetuating crime and death in neighborhoods that have seen far too much of those things. But when we look into their faces, we see ourselves as teenagers, we see our friends, we see what we easily could have become as young adults. And we're reminded of the thin line that separates usthree twenty-nine-year-old doctors (an emergency-room physician, an internist, and a dentist)from these patients whose lives are filled with danger and desperation.
We grew up in poor, broken homes in New Jersey neighborhoods riddled with crime, drugs, and death, and came of age in the 1980s at the height of a crack epidemic that ravaged communities like ours throughout the nation. There were no doctors or lawyers walking the streets of our communities. Where we lived, hustlers reigned, and it was easy to follow their example. Two of us landed in juvenile-detention centers before our eighteenth birthdays. But inspired early by caring and imaginative role models, one of us in childhood latched on to a dream of becoming a dentist, steered clear of trouble, and in his senior year of high school persuaded his two best friends to apply to a college program for minority students interested in becoming doctors. We knew we'd never survive if we went after it alone. And so we made a pact: we'd help one another through, no matter what.
In college, the three of us stuck together to survive and thrive in a world that was different from anything we had ever known. We provided one another with a kind of positive peer pressure. From the moment we made our pact, the competition was on. When one of us finished his college application, the other two rushed to send theirs out. When we participated in a six-week remedial program at Seton Hall University the summer before our freshman year, each of us felt pressured to perform well because we knew our friends would excel and we didn't want to embarrass ourselves or lag behind. When one of us made an A on a test, the others strived to make A's, too.
We studied together. We worked summer jobs together. We partied together. And we learned to solve our problems together. We are doctors today because of the positive influences that we had on one another.
The lives of most impressionable young people are defined by their friends, whether they are black, white, Hispanic, or Asian; whether they are rich, poor, or middle-class; whether they live in the city, the suburbs, or the country. Among boys, particularly, there seems to be some macho code that says to gain respect, you have to prove that you're bad. We know firsthand that the wrong friends can lead you to trouble. But even more, they can tear down hopes, dreams, and possibilities. We know, too, that the right friends inspire you, pull you through, rise with you.
Each of us experienced friendships that could have destroyed our lives. We suspect that many of the young brothers we treat every day in our hospitals are entangled in such friendshipsfriendships that require them to prove their toughness and manhood daily, even at the risk of losing their own lives. The three of us were blessed. We found in one another a friendship that works in a powerful way; a friendship that helped three vulnerable boys grow into successful men; a friendship that ultimately helped save our lives.
But it wasn't always easy. There were times when one of us was ready to give up, and times when we made bad decisions. Some of that is ugly and difficult to admit, and we suffered pain and other consequences. But we have laid it all out here nonetheless.
We did this because we hope that our story will inspire others, so that even those young people who feel trapped by their circumstances, or pulled by peer pressure in the wrong directions, might look for a way out not through drugs, alcohol, crime, or dares but through the power of friendship. And within our story are many others, of mentors, friends, relatives, and even strangers we met along the way, whose goodwill and good deeds made a difference in our lives. We hope our story will also demonstrate that anyone with enough compassion has the power to transform and redirect someone else's troubled life.
If we have succeeded at all in helping to turn even a single life around or in opening a window of hope, then this book was well worth our effort.
MY EYES FOLLOWED the dentist's gloved hands from the silver tray next to my chair to my wide-open mouth.
"What's that for?" I asked, pointing at the funny-looking pliers he was holding.
At eleven, I sported a set of seriously crooked teeth, and my mother had taken me to the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark to get braces that we hoped would improve my smile.
My curiosity must have impressed the dentist, because he not only explained his tools and how he planned to use them; he also taught me the names and number of teeth and how to count and classify them. A few minutes later, he quizzed me to see how much I remembered.
Our little game left me so excited that I could hardly wait for my next appointment. That was when I began thinking about becoming a dentist someday.
I don't remember the dentist's name, but I never forgot what he did for me. He gave me a dream. And there was no greater gift for a smart kid growing up in a place where dreams were snatched away all the time.
I spent the first seven years of my life in Apartment 5G of the Stella Wright Housing Projects with my mother and older brother. Our building was a graffiti-covered, thirteen-story high-rise with elevators that smelled like urine and sometimes didn't work. Like public-housing projects in major cities across the country, the Stella Wright development was massive: sixteen high-rises stretched over two blocks. They were packed with hundreds of poor families like mine, mostly mothers and children, few fathers in sight.
My favorite place was the playground. But like so many structures around the development, it stayed in disrepair. My friends and I were constantly climbing, jumping, and swinging on broken-down equipment that daily threatened our lives.
One day when I was five, I was playing on the wooden jungle gym and tried to skip over a missing plank to get to the sliding board. My jump was short, and I missed. My small body slipped through the gap and slammed to the ground below. The impact knocked me unconscious.
My brother, Garland, just six and a half then, rushed over, slapped my face over and over again, and tried to scoop my body up in his arms, thinking I was dead. Blood gushed from the back of my head. He screamed for our mother.
