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Saving Isaiah
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

In December 2007, Isaiah was transferred to the John C. Tracey Boys’ Group Home in Rockville. His father had died of AIDS earlier that year. He arrived in his jail uniform—khakis and a gray sweater—and shackles that left marks on his wrists.

An officer dropped off Isaiah’s clothes a few weeks later—tennis shoes, underwear, T-shirts. She put a plastic trash bag on the step, rang the doorbell, and left.

The eight-bedroom group home is five minutes from Rockville Town Center. Every day when Isaiah got home, he had to open his bookbag so a counselor could look inside. He had to take off his shoes and sanitize his hands. There were study hours each afternoon, and the lights went off around 9:30. The boys helped the staff with cooking; Isaiah often boiled spaghetti.

There were rules: If Isaiah left the property for more than an hour, he’d be considered AWOL. If he wanted to go to a movie, he needed a community pass.

Patricia Temoney-Salmon, Isaiah’s caseworker, had just started there when he moved in. She didn’t like his thunderous voice and the way he slammed doors. The other boys called him Lardo. He always wanted to fight.

“I don’t yell at you,” she told him, “you don’t yell at me.”

Look at all those rich people, Isaiah thought when he got to Montgomery County. He saw a Lamborghini in the parking lot at Rockville Town Center. Wow.

He started school at Richard Montgomery halfway through his freshman year, in a program for emotionally disturbed students. The Montgomery County school is ranked among Newsweek’s top 100 high schools in the country.

Isaiah showed up for his first day in the middle of winter wearing the flip-flops he’d gotten in juvenile detention. Once during his first few months, he picked up a metal trash can and threw it down the hall. He told teachers to get out of his face.

He walked to school in a sweatshirt.

“Do you have a winter coat?” his English teacher asked.

“I don’t wear winter coats,” he said.

The teacher was used to having students with behavior problems and police records, but most of them had someone who was there for them. She remembered helping her own children get through high school.

All this kid needs is a mother, she thought.

The class studied Of Mice and Men, which Isaiah enjoyed, but he didn’t like reading aloud. He didn’t write down due dates, so he turned in assignments late. His teacher realized he couldn’t multitask.

“Your whole situation—it isn’t normal,” she told Isaiah. “I get that. You get that. But it doesn’t mean it’s not possible for you to thrive.”

If he cursed at her in class, she’d come in the next day as if nothing had happened. She had a philosophy about teaching: People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. When she tried to talk to Isaiah, he told her he didn’t trust anyone.

“I understand,” she said. “But I’m here.”

Some kids at Richard Montgomery called Isaiah and his roommates the Tracey Boys. They walked to school together and protected one another. When something bad happened at school, Isaiah felt as if people were looking his way. A bunch of kids came to the group home one afternoon wanting to fight, and Isaiah brought a knife outside.

“What are you gonna do with a butter knife?” Patricia Temoney-Salmon, asked him. Isaiah called her Miss T.

When school let out for spring break, Isaiah had nowhere to go.

“Sometimes home is not an option,” Temoney-Salmon told him.

He’d use the pay phone in the hallway at the group home to call relatives in Baltimore.

“Hello? Hello?” she heard him say one day. “I call you all and you don’t even talk to me.” He hung up.

“They don’t give a f--- about me,” he said.

Temoney-Salmon asked Isaiah to take a ride with her. “Tell me what you can control right now,” she said. “Can you control what I say? Can you control what that man over there is doing?”

She told him he couldn’t control things around him, only himself: “You just have to accept people the way they are.”

Temoney-Salmon came by one Sunday soon after, and Isaiah told her that his half brother—his mother’s son—had been stabbed to death by his father. She wasn’t allowed to hug him—there are rules against contact—so she put her hand on his.

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it if I go back,” he said.

Most boys stay about nine months, then transition home, but Isaiah didn’t want to leave.

“Nobody loves me,” he’d tell her.

“God loves you,” she’d say. “I love you.”

“When you get mad,” he said, “you’re gonna walk away, too.”

Football season started, and Temoney-Salmon saw a change in Isaiah. He stopped yelling so much. He said he needed new clothes because his were getting too big.

Ride along—or get ran over, he’d decided. He had to try to fit in.

Temoney-Salmon kept leaving Roberta Rinker messages about Isaiah to try to get him into FutureBound. “You’ll really like him,” she said.

He’d spent the summer after his sophomore year bagging groceries at a supermarket and lifting weights—his grades were high enough that he didn’t have to go to summer school.

Rinker got lots of referrals like that. Independent-living programs such as FutureBound are among the only options for teens who are leaving group homes. For every teen she accepts into the program, she has to turn down three or four.

When Isaiah came to Rinker’s office for an interview, he told her he was nervous. He talked about how long he’d been at Tracey and how hard it would be to move into independent living.

She went through her checklist: Have you ever experienced the death of a loved one? Have you ever been physically abused? He answered yes on both. He’d been beaten after he left Aunt Angie’s house, so badly that he’d started doubting God.

Rinker reminded herself that it didn’t matter where you start in life, only where you end up. She called a few days later to accept him.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles