Allante calls himself a mama's boy. Most of his fifth-grade classmates are too cool to admit something like that. But he loves saying it. He tells friends and teachers: "I don't do anything without thinking about my mother."
Sometimes he imagines her next to him. He pictures her soft cheeks and round nose, which he says looks just like his own.
Allante, who is 11, talks to her. "You watching Bernie Mac?" he asks, without speaking the words out loud. "Yes, Te," he hears her say. He likes when his mother uses his nickname.
Her letters often arrive once a week. Sometimes he pulls out a scrapbook she made him and reads her poems. He knows many by heart. One begins I want to know about your day, when you eat and where you play.
Last year, he danced in the school talent show to Michael Jackson's "You Rock My World." Allante liked to think his mom was in the audience, cheering him on when he moonwalked.
If he has a bad day, he wonders if she's having one. Sometimes he thinks about his mother's worst day, when he was ten months old--the day of what he calls "the incident."
Early in this school year, children in Allante's class at Southeast DC's Anne Beers Elementary were asked to bring something that meant a lot to them. Allante showed a photo of himself with his mother and sister. His mom wears what looks like tan scrubs.
Later, he told a few friends that his mother was in jail. Within days, everyone knew.
He says he doesn't know anyone else at school with a parent in prison. Chances are he does. As of 1999, more than 1.3 million children nationwide had fathers in prison. About 126,000 had incarcerated mothers.
Sometimes during a lesson, Allante will flip through his scrapbook. He loves reading a note his mother wrote a couple of years ago: "I never meant to cause you shame but I made a mistake and I'm to blame."
His teacher, Mrs. Edwards, reminds him he has work to do. Mrs. Edwards is impressed by his maturity. One time he told her his classmates were teasing him. They called his mother a "ho," slang for whore.
"I can't worry about what they think," he told Mrs. Edwards. "As long as I love her, then it's okay."
In a support group for children with incarcerated mothers, leaders rely on Allante to get the other kids talking. He's the first to stand up and say how abandoned he feels.
If he trusts you, he'll tell you about the incident, when his mother murdered two people.
Allante's mother is ten years into a life sentence. He's still getting to know his new caregivers--his mother's cousin, Joann Brothers, and her partner, Earl Asney.
Last New Year's Day, all Allante could think about was that his mother would be up for parole in seven years.
"It's getting good now," he says. "Soon it will be five or six years."
Sometimes he gets quiet when he visits with family. He sits by himself and thinks about the incident, which his mother told him about a few winters ago.
Inside, he feels he's on his own. His mother offers only sporadic support. Then a letter arrives.
"My Dearest Allante," one began, "Hello handsome! I hope that this letter finds you at your highest. As for Mommy, I am okay. I just miss you so very much. I started a new college class today called American Political Systems. I am going to get an A. Are you doing well in school? Have you spoke to your sister? Call her. I love you so much and I hope to see you soon. I want to hug you and kiss you so very much. Forever Your Mommy."
The first time Lashawna Etheridge held a gun, she was 16. Her boyfriend, who was dealing drugs, handed it to her. It was 1990.
Violence was a way of life. Lashawna remembers coming home crying in the second grade after a boy beat her up. She didn't hit him back.
"Don't ever run from anyone," her father told her. "I don't care if you pick up a bottle or a brick, but you better fight back."
One morning her mother, Shirley, woke up with her car windows smashed, a retaliatory strike against Lashawna after a fight.
Not long after she held her first gun, Lashawna began carrying one. At 17, she had her first child, a girl she named Charnal.
Lashawna started using marijuana and PCP. She dropped out of school. When she got pregnant a second time, her mother was furious. Lashawna wasn't sure who the father was, though she guessed he was the same as Charnal's.
Lashawna was 19 when Allante was born, and not even her mother came to the hospital. An old friend, Shahine, paid a surprise visit. Lashawna thought: Even when you think no one is there for you, someone will be. She wanted Allante to remember that--so Shahine became his middle name.
The day after Allante was born, doctors noticed that his head was larger than normal. He was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, a condition that sometimes causes mental retardation. His eight-pound body went to an operating table, where shunts were inserted into his head to drain out excess fluid so it wouldn't harm his brain. Allante stayed in the hospital for a month.
When he came home, he didn't fuss much, and he often sucked his two middle fingers. Then he started having seizures. With Allante's two-year-old sister, Charnal, in tow, Lashawna went back and forth to Children's Hospital for follow-up visits. Medicaid paid the bill.
