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Saving Isaiah
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

Temoney-Salmon decided she couldn’t be there when Isaiah left the Tracey group home. He’d grown up in front of her. When new boys came there, he’d tell them the rules. When he asked to stay out 15 minutes late one night and she said no, he slammed the door and came back later to apologize.

“I thought about it, and you were right,” he told her. “You could have lost your job.”

Isaiah’s apartment came furnished with two couches and a dining-room table with a glass top. He was the first roommate to move in, so he took the bigger bedroom. It was too quiet to sleep, so he spent the whole night calling people to tell them he’d moved.

“What’s your address?” his English teacher at Richard Montgomery asked. Isaiah knew he was near a Metro stop. “Go outside and look at the number on the building,” the teacher said. “Then go to the street corner and see what the street sign says.” She told him he needed to know these things.

Isaiah had started to tell peers that his teacher was like his stepmother. She advocated for him when he got in trouble—some other teachers thought she was making excuses for him. She didn’t cut him slack in class: “I don’t want any crap with you and the substitute,” she said.

Isaiah set his alarm for 5 am so he could take an hourlong shower and catch the bus to school, and he often fell asleep on the ride. He liked being able to walk outside whenever he wanted. As long as he was in by his 8 o’clock curfew—9 on weekends—nobody bothered him.

He told Rinker he didn’t want to come to Life Skills classes, a state requirement, because he already knew how to live on his own. He’d learned how to wash clothes by accidentally bleaching some. He’d learned to get around on the bus by getting lost so many times. He didn’t want any more help.

Isaiah had football practice last fall, soon after he started at FutureBound, so he wasn’t around a lot. A week could go by without Rinker seeing him. Deon Smith went to Richard Montgomery to buy Isaiah’s homecoming ticket and took him shopping for something to wear.

When Isaiah showed up in the FutureBound office with new glasses, Rinker wanted to know where he’d gotten them. His English teacher had paid for them. She’d taken him to an eye appointment for a vision test, and when the doctor said he needed a new pair, she told Isaiah to pick out the frames he wanted. She’d bought him glasses a year earlier, too, after he broke his in a fight.

The pair Isaiah wanted was expensive. He didn’t like the way the cheaper glasses—the ones his insurance would cover—looked on him. His teacher didn’t want Isaiah thinking he wasn’t worth the extra money.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told her.

“I know,” she said. “I want to.”

Rinker and Isaiah’s case manager, Julie Oldham, called a meeting at Richard Montgomery. They liked that Isaiah was developing a support system, but they wanted to talk about boundaries.

“If we were getting him the glasses, he would have picked out a pair of frames and told us what he wanted,” Rinker says. “There’s always a process, but he didn’t learn how to follow that process.”

“He’s our kid,” Rinker said at the meeting. “If he needs something, we’ll provide it.”

“I’ve heard of kids dying from abuse and neglect,” the teacher told her. “I’ve never heard of anybody dying because someone cared too much.”

Rinker taught a Life Skills class around the holidays and turned it into a tree-decorating party. She asked the teens what they’d celebrated growing up and what it was like for them.

“When I was in a group home, it sucked,” said an 18-year-old named Kahlea. A graduate of Northwest High School in Germantown, she’s an aspiring model whom some kids in the program call Barbie. Her mother is mentally ill, and she’s never known her father; she’s been moved around since she was two. The dining-room table in her apartment is always set, as if guests are coming.

“When I went to live at my aunt’s house, it was the first time we made a Christmas list, and I got everything I wanted,” she said. “I used to see her put stuff under the tree. One day she told me if I peeked, Santa was gonna put pepper in my eyes.”

Rinker told them, “Christmas is a time when people talk about what they’re going to do with their family and the presents they’re going to get, and that’s not always easy when you don’t have that life experience. But there’s something all of you have inside of you that everybody who lives with their natural family doesn’t have. Anybody know what that is?”

“Jesus?” Kahlea joked.

“Resiliency,” Rinker told them.

“I ain’t never heard that,” Isaiah said.

“The thing I know about all of you in this room is that I could stick you pretty much anywhere and you would adapt and you would survive.”

She handed out paper ornaments and asked them to write down what they wished for. Isaiah wrote “a new roommate”—he thought his was too messy—but Rinker said she wasn’t hanging that one up. When Kahlea said she had a mom but not a family, Rinker told her, “Moms are good enough—some people would kill to have a mom.”

“I would,” Isaiah said.

“None of you could choose what happened to you before this age, right?” Rinker said. “You were a victim of your circumstance—your mama, your daddy, your community, society. All that. But now you’re old enough.

“I’ve probably worked with 200 kids, and every one of them has a sad story like you’re telling. But guess what—the sad stories really don’t get to me anymore. They’re a dime a dozen. The bottom line is what you do with your story.”

Isaiah skips the chips and salsa at El Mariachi in Rockville one night in December because he’s trying to get in shape for football. He wants to talk about why he’s stressed out. Grades are part of it—he’s getting a D in biology—but girls are most of it.

“Scotch on the rocks,” he jokes to the waiter before ordering an orange soda. “One minute you do what you’re supposed to do—be respectful—then you’re not doing something right. Or they just decide they wanna do something dumb,” he says.

One of his ex-girlfriends cheated on him, then she saw another girl hugging him outside a movie theater and claimed he was the one cheating on her.

“Every couple minutes she’d just think of something to get mad about,” he says.

Isaiah has been worrying about girls since he was nine, when he worked the sound booth at church to impress them. The first time he goes out with someone, he puts the date in his phone so he’ll remember their anniversary.

He waits two months before he takes a girl to Austin Grill or the movies, so he can make sure she’s still around—good times or bad.

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