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One thin thread

When his Aunt Pat died, Jerrick Blue ended up alone and virtually homeless at 17. Little by little, he reconnected with the world.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published October 22, 2006


Jerrick Blue never knew his parents. He lived with Aunt Pat since he was 6 months old.
photo
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
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An hour passed, and then another, and finally Jerrick Blue went searching for her.

He slipped out of the small concrete block house on Osborne Avenue and headed east. Up ahead, he saw the flash of blue lights.

He spotted her shoe in the road and the shattered windshield of the Pontiac Grand Prix. She had tried to cross

Nebraska Avenue toward home and probably didn’t see the car in the gathering darkness.

The driver had no time to stop.

A police officer told Jerrick to head to St. Joseph’s Hospital. He spent the night in the cold waiting room, in and out of sleep.

He was 17 and had never known his parents. His birth certificate listed no father. His mother was a mystery. There was only Aunt Pat, who’d rescued him and raised him.

Just after 7 a.m., a nurse woke him.

“We lost her,” she said.

Losing his role model

Jerrick Blue was 6 months old when social workers placed him in the care of his aunt, Patricia Blue.

His mother, Jerothea, who battled mental problems and once was arrested after chasing a neighbor with a knife, never again played a role in his life. She died in 1996.

Aunt Pat, a short, round woman who worked nights as a nurse at Tampa General Hospital, raised Jerrick as her own.
She toted him to church and made him take out the trash. She made him go to school, get regular haircuts and wear clean clothes. She taught him to answer questions with “ma’am” and “sir.”

She shielded him from the darker side of his family, the relatives who lived in sketchy neighborhoods near Ybor City. She told Jerrick that working held more honor than stealing. She hammered home the dangers of selling drugs.

Jerrick grew into a stocky kid with a movie-star smile, a class clown always looking for a laugh. His love for Aunt Pat ran deep, but he often drove her crazy with his short attention span and restlessness.

The evening of the accident — March 24, 2005 — she had asked him to pick up cleaning supplies at a nearby store. He’d complained like a stubborn and lazy teenager.

So she had gone herself.

Aunt Pat’s death severed the last thin thread connecting Jerrick to any kind of future, any kind of hope. If he wanted either of those, he would have to find them himself.

Havoc at home

At first, Jerrick moved into a cramped one-bedroom apartment with an uncle. He slept on the couch. They didn’t get along. The uncle said the place wasn’t big enough for the two of them.

Then he spent a few months living with his half-sister and her young children in an apartment off Orient Road. She couldn’t pay the bills.

Finally, he turned to the side of the family Aunt Pat had always kept at a distance. He moved into a cousin’s rented white clapboard house near Ybor City. Two bedrooms, one bath. Nine people under one roof.

The place had stained rugs and a dingy, rusted stove. The hot water often ran out. The living room had no couch, just a few wooden chairs.

Jerrick slept on the floor. When winter came, he and the others sometimes crashed in the kitchen, next to the open oven for warmth.

He returned home from Hillsborough High School most days to an endless party — another six-pack, another bag of marijuana, the occasional burnt-plastic smell of crack. Rats roamed. The landlord came knocking, looking for rent.

Jerrick began staying away. He poured himself into his late-night job unloading trucks inside a Wal-Mart off Dale Mabry Highway. He bought a worn-out Hyundai Sonata that had cheap payments.

His relatives asked him for money. They borrowed his car and returned it on empty, reeking of smoke. He ached for Aunt Pat, missed the ordinariness of his old life, missed having a bed.

In public, he always wore the stoic face. But alone, he spent hours crying. He drank NyQuil so he could rest.

Sometimes, sleep didn’t seem like enough of an escape.

“I’d just grab a knife and look at my wrists,” he said.

Then he’d think of Aunt Pat.

Make something of yourself, she used to tell him. Do something with your life.

Be somebody.

Holding out hope

He still showed up at Hillsborough High because Aunt Pat would have wanted him to and because it gave him somewhere to go.

He walked the halls and clowned with friends. “Hey, Blue!” they’d shout, and “Whassup, Blue!”He slept through class, flirted with girls. For Jerrick, school always had meant social time. Records dating to first grade told the story.
“A sweet child who will try,” one report stated, “but has no recognition of his letters.”