There were a lot of "if onlys" in Lashawna's mind. She'd be a better mother if only she could buy her kids the toys they wanted or provide them with a nicer place to live.
At first, Lashawna tried to convince herself she hadn't been a part of the incident. But when word spread that the police were looking for her, she sat with Allante on her apartment building's stoop, cradling him in her arms. Charnal's father came to pick up his daughter. Lashawna dropped Allante off with a friend. Then she turned herself in.
Allante likes to see every situation as having an up side and a down side. It's how he tries to make sense of his mother's actions. She's good now. She was bad before. She doesn't have to be one or the other. She can be both.
Allante talks out his confusion. Sometimes he talks so much, he says, people want to cover their ears.
At St. Timothy's Preschool, a childcare center in a church near his school, he huddles in a corner and writes rap songs. At home, in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast DC, Allante's caregivers, Joann and Earl, ask him to rhyme for them.
When Allante is overcome by a beat, he bangs his fist twice against his chest and then punches the same fist into his palm. Lately, he can't get a rhyme he wrote out of his head: On my own, yeah, yeah, I'll make you jump to this beat. On my own, yeah, yeah, I'll make you bounce with me.
He's reading Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You. He has a gash in his leg where he jumped off a bed frame fooling around with his cousins. He might not admit he sleeps with a Curious George stuffed animal Joann gave him or that he sometimes cries at school when he's doing division. "Math ain't no joke in the fifth grade," he says.
Allante wants you to know he was awarded a green sticker on his classroom's behavior tracker for 28 days straight, which means "I was really, really good."
Until he was seven, Allante thought his grandmother Shirley was his mother. Shirley tracked Allante down after her daughter went to jail. Ten months old at the time, he was lying on a mattress without a sheet. Shirley was a 46-year-old single mother raising a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old when she became Allante's legal guardian.
"I had no choice," she says. "Either I took care of him or he'd go into the system."
In the first few months of Lashawna's incarceration, Shirley carried Allante into DC Jail once a week, through a family literacy program, so his mother could read to him.
Shirley was too busy following Allante in and out of the hospital to bring him by much after that. His shunts were often infected. Allante had to undergo three additional surgeries. Doctors had to clean his two shunts, then replace one, then remove one. He needed steroids to stop his seizures. When he was more than a year old, doctors at Children's Hospital warned his grandmother he might never walk or talk.
Allante took his first steps at age two. When he was three, he underwent one last operation on his shunt at the Hospital for Sick Children. By then, Allante was talking--but his condition, doctors said, might cause developmental lags.
At school, Allante struggled with writing. He had trouble holding a pen, buttoning a shirt, tying his shoes. His grandmother would place her hand over Allante's and help him write his name. His letters to his mother were almost illegible.
Shirley didn't talk about Lashawna. Allante started to call his grandmother "Mommy" and his mother "Mommy Shawn." Lashawna didn't correct him.
"I was a family member to him," Lashawna says. "Not his mother."
Allante is sitting next to his friend Nadiri at after-school daycare. It's mid-January. As Allante cracks his knuckles, Nadiri tells him he might break the bones.
"Who told you that?" Allante says.
"Your mother is smart."
"Allante, where's your mother?"
"She's still in there."
Joann discourages Allante from telling everyone his mother is in prison. Before Lashawna told Allante about the incident, he shrugged if a classmate asked him why his mother was in jail.
But he wondered: Did she steal something? Get too many parking tickets? He always wanted to ask his grandmother but feared she'd tell him it wasn't his business.
Not having his mother around made Allante curious about his father. "Sometimes it feels like I don't have no parents," he says. "One I can never see, and the other I don't know."
He tells Nadiri that his mother called the night before. He was out of breath when he got to the phone. Allante asked her if she'd gotten his letter. His cousin had helped him write it. Lashawna said she hadn't. He told her about a new Mother's Day rap he was working on--Sorry, Mama, if I ever made you cry. Sorry, Mama, for the tears in your eyes.
They chatted for several minutes--prisons allow inmates to make 15-minute calls--rushing in lots of "I love yous." Allantedidn't stop talking till the phone clicked off.
Joann often watches his expression. He never wants her to think the sudden silence upsets him. So he shrugged.
"She'll call back," he told Joann.
Lashawna used pink toothpaste to hang pictures of Allante and Charnal in her cell at a women's prison in Danbury, Connecticut. When the federal government began housing DC felons in 1998, Lashawna was transferred to Danbury--a six-hour drive.