Our mother, Ella Jenkins Mack, has always been the dominant figure in my life. I was just a toddler when she and my father, George Jenkins, Sr., divorced. When I was two, we moved from South Carolina, where I was born, to Newark. I rarely saw my father after that. He came around a few times while I was in high school, sent $500 or so for toys at Christmas, and attended my graduations. But we never spent the kind of time together that builds a relationship.
As soon as my mother, my brother, and I moved to the projects in a building on Muhammad Ali Avenue, my mom started working to get us out. She was a proud woman, and she didn't like living in public housing. She wanted to make it on her own. Raised on a farm with eight brothers and sisters in Warrenton, South Carolina, she had been taught to fend for herself. She developed a toughness that at times made her seem emotionless, but her determination and consistency stabilized our lives. I never saw life break her down. If she struggled to pay the billsand I know there must have been times when she didher children never saw it. When Garland and I did well, she praised us without gushing. And we knew better than to expect a reward for doing what we were expected to do, like cleaning our room or making a good grade on a report card.
Mom began working as a financial customer-service representative for Chubb Insurance Company in 1978 and still works there today. By the time I was seven, she had saved enough to move us out of the projects. We moved a block away to High Park Gardens, a private complex with landscaped gardens, grass, and a few trees. The complex operated like a co-op. Each tenant bought stock for $2,400 and got a discount on the rent. We could see our old building in the projects from the back window.
Four years later, my mother married Garland's father, Heyward Mack, a decent and quiet man with a Southern drawl that tied him to his South Carolina roots. He had been around for most of my life, but we never connected emotionally. He didn't treat me differently because I was his stepson. It just seemed he was at a loss for how to develop a relationship with me, or even with his biological son when he reentered our lives full-time. My stepfather didn't care much for sports, so we couldn't bond while watching the Knicks on television or sharing hot dogs at Mets games at Shea Stadium. He always seemed to be working on cars, but he never pulled us under the hood with him for the kind of interaction that can bring a father and son together. He kept mostly to himself and played an auxiliary role, more like an uncle, transporting us where we needed to go and occasionally giving us money. He wasn't unkind, and I know at times he must have felt like an outsider who could never quite break into the tight triangle that was my mother, my brother, and I.
Six years into the marriage, Garland and I returned to the apartment after school one day and noticed that the VCR was missing from its spot underneath the television in the living room. We walked from room to room and discovered that in our parents' bedroom someone had rifled the dresser drawers and left them open. We were sure we had been robbed. I called Mom as quickly as my fingers could press the numbers. When I told her what had happened, she started laughing. It seemed a strange response for a woman who had just learned she had been ripped off. But she knew the truth: my stepfather had packed all of his stuff and left.
Just like that, he was gone.
The closest thing to a father I ever knew was my friend's dad, Shahid Jackson. Shahid, Jr., was one of the first kids I met in the new apartment complex. Everybody called him Cash. He attended Spencer Elementary, too, and we hit it off right away. He was a quiet, passive guy, and I was the big-brother type, so our personalities complemented each other. We never argued. We played video games at his house every day. His father was the coolest dad I had ever met. He treated me like I was one of his sons. He was the kind of dad who often bent the rules in the child's favor.
With his boisterous personality, Mr. Jackson was as comfortable talking to a crack dealer on the corner as he was chatting with the mayor. As a bodyguard to stars, including Smokey Robinson and Muhammad Ali, he traveled frequently when we were in elementary school. When he returned from his road trips, he showered us all with gifts. Whatever he bought for his two sons, he bought for me, too.
When he eventually joined the police force and took over the Police Athletic League, we played on his baseball and basketball teams. He took us fishing and to work out with him in the gym. We often just rode around town in his van and stopped to eat at restaurants. He was the first person to take me out for Portuguese food and the first to introduce me to filet mignon, which he cooked himself. One of his favorite stops was a deli called Cooper's, where we ordered the best triple-decker sandwiches I've ever eaten.
Mr. Jackson always let me know he believed in me. When I told him while I was in high school that I'd enrolled in the Pre-Medical/Pre-Dental Plus Program at Seton Hall with two of my friends, he wasn't surprised. From that point on, when he talked about my future, he always prefaced his remarks with "When you become a doctor . . . ."
I was still barely able to imagine that myself.
In many ways, Mom was my father, too. She was, until she married my stepfather, the family's sole provider. We were lucky to have a babysitter who treated us like her own childrenMiss Willie, an old-fashioned woman who lived three blocks away. Sometimes, when she was working full-time, Mom dropped us off before sunrise and couldn't pick us up until nightfall because she had to work late. If either of us was sick or if it was too cold or stormy outside, Miss Willie insisted that Garland and I stay overnight at her house so Mom wouldn't have to drive us back and forth in the bad weather. She even took care of us for several days when my mother went into the hospital.
But when I turned six, Mom gave us keys to the apartment, and we started going home alone after school. We had to call her at work as soon as we made it indoors.
