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Michael's Troubles

Courtney Reid Eaton knows what it's like to grow up with a parent in prison. Read her story.
Photo: Courtney Reid-Eaton

Two months after her release, Marsha gets full-time custody of her sons. The three share a two-bedroom apartment in the Harriet's House program, and Michael and Khire transfer into Raleigh schools. Michael has had behavior problems for years; he was expelled from school several times while living with his grandmother. In the fall of 2002, he enters Longview School, a "separate," special education school in the Raleigh district for kids with behavior problems. Michael's problems continue.

"Michael's generally non-compliant," says Longview Principal Karen Hamilton. It's not that he simply talks back to teachers from time to time, says Hamilton. "For children to be here, that has to be something they do more often that not."

With a reporter following him through a day in school, Michael behaves unusually well, according to his teachers. He sits quietly and does at least some of the work he's asked to do. But in math class he slips. He bickers with a classmate, then erupts. "Who you hollerin' at?" he asks the other boy, Travis. "You hollerin' at me? I'll punch you in your mouth!"

"No, you won't, says Travis.

"Shut up!" Michael yells. "Tell that dude to shut up!"

A teacher intervenes.

Ms. Rhonda Victor is Michael's science teacher. "There are days he'll sit and he'll suck his finger like a little baby and not say a word, but he's not willing to work," she says. Other days he's disruptive. "He's very into 'beating,'" - drumming loudly on his desk with his thumbs and fingers - "and he enjoys that but he'll do that all period if I allow him to, so we're working on that," Victor explains.

Most of Michael's middle school classmates in the alternative school have already been convicted of crimes - from alcohol possession to car theft to assault. Michael has not. His teachers say he shows signs of trying to get his behavior under control.

Back at home, Marsha reminds the boys to do their homework. Khire, she says, is doing great in school.

"Hopefully when I get my annual report," Khire says, "I'll have A's and B's. I do my homework every day."

Nine months after being reunited with her sons, Marsha admits, "I'm still happy that I'm here with them, but there's a lot of challenges that I didn't anticipate."

It's not just Michael's behavior. Marsha and the boys have been grieving, too. Just two weeks after Michael and Khire moved to Raleigh, their grandmother, who'd taken care of them for seven years, died suddenly of a heart attack. She was just forty-nine.

"I didn't even really cry," Michael says.

"Yes you did, you cried," says Khire.

Michael concedes that he did cry. "I been around my grandma for so long, for like almost my whole life."

For a while after their grandmother's death, the boys slept with Marsha; they were too upset to sleep alone. Now Marsha has a new challenge: Her sons are signed up for after-school programs, but some days Michael just goes home to the empty apartment.

"I think I'm about at the very end of my rope with him," Marsha says. "He's been suspended again. And his grades are actually dropping. Basically he's not really doing anything. I've asked him why. He says he's bored in class." Marsha thinks her son's troubles go deeper. "I think he's very angry. He talks a lot about wanting his dad here, and not really having anybody as far as a male to identify with, he talks about that some."

And raps about it. Michael takes pride in his free-styling; he rattles off rhymes without writing them down. He says he's never rapped about his mom, but he will rhyme about his still-imprisoned father.

Asked to free-style about his dad, Michael says he's willing but struggles. "Dag, I wish my dad should've never left," he begins. He stops. "Man, I'm shy, man." He gathers himself and starts again. "Dag, I wish my dad should've never left / In the future, all I see is death. / But I try to look past that and turn the other way / I crash that, smash that, put the nine away./ As I--." Michael falters again. "I can't, man."

Michael and Khire's father is in the North Carolina state prison in Gatesville. The boys used to visit him when they lived with their grandmother, but they haven't seen their dad since their mother got released a year ago.

"I can't take them because I'm not approved to see him because I'm still on parole," Marsha explains. For now, she's raising the boys alone.

At a Raleigh Boys' Club on a Saturday morning, Marsha watches Michael at basketball tryouts. "Yesterday was November 15, which was a year since my release," she notes. "Doesn't seem like it's been a year. But I think a lot has been accomplished in that year."

Marsha says in prison, it's all you can do to muster a sliver of hope. She ached to trade that bleak life for this one - the life of a single mom caring for her sons and helping them through their own thickets. She's where she wants to be. But she wishes there was more help available for Michael and Khire and other kids like them - kids who've had a parent in prison.

"They're so intelligent but it's certain things, it's either their behavior or they're still angry at their parents, and they can't get past that to concentrate on anything else," Marsha says.

When tryouts are through, Michael runs across the asphalt parking lot to Marsha's car. He's thrilled to announce he made the team. Marsha congratulates him, and asks if that tall man who was running the tryouts will be the coach. That's right, Michael says. "He wants to teach us the fundamentals of the game."

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