“Easily distracted,” read another.

The comments kept coming: “Jerrick’s reading and writing skills are significantly delayed.” “Academically very low.” “Slow learner.” “Doesn’t write well.” “He is basically a nonreader.”

Somehow, the system kept promoting him anyway, year after year, grade after grade. Aunt Pat did what she could but trusted teachers to solve his reading problem.

Now he was 18, a legal adult in his fourth year of high school, unable to spell his name correctly or read the simplest of words in his sixth-period English class: cart, legs, door, house, table.

A magazine ranked Hillsborough High School as one of the nation’s best, but he had little hope of graduating.
He asked an Army recruiter about joining the military. Can’t read, can’t join, the man told him.

Jerrick pondered what his life had become since Aunt Pat’s death. Sleeping on floors. Working in a warehouse for seven bucks an hour. Depressed, lonely and uneducated.

Finally, he made a decision. He would ask for help and hope that somewhere, somehow, a door would open.

A visit to the past

One afternoon in January , nine months after Aunt Pat died, Jerrick showed up unannounced in Arlene Gray’s classroom at Memorial Middle School in Tampa.

She had taught Jerrick in the eighth grade, and they’d grown close.

He liked her because she reminded him of his aunt. Arlene had fallen victim to his smile and his antics in class.
She knew about his struggle with illiteracy and had tried to help. She had spent many hours with him in her classroom after school, tutoring him in phonics, teaching him vowels and consonants.

She taught special education classes and prided herself on her ability to help even the most troubled and slow students.

But as bright as she believed Jerrick was, he never grasped the basics of reading. When he went on to high school, she felt that she had failed him somehow.

Now, he had returned with his story of tragedy and loneliness.

He told her he blamed himself for Pat’s death, told her about the eviction notices coming to his house, his desire to read, his fear of failure.

After that day, he kept returning to talk. She remembers thinking he was on a “hopeless treadmill.” The faster he ran, the faster it went.

Arlene knew each day found him closer to sleeping in his car. She had known his aunt and knew Pat wouldn’t want him on the streets.

Arlene set out to find him a better home. She searched classified ads, called apartment complexes and drove all over Tampa. She kept striking out. He couldn’t afford much, and nobody wanted to rent to an 18-year-old with no credit.

She called other teachers, called social workers. Did someone have room? Other teachers offered to take him in. They didn’t want him on the street, either. Still, she knew most of them had children of their own to worry about.

For Arlene, each visit from Jerrick brought another sleepless night. Was he safe? Was he staying out of trouble? Where would he sleep tonight? Tomorrow?

“I thought about it and thought about it,” she said. “There was no other choice.”

The next time Jerrick stopped by her classroom, she told him her idea. He looked at her for a moment, speechless.

“Ms. Gray,” he finally said. “I can’t believe it.”

Starting over

He moved in on a Friday night in mid February. He brought his clothes and little else. Everything dear to him fit into a few shoeboxes.

Arlene’s three-bedroom home near Temple Terrace was everything the Ybor City flophouse was not. The new kitchen sparkled. The burgundy carpet was soft and clean. A comfortable couch sat beside a recliner in the living room. The hot water flowed freely. So did the heat and air conditioning. There was no landlord, no rats.

Arlene, who had divorced years before and had no children, had been living there comfortably for years, content in her privacy and independence.

She was 53, talkative and opinionated, the product of an Italian father and a Cuban mother.

She showed Jerrick to the guest room at the end of the hall. It had a lamp, a single bed and a comforter with paisley print. Stuffed animals sat on a dresser.

That evening, they shared the first of many late-night conversations. About 2 a.m., he pulled a few sheets of paper from one of his shoeboxes. Aunt Pat had typed out her life story before she died. He’d heard it once or twice before. It always soothed him, like a bedtime tale.

He asked Arlene to read it to him.

“I was born in Dade City,” the short autobiography began, “lived in a little place called Lumberton, between Dade City and Zephyrhills  . . .”