Because of her steady job, our pantry and refrigerator were always full of food. We didn't move around constantly like some families did but lived in the same apartment for the rest of my childhood. And Mom kept the utility bills paid, too. I was fortunate; most of the guys I know who got into trouble in my neighborhood had circumstances at home that weren't as stable. Many guys I knew sold drugs because they felt they had no choice. And I believe that kids who grew up in less stable environments were more susceptible to pressure from friends to do the negative things that everyone else seemed to be doing.
Sam and Rameck faced those pressures all the time.
I wasn't any smarter or more special than the guys around me. For some reason, throughout my life I was blessed with people who told me positive things, and I believed them. I believed my third-grade teacher when she told me that I could go to college and have a great career someday if I just stayed out of trouble. So I hung out with kids who were like me, trying to do the right thing. Most of the time they were either my age or a bit younger. The older guys seemed too advanced, too ready to rush into the life I was trying to avoid.
Even when, as a teenager, I tried to hang out with Garland and his friends, he wouldn't allow it. He wasn't necessarily trying to protect me. He just didn't want his kid brother hanging around. But it kept me away from a group of guys who weren't the least bit interested in school. I always wished for a little brother or sister, so I became a big brother to my friends.
Sure, I wanted other kids to think I was cool. What kid doesn't? But I'd decided then that I wasn't going to do certain things, like sell drugs, and I just stuck to my decision.
Guys in the neighborhood, even the gun-toting tough guys who stayed in trouble, didn't hassle me about doing well in school. If they laughed at me or called me punk, geek, nerd, or corny, they did so behind my back. I walked the same dangerous streets as the guys selling drugs and stealing cars, and I was cool with many of them. I didn't look down on them, and they didn't bother me. It was as if there was some silent acknowledgment between us that they were doing what they believed they had to do, and so was I.
As soon as I was responsible enough to work, I got a job. I was thirteen when Blonnie Watson, president of the board that operates High Park Gardens, hired me as a groundskeeper at the complex. She liked me and went out of her way to be kind and encouraging. I earned minimum wage picking up trash around the building and doing minor chores, but I was thrilled to be able to afford some of the trendy clothes and shoes that my mother refused to buy.
Because Mom worked so much, she had little time to visit the schools my brother and I attended or talk to our teachers. She went to open-house meetings every now and then and fussed if we brought home bad grades on our report cards. But she was not a check-your-homework-every-night kind of mom. She was too exhausted when she got home from work. My brother took full advantage of her leniency. He chose to tolerate the verbal punishment at report-card time rather than buckle down, study, and bring home decent grades.
I loved school. My third-grade teacher, Viola Johnson, was largely responsible for that. By then we were out of the projects, but like most of the kids in my class, I was poor. That meant nothing to me then because I never felt deprived, especially in Miss Johnson's class. She was a tiny ball of energy with a high-pitched girlish voice and the same honey-colored complexion as my mother.
Miss Johnson had lived in Newark since she was four years old. She attended public schools and followed her father's trail into teaching. Once she began teaching, she was always taking classes somewherea drama class here, a literature class there. And she brought what she learned to her classroom.
When I met her, Ms. Johnson was in her mid-forties, single with no children. I guess her students filled that space in her heart, because she nurtured us like a mother. She told us that college was not just an option, but the next step to advancement, like the thirteenth grade.
"Everybody has a chance to go to college," she said. "Never say you can't go because of money. Get that degree. You must get that degree."
She regularly got discount tickets for us to attend Broadway plays. She asked parents to pay for the tickets, and we rode to New York City on a bus that she usually rented herself. And we did not dare dress tacky. Miss Johnson required the girls to wear dresses and stockings and the guys to wear nice slacks and shirts.
She also secured the scripts of popular plays, assigned roles, and rehearsed us so that we could perform for the entire school. When we put on a production of Annie, I played Daddy Warbucks.
Miss Johnson introduced us to algebra and Shakespeare with books written for kids. We even formed a Shakespeare club that met on Tuesdays after school. I was elected president. We read and discussed Shakespeare at our meetings. At one meeting, the club voted on our official uniform: burgundy sweaters with the group's name, "The Shakespeare Club," embroidered over the pocket. Once, we wore our sweaters to a concert at Symphony Hall. Several people in the audience asked Miss Johnson which private school we attended. She smiled, held her head high, and announced with great pride that we were from Louise A. Spencer Elementary, a public school in the Central Ward, which practically everyone in Newark considered the ghetto.
Our teacher loved to travel, and she always sent us postcards and bought us souvenirs from wherever she went. Some days, she pulled the globe from the corner of the classroom, gathered us around her, and told us stories about places that before were just spots on a map to us.
Noise didn't seem to bother Miss Johnson, as long as children were engaged in learning. She stayed with us after school to dye eggs for Easter, make gingerbread men for Christmas, or bake cookies, just because.
Miss Johnson retired from Newark's public schools in 1993 after thirty-two years of teaching and moved to Johnsonville, West Virginia, a tiny town named after her great-grandfather. I lost touch with her when I left Spencer and for years didn't know where she had gone.
But I never forgot her. She made a lanky, mild-mannered kid growing up in a tough place feel smart and special. She also made me curious about the world I had yet to see. That was the curiosity the dentist saw in me the day I showed up at his office to get braces.