Lashawna, now 30, spent years trying to understand what landed her in prison. She converted to Islam and enrolled in a degree program. She began teaching African-American history to inmates and took parenting classes. She swore she'd be a loving mother.
"I wasn't going to give up and say I can't get through to him from in here," she says.
One time when Allante was seven, he visited her at Danbury. He had talked to "Mommy Shawn" by phone each month but hadn't seen her in about a year. He waited in the crowded visiting room, where there are folding tables and chairs and a few vending machines. When Lashawna came through the door, she scooped up Allante.
She wanted him to understand she was his mother. So she took him to a corner and told him the story of when he was born.
She said that before his birth his heartbeat slowed, and doctors cut her tummy open to get him out. She explained why his middle name is Shahine. She said his grandmother gave birth to her, and she gave birth to him.
"It was like he had finally solved a problem," Lashawna says.
Lashawna heard Allante's voice over the telephone a couple of weeks later.
He said, "Hi, Mom."
Before last winter, Lashawna would lie on her cot at night wondering when she should tell Allante about the incident. Would he still love her?
Allante might never see his mother if Kim Smith, released from Danbury's prison three years ago and now living in Baltimore, didn't take him. His caregivers, Joann and Earl, don't have a working car, and his grandmother and mother aren't on good terms. Kim, who grew close to Lashawna while in prison, drives him to Danbury three or four times a year.
They leave at 2 in the morning to make visiting hours at 8 AM. Because Allante is under 18, he needs to be accompanied inside by an adult. Kim's son, Thaddeus, who was 15 when his mother was released from prison, goes with him.
Allante hates that he has to take everything out of his pockets to go through the metal detectors. He hates it when officials check his name and the name of whoever is accompanying him against a list. One time, Thaddeus's name wasn't on the list. The guards said they couldn't go in.
Allante sat in the waiting area and cried. "I just want to see my mother," he said.
Lashawna sometimes gives Allante birthday gifts. Kim will buy Allante clothes, wrap them, and put tags on them that say TO ALLANTE. LOVE, MOMMY. Lashawna once threw Allante a birthday party in the prison. She, other inmates, and their children sang to him over cake.
Months after he learned about the incident, Allante watched an episode of Bernie Mac. Bernie's daughter brought a boyfriend home even though her father didn't want her dating. Then Bernie met the boyfriend and liked him. "Bernie said: 'You know when something weird happens and you're not yourself?' " Allante says.
The words reminded Allante of his mother. Maybe, he thought, she had stepped outside of herself during the incident. Maybe that was how she'd been able to let her gun fire several shots. He couldn't picture her angry.
Allante's grandmother thinks if he had known his mother ten years ago, he might be able to imagine it. Prison has changed Lashawna, Shirley says.
Once Lashawna told him about the incident, Allante became even more open about her. If a classmate asks him why his mother is in prison, he says, "She killed two people by accident."
Saying "accident" out loud has helped him believe it.
When his mother first told him, he thought she had killed one person. Later, she clarified that it was two women. That upset Allante. He could see how you might kill one person. But can you kill two people by accident?
Allante was nine when police found his uncle Eric's body next to the Anacostia River, riddled with bullets. Grandmother Shirley blamed Lashawna for her brother's death--if she hadn't always been caring for Allante, she would have been able to keep Eric out of trouble.
"If someone doesn't come pick Allante up," Shirley told Lashawna, "I'll send him to foster care."
Lashawna used her minutes--prisoners are allotted 300 a month--calling everyone she knew, including Kim Smith. Kim would arrange times for Lashawna to call Allante.
The first few weeks Kim was home, Thaddeus slept curled up in bed next to her. She treated him like a little boy, which made her realize how much she had missed in her son's life. Kim promised herself she'd be there for Allante.
Kim struck a deal with Allante's grandfather. If he took him in, Kim would pick up the boy on weekends. In the summer of 2001, Allante, then nine, moved in with Lashawna's father, who lived alone on Capitol Hill.
"Dear Mommy," Allante wrote his mother, "I want to see you. I can't wait to see you and I like grand dad's house. I have met a lot of kids and I am thinking about Eric."
His grandfather died of a heart attack three weeks later. Lashawna fainted when she heard the news. She called Kim's cell phone, which was passed around at Lashawna's father's funeral reception. She was ready to ask anyone to care for Allante.