Jerrick sat on the floor and listened quietly as the woman who had just rescued him read the words of the woman who had done the same thing years earlier.

During those first weeks, he took the garbage out every night. He made his bed every morning and washed the dishes after every meal.

“He was a little overzealous at first,” Arlene said. “He was trying so hard to do his part.”

Relax, she finally told him.

Make yourself at home.

A network of support

Jerrick kept telling his story — to Arlene, to a few teachers he trusted, to social workers — and they saw in him a desire to succeed.

He’d seen failure and apathy pervading the neighborhoods where he grew up, and he defined success as what not to become.

As February turned to March, a growing list of supporters lined up behind Jerrick.

The school’s shop teacher gave him wake-up calls after his night shifts at Wal-Mart. The teacher encouraged him to seek out a new school, one that would help him reach his goals.

A math teacher became a friend and mentor. They checked sports scores together on the computer, and Jerrick called for advice. A history teacher organized a yard sale and gave Jerrick the profits so he could fix the brakes on his car.

Kathy Wiggins, a social worker who spent her days helping the estimated 2,000 homeless schoolchildren of Hillsborough County, met with him one day after school and became an advocate.

Through a wealthy contact, she got him gift cards to American Eagle so he could buy clothes without dipping into his paycheck. She studied his records, trying to determine whether he qualified for food stamps or Social Security benefits.

“He’s different,” Wiggins said. “He wants to be more.”

A teacher had told Jerrick about Dyslexia Institutes  of America, a small Brandon private school that might be able to help with his reading. Jerrick knew his future was bleak if he remained illiterate.

In March, Wiggins accompanied Jerrick on a visit to the school. They sat around a conference table with the school’s co-founder, Laurie Spiegel. Jerrick looked nervous. Wiggins did the talking.

She talked about the struggles he had faced, about his desire to read, about the lack of resources in public schools for students with learning disabilities.

“Do you know what level you’re reading at?” Spiegel asked Jerrick.

“Basically, it’s first grade,” he said.

“Okay, so you’ve got a very, very long way to go,” she said. “It takes motivation and desire and, in my opinion, a lot of faith to get where you want to be.”

“Whatever gets me there,” he said.

She told him the school offered intensive reading therapy and that, in time, he could earn a regular high school diploma. She said tuition cost about $8,500 per year. His expression sank. He barely could make his car payments.
Don’t worry, she said. She and Wiggins would help him apply for a McKay Scholarship, a statewide program for students with disabilities. And if that didn’t cover the whole tuition, she’d waive the rest.

“I want to help you,” Spiegel said. “The money is not an issue.”

Jerrick exhaled, flashed a smile.

They devised a plan. He would live with Arlene until July, save money from his job and find a small apartment in Brandon so he’d be close to the school when classes started in August.

The lost boy

He turned into the cemetery just after 9 a.m., tires crackling on the gravel. It was a cool, cloudy Wednesday in late March.

Through his rolled-down window, Jerrick stared out at the headstones, wondering which belonged to her. He stopped under the branches of a spreading live oak, the one that lingered in his memory.

One year already. One year since everything changed.

Now, he was returning for the first time. He wanted to let Aunt Pat know he was okay, that his life was heading in the right direction, that her work had not gone to waste.

He slipped from the car and walked out among the graves. He carried a $6 bouquet of flowers from Kash n’ Karry and a homemade card he’d composed and asked Arlene to type:

We never worried about tomorrow, because we laughed for today

Besides, tomorrow never came since you went away.

Jerrick stopped at the spot where he felt sure Aunt Pat was buried. He examined one marker, and then another.
He willed himself to read the letters carved in stone. He searched each grave, hoping to see her name. But he found nothing. No headstone. No name. No evidence she had ever lived or died.

He would have recognized the name had he seen it. But no one had marked Aunt Pat’s grave.

He stood in silence, scanning the bare ground for any clue. But the ground gave no answers.

Finally, he picked an empty patch of grass away from the other graves. He knelt low, carefully placed the flowers in the shape of a cross on the ground and rose to leave.

He did not look back. He did not cry.

He just kept going.

Finishing Pat’s job

Arlene realized early on that Jerrick was a jumbled mess inside and out.

He slept hard and slept often. Sometimes, he missed his first few classes after a late shift at Wal-Mart. Other days, knowing he wouldn’t graduate from Hillsborough High and pinning his hopes on the school in Brandon, he didn’t bother going to school at all. He just sat in his boxers and watched Judge Judy.

He worked hard but spent the little money he earned carelessly — new shoes, clothes, fast food. He saved nothing.

He assured Arlene he didn’t drink or do drugs, but he stayed out until all hours in the old neighborhood near Ybor City. He’d grown used to fending for himself and answering to no one.

“Pat hadn’t finished her job yet,” Arlene later would say.

She saw every moment with Jerrick as an opportunity. If she couldn’t teach him to read, she would teach him to live.

She showed him how to cook basic meals — chicken, plantains, green beans, Italian sausage.

“How’s it turning out, baby?” she asked one night as he hovered over the stove, “Be careful with that burner. You’re going to burn yourself!”

He always felt proud of his handiwork. “Brilliant!” he’d say when he beheld a meal he’d cooked himself.

On nights he didn’t work, they shared dinner at the kitchen table and talked about the day. He’d never done that growing up because Aunt Pat had worked nights. Once a week, Arlene took him to a restaurant, also a new experience. He fell in love with Cracker Barrel and Sonny’s BBQ.

Arlene lectured him about keeping a budget. She clipped coupons so he could save a dollar or two at Arby’s and Checkers. She made him open a checking account and save $100 from each paycheck. She often stopped him on his way out the door, made him hand over most of the money in his wallet and hid it in her nightstand — he would need it when he moved on his own.

“Ms. Gray,” he’d protest, “I’m brooooke!”

She’d just laugh.

She brought home a video titled Decision-making Skills for Teens. She took him to an optometrist — he was nearsighted — and helped pick out glasses, although he lobbied for more expensive contacts.

“It’s not in your budget,” she told him.

“What is in my budget?”

“Not a lot, kid.”

She taught him how to separate lights from darks in his laundry. She made him go to school. She corrected his speech — “Mo’ better” became “better,” “Skreet” became “street.”

She took him shopping for clothes and scoffed at the baggy jeans and wild shirts he picked out.

“Everything is so loud here!” she’d say.

And then she’d catch herself and chuckle: “I can just hear my mother popping out of me.”

Although he was 18, a legal adult, she worried about his late-night jaunts. She gave him The Talk about STDs, safe sex and treating women with respect, something he hadn’t witnessed much growing up. She made sure he carried condoms in the Hyundai.

He got in the habit of calling to tell her his plans at night, and he tapped twice on her bedroom door when he got home, a signal he’d returned safely.

She detected hints of depression in the way he slept away entire days and grew gloomy when he talked about the past. So they stayed up late, sometimes until 4 a.m., talking through his emotions, discussing his fears. She tried as best she could to answer his many questions about life and its injustices.

“We have to go to the sad places,” she said of those conversations.

Most nights, inside Arlene’s small house, Jerrick did silly impressions of teachers and friends. His deep bellow of a laugh mixed with her high-pitched giggles.

He and Arlene played thumb wars at the kitchen table. They watched American Idol together.

Looking back, looking forward

Go to the prom, Arlene told him in May. Take a day off work. Have a normal experience for once.

Jerrick sprang for the $35 ticket, though it seemed like a fortune: “Thirty-five bucks. I’m like, 'Ouch!’ ”

Arlene took his only suit, the one he’d worn to Aunt Pat’s funeral, to the dry cleaners. She urged him to find a date:
“Did you ask someone? Have you tested the waters?”

Jerrick never had learned the art of courting. He’d had flings, more physical than emotional. But he hadn’t learned how to converse with girls his own age.

In the end, he procrastinated and decided to go with friends.

The day of prom, he circled West Tampa, searching for the hall that would host the dance. He did this often — staked out places hours early because he couldn’t read street signs and feared getting lost. He drove around for two hours. Finally, he called Arlene for directions.

On the way home, he stopped by the cleaners for his suit, but the shop had closed for the day. Another misstep. Another disappointment. There would be no prom.