Kim said that Joann Brothers, a cousin with whom Lashawna wasn't close, wanted to talk to her. She hadn't spoken to Lashawna since the incident. But Joann couldn't let family end up in foster care.
She said, "I'll take him."
Lashawna hugged and kissed Allante when he arrived at the prison in February 2002. She asked him to take his shoes off so she could see how much his feet had grown. Allante got his mother a Snickers and himself a box of Skittles from a vending machine. They talked about a girl Allante likes. "Is my son ready for a relationship?" she teased.
Allante seemed distracted.
"I need to ask you something," he said. He leaned in close and whispered: "Did you K-I-L-L someone?"
Lashawna never thought Allante would start the conversation.
"Yes," she said.
Allante shook his head.
"Let me explain," his mother said. "You know how sometimes people lose it?They snap?"
Allante nodded. His mind was spinning.
"I didn't mean it," she said.
He wanted to know how it happened.
She was at home. A friend knocked and said she needed Lashawna's help in a fight. Lashawna took her gun. On the street, another woman raised a baseball bat. Lashawna pointed her gun at the bat. Shots rang out. Two women fell to the ground.
"It wasn't my intent," she told Allante. "I'm so sorry. I was so wrong."
Allante didn't say much.
"You have reason to be mad at me," she said.
"Mom, why did you do it?"
"I had my mind in the wrong place. I took my anger out on someone else."
"Do you understand?" she asked.
Allante said yes.
But he didn't. He kept thinking: The mother I know wouldn't kill someone.
Allante left the prison that day feeling empty. He and his mother had sworn they'd always tell each other everything. He'd told her about a secret club he and his cousins had. But she had been carrying a bigger secret.
During their talk, Allante couldn't focus. He doesn't remember who changed the subject. He says they "jumped from one thing to the next to the next." He can't recall anything else about the visit--except what she said about the incident.
He imagines the knock on the door, his mother holding a gun. He wonders where he was when she left the house.
Allante had always seen his mother as a copy of himself. Now they seemed less alike than he could have ever imagined. "She carried a gun," he says, "and I don't."
At nearly every visit, Lashawna talks to Allante about ignoring bullies at school. Joann and Earl have encouraged Allante to protect himself. Lashawna preaches the opposite.
When sixth-grade boys called Allante "question mark" because of a scar on his head that resembles one, or when a few boys teased him the day he wore his shoes on the wrong feet, Allante wanted to punch them. But he held back.
Now he wonders how she could preach nonviolence to him.
"She's telling me to do the right thing," he says, "and she did the wrong thing."
Allante and Joann's relationship is a work in progress. For a long time, he liked to believe that Joann had taken him away from his grandmother. He cries when his grandmother drops him back at Joann's after spending a day with her.
"No offense to you and Joann," Allante will tell Earl, "but when the weekend comes, I want to be at my grandmother's."
Lashawna was the one to tell nine-year-old Allante he had to move in with Joann and start a new school. He was scared to live with someone he'd never met.
"I don't know who else to turn to," she told him.
When he arrived at Joann and Earl's, he thought the house looked "sketchy." The "2" in the house number was broken off. When he got inside, he brightened.
He recognized Joann from family parties. She showed him to his bedroom, a room on the second floor he would share with her adult son, Dominique.
Three years later, Joann thinks Allante sees her house as a prison. Homework must be finished right after school. Then it's dinnertime. He takes a bath around 8 and then goes to bed. He has to go to school even if he's sick.
Over time, Allante got rebellious. "You're not my mother," he'd tell Joann. Lashawna had to have a talk with Allante. "Joann is like your mother," she told him.
Allante is waiting in line to pick up lunch in the school cafeteria when his mother's face pops into his head. He wonders if she's waiting in line to pick up lunch and whether she's thinking about him. Allante carries his tray to his assigned table. When he reaches for his milk, he realizes he's forgotten it.
Allante is used to the way his mind roams. His teacher constantly catches him daydreaming. He'll startle awake with his head tilted to the side, his eyes watery.
He's sometimes thinking about how he wishes he didn't know about the incident. It's hard for him to imagine his mother holding a baby bottle with the same hand she held a gun.
More than anything else, he doesn't want her keeping any more secrets. It's why he asked about his father.
The closest thing Allante has to a dad is his caregiver, Earl Asney. Allante calls Earl "a cool cat." He complains to Earl when Joann is strict. They sing hip-hop karaoke together. Once Earl asked Allante what he wanted to be when he's older.
"I don't want to be anything where I might hurt someone," he said. Allante once told Earl he sometimes hated his mother for what she did.