He put on blue jeans and a white undershirt and climbed back in his car, unsure where he might go but too restless to stay home.

As darkness fell, Jerrick found himself drawn toward Ybor City. He’d seen less and less of his relatives as the months passed, but he felt obligated to visit every so often.

He drove south along Nebraska Avenue, past the pawn shops and liquor stores, past the spot where Aunt Pat died.

He found his relatives — cousins, half-brother, half-sister — sitting outside their latest rental, a ramshackle apartment off Columbus Avenue, just north of Ybor, sipping beers and talking the night away.

“You been gettin’ around all right, little boy?” his half-sister asked.

“I been doin’ good,” he said.

“Good, good,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”

He still felt an affection for his family, but they knew little about his life now. One cousin asked what it felt like to graduate from high school. “I ain’t graduated,” he told her. “I still got to go to school.”

Just after 10 p.m., fire trucks and police cars roared past and stopped a couple streets away. Jerrick and the others rushed down the block, curious about the commotion. They turned the corner and saw a dilapidated white clapboard house engulfed in flames.

It was the house where they had lived months before, where Jerrick had slept beside the open oven and the landlord always came knocking. The others turned and left.

Jerrick looked on, transfixed.

After a few minutes, he turned to leave. Arlene wouldn’t want him out too late.

A change of plans

On the afternoon that Hillsborough High handed out diplomas to the class of 2006, Jerrick was deep in the bowels of Wal-Mart, unloading cargo trucks.

On the surface, the plan was coming together perfectly. The McKay Scholarship looked almost certain. The dyslexia school had changed its name to the Interactive Education Academy and moved to Bloomingdale, and Jerrick had been promised a transfer to the Wal-Mart nearby. He’d begun looking for apartments in the area.

Still, each day brought new fears. He shuddered at the thought of once again navigating the world alone. He’d saved some money but not nearly enough to make rent each month. Besides, he had no sheets, no silverware, no appliances. Nothing.

He’d become fond of eating dinners at the kitchen table and telling Arlene about his day. What would he do with himself in an empty apartment in the suburbs?

He turned silent when people talked about the move.

“I’m worried about him,” said Wiggins, the social worker. “He’s terrified, and he has every right to be. He’s an 18-year-old who can’t read. I don’t want to set him up for failure. That’s the last thing he needs.”

Talk to Arlene, she told him.

But Arlene already knew. She had seen the doubt in Jerrick’s face.

“There’s still so much he doesn’t understand about life,” she said.

Besides, Arlene had grown fond of his presence. She lost her father to cancer in June, and Alzheimer’s had begun to steal her mother.

As time passed, Arlene and Jerrick had become the primary figures in each other’s lives. They needed each other.
He’d breathed life into the house and filled her days with purpose. She knew she’d miss him if he left, though she didn’t tell him that.

He sat her down in the living room one evening and admitted that he didn’t want to leave.

She put on a tough face at first, gave him the as-long-as-you’re-under-my-roof speech. He would have to pay $250 rent. He would have to study hard and come home early on school nights.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” she finally asked. He nodded.

“I feel like this is home.”

Work and homework

In a few weeks, he would start school.

He saw it as his one shot at a better future. He kept saying how he wanted to read so he could become someone his own children would be proud of someday.

He spent the summer working double shifts at Wal-Mart, piling up overtime.

Sometimes, when he returned home from work after midnight and Arlene lay sleeping, Jerrick would sit at the kitchen table and work on reading drills that Wiggins had given him.

He’d stare at the pages, try to fill in the blanks.

“I have ___ new hat.”

“I like cookies ___ milk.”

Other nights, when he couldn’t sleep, he’d pull out a small journal, practice his ABCs and try as best he could to record his thoughts.

One entry began: “to day I hat a beze day.”

Today I had a busy day.

'You have a purpose’

His backpack sat by the front door, crammed with school supplies. Jerrick, usually slow to rise, got up at 6:40 a.m., 10 minutes before his alarm went off.

It was Monday morning, Aug. 7.

First day of school.

For weeks, he had longed for and fretted about this day. He’d wrestled with his fear of letting people down and his doubt about his ability.

Am I good enough? Will I make it? What if I don’t measure up?

After breakfast, he slipped on his shiny black Nike sneakers, a new gray polo shirt and his favorite G-Unit denim shorts.

Arlene emerged from her bedroom as he was packing a cooler with his lunch and the dinner he would need later at work — a chicken sandwich, a ham and cheese, carrots, bananas, Doritos, Jell-O, a plum, plenty of Gatorade.
Dressed. Packed. Ready to go, and only 7:30. Class would start at 9.

“Should I leave now?” Jerrick asked. “I want to get there early.”

“Yeah, why don’t you do that,” she said.

Minutes later, teeth brushed and car loaded, he headed for the door. Let me know when you’ll be home from work, Arlene said.

“You got your lunch? You got everything else?”

“Yes, ma’am. See you later tonight.”

She poked her head out the door as he climbed in his car. “Jerrick,” she said. “Drive carefully.”

That smile: “I always do.”

He gunned the Hyundai out of the neighborhood in the light of dawn, windows rolled down, Wild 98.7 FM blasting through his speakers, a rapper named Chingy rhyming about a girl in a thong.

He arrived half an hour early, before almost any other student. Backpack over his shoulder, lunch cooler in hand, he headed for the front door. Spiegel, the school’s co-founder, greeted him with a smile.

“Good morning! Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, almost in a whisper.

One by one, the school’s 62 students filed in, then split up according to grade level. Jerrick traded introductions with his high school classmates — seven boys and a girl. Their first class was with Benjamin NeSmith, a bearded, soft-spoken man charged with teaching Jerrick to read.

NeSmith, 25, handed each student a piece of paper with a passage he said would become the class motto. It was written by an author named Marianne Williamson and quoted in the football movie Coach Carter. Jerrick couldn’t read it, but he listened intently as the teacher read the first lines aloud:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us . . .
We were all meant to shine, as children do.

Jerrick stared at this stranger who seemed to understand. No teacher — and certainly no male — had spoken to him like this before.

“Whether you guys know it or not,” NeSmith told the class, “you have a purpose.”

He said he wanted them to become true students, to thirst for knowledge. Then he asked: “What are you going to do with that knowledge?”

Jerrick whispered under his breath, so quietly that none of the other students heard his answer:

“Show the world.”

A place to call home

That first day passed quickly — science, math, language arts. He grew more comfortable each hour. He learned that his classmates had their own problems: some were poor, some had been in trouble, some lived in chaotic homes.

The school served brownies and chocolate chip cookies during last period. Definitely not Hillsborough High.He signed out a few minutes before 3 p.m., headed to Wal-Mart and spent seven hours in the garden center loading mulch, moving plants and lugging soil.After work he drove back toward Tampa with the rap music blaring, warm summer night air whipping through the open windows. He was tired, sweaty, dirty. But content.

He drove north along U.S. 301 with NeSmith’s motto echoing in his head:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
We were all meant to shine . . .

It was nearly 11 p.m. when he steered the Hyundai into the quiet neighborhood near the Hillsborough River. He turned left, then right.

Up ahead, at the end of the block, he could see the familiar glow of Arlene’s porch light.

Epilogue

Arlene Gray recently attended a parent-teacher conference at Jerrick’s new school. It was the first in which she wasn’t the teacher. She also bought a new mattress for her guest room, figuring her guest would stay awhile.

Jerrick Blue turned 19 in September. Arlene brought a cake to Wal-Mart. He is halfway through his first semester at the Interactive Education Academy in Bloomingdale. At least twice a week, he stays after school for extra reading therapy with Benjamin NeSmith.

He received an A in reading on his first report card Oct. 6 and was named “reading therapy superstar” of the month.

He now can read most one-syllable words.

Jerrick still talks of joining the Army, but he recently brought home brochures from several colleges. One day, when he has enough money, he plans to erect a grave marker for Aunt Pat.

Brady Dennis can be reached at dennis@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386. Chris Zuppa can be reached at czuppa@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3308.

[Last modified October 22, 2006, 11:54:40]


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