Allante hopes his mother or his unknown father is around in case he gets sick. He's only beginning to learn the effects of his hydrocephalus. He has a wandering eye. At 11, he writes as illegibly as he did at seven, and his math skills lag behind those of his classmates. Joann says he's able to learn better by listening than by reading.
Allante wanted to ask Lashawna about his father. He feared she'd tell him he was too young to know. "Sometimes I think I'm too young to know," he says.
He wondered: Was it another secret he didn't want the answer to?
Allante's love for his mother has deepened. When his grandmother gave him up, he realized he needed his mother for emotional support. He started telling her everything--about the girls he liked, how he wished she could come home. He didn't tell her how much the incident bothered him. "I keep a lot to myself," he says.
On a visit last August, Allante and Lashawna played cards and gossiped about family. She asked if he was brushing his teeth right and licked her finger to wipe some dirt off his face.
"I'm not a baby no more," he told her.
At the end of visiting hours that day, Allante pulled his mother aside. "Can we talk somewhere private?" he said. Lashawna led him to a doorway.
"Do you know who my dad is?" he said.
Lashawna explained that she had been with a couple of men at the time. "I think it's Charnal's dad," she said.
Allante had heard that before. Relatives and friends have told him he and Charnal's father, who always denied he was Allante's dad, share the same eyes and lips. Allante doesn't see the resemblance.
"It would be good because I'd have a father to look up to," he says. It would be bad because Charnal, who lives with her father, complains that he isn't very nice to her.
In the prison that day, Lashawna asked Allante if he wanted her to request that Charnal's father have a blood test. Allante said there was no point. Charnal's father had denied him this long; a blood test wouldn't change things.
"Do you know why she's in there?" Allante asked Charnal on the drive up to the prison in August. After a yearlong fight, DC courts had awarded Lashawna visitation rights with her daughter.
Charnal knew about the incident, but she had barely talked to Lashawna in three years. When they reunited, Lashawna looked down Charnal's shirt to see how much she'd developed. Most of the eight hours they had, Allante listened to the two of them talk. He was happy all three were together.
Allante had more questions about the incident. He wanted to know why Lashawna hadn't told her friend no when she came by: "Why didn't you say, 'Go fight your own battles'?"
I was a follower, she told them.
She didn't tell them she believes her imprisonment saved their lives. They might have grown up with a mother who dealt drugs.
The day was bittersweet. Allante doesn't get to see his sister very often. He didn't know when the three would be together again.
One day at after-school daycare in February, Allante is sitting at a table playing with racecars. He hasn't seen Lashawna in six months--Kim has been working three jobs so hasn't had time to take him--and he hasn't talked to his mother about the incident since.
"I'm sort of getting over it," he says.
Lashawna is unnerved by how mature Allante seems over the phone. He'll tell her he wants to move back in with his grandmother. He won't tell her how badly he wants to call Charnal's father "Dad." Lashawna fears he might "wake up at 22 and be an angry man." She begs Joann to get him into counseling.
Allante says he's okay. "It's like that saying: There's no use crying over spilt milk," he says. "The crime has already happened. I have to move on."
He is trying to focus on how much his mother will need him once she's released. Thaddeus has told him that no matter how close he feels to Lashawna, they'll have to build their relationship from scratch.
"She has to go to school, get a job, a car, a house," Allante says. "I'll help her."
He used to wish Lashawna would be there for his elementary-school graduation next year. "Maybe she'll be at my middle-school graduation," he says, "and if not, then maybe high school."
Allante says that Lashawna has filed for clemency. "She told the President: 'I have two children who I want to get home to, who need me,' " Allante says.
Lashawna explained to him that it's a long shot. Very few prisoners are awarded early release, especially those convicted of double murder.
If he were President, Allante says, he'd forgive Lashawna. He says, "Everyone needs a mother."
Allante dreams of the day she returns. He'll gather Joann, Earl, Kim, Thaddeus, and Shirley at Joann's house. Better yet, he says, he'll invite the whole family--cousins, aunts, uncles, friends.
They'll see her pull up, and Allante will tell everyone to hide. When she walks in, everyone will jump out. "Welcome home!" they'll cry. Allante will run to his mother.
She won't have a guard behind her. She won't be wearing a prison jumpsuit.
When the party's over, Allante will give his mother a tour of his bedroom. She'll tuck him in. For the first time, Allante says, he'll give his mother a goodnight kiss.