Mario has two younger brothers. Geovanni is 12, Manuel is 11.
"I've been trying to help raise them," he says.
With his dad dead and his older brother in jail, Mario says he needs to be their role model. And that's one of the reasons he's motivated about college.
"I've learned that we can't give advice if we're not doing it ourselves," he says. "I couldn't say 'Don't grow up and drink' if I had a beer in front of them. I can't tell 'em 'Don't smoke' if I was smoking. So the only way I could tell them to keep studying is to actually get into school. So now when I get home, I say, 'Hey, I'm doing some homework, so you gotta start doing some homework as well.' I think that's the only way to motivate them," he says.
But by the middle of the fall semester, Mario says he doesn't have as much time for his brothers as he would like. He's been looking for a job. No luck so far. And he has a lot of schoolwork. He got a B in his summer class, so now he is in college-level English.
He's taking the class in the evening, to leave time for a job during the day.
One night in late October I meet up with him before class. It's dark and cold. Dry leaves crumble under our feet as we walk across campus to his classroom.
He tells me about the paper he wrote for homework. The assignment was to write a "cause and effect" essay. He chose to write about the problem of teen pregnancy. He says the causes are lack of education, the use of drugs and alcohol, and something else that he says in Spanish. He struggles to come up with the right word. It's something like hopelessness.
He says among the people he knows, too many guys end up in prison, and too many girls are left alone with their babies. He thinks something needs to be done about it.
When we arrive at Mario's classroom, the previous class is still in session. So we wait in the hall. As other students arrive I ask Mario if he's getting to know any of them, making new friends.
"No, I keep myself away from people sometimes," he says. "I don't have the social skills to be able to socialize with people - yet. But I'm working on it."
I ask him what he means, and he says, "I used to be a really loud person. But after a while, it just went away."
When Mario talks about himself, it's like he's talking about two different people.
There's the thug he used to be - loud, violent, lost.
Then there's the person he is now - quiet, confused, observing from the sidelines. It's like he's in a dormant period, waiting to become someone new. He doesn't really know who that new person is yet, but college is helping him figure it out.
And so is his church.
It takes me a while to understand how central religion is to Mario's life.
Since coming home from jail, he's become a practicing Christian. The nights he's not in his English class at MC, he's taking Bible classes at a church down the street. He's in his second year of Bible study. He thinks maybe he wants to become a pastor. And he says it's actually the Bible classes that got him interested in coming to MC.
"[Those] classes are what motivated me," he says. "I liked the feeling of being in class so I said, I should go to MC."
Mario's first college-level English class is called "Techniques of Reading and Writing." It's in a big, bright classroom equipped with flat-screen computers at each seat. As community colleges go, Montgomery College is pretty spiffy. The majority of its funding comes from the county, and this is one of the wealthiest counties in the country.
There are 18 students in the class. Almost all classes at MC are small like this. It's one of the little-known facts about a lot of community colleges - there are very few of the big lecture courses you find at a university. Come to school here, and the professors know your name.
"OK, tonight we're going to have a small-group exercise based on the essays you were supposed to have read," says the professor.
Mario is in a small group with five other students. One arrives late wearing a Trader Joe's t-shirt. That's the grocery store where he works. He's from Africa. There's another African man in the group; he tells me he's from Ivory Coast. The other three are women - one African-American, two Latino. I don't get a chance to talk to them, but I overhear one of them saying she has to rush home after class to see her baby before bed.
The students begin their small group discussion kind of haltingly. The professor has given them a sheet of questions to discuss and answer. Their assignment is to identify the thesis and main idea in two essays, and talk about where the authors state facts, and where they give their opinions.
The students get their books out, re-read portions of the essay, mumble to each other, sigh. Mario looks at the questions on the paper and tries to answer.
"I don't know how to put it into words," he says.
"Say it in Spanish," says the student from Ivory Coast, in his thick, melodious French accent. He said the same thing earlier to another student struggling to articulate her thoughts.
Mario says, "I don't know how to put it into words - Spanish or English." The woman next to him smiles and nods.
Later, Mario tells me he's learning a lot in this class.
"Yeah, man, I've been able to get my thoughts together." He says his thoughts used to be "scattered, like all these blocks. And this class is teaching me to think in one line."
He says he's been talking with a friend from his church about how the class is helping him understand how to preach. "Because some people go up on the stage and they preach and they get out of track or their message goes one way and it doesn't have a thesis or a main idea," he says.
"And that's why I find [this class] exciting. I feel like it is speaking to my life. It's helping me correct myself. I know I need it."
He still doesn't know what he wants to study or what kind of job he wants. Being a pastor is something he says he would have to do on the side; he says he can't make a living that way. He's looking for a career that can support a family.
"I want to go [to Montgomery College] for two years," he says. "And then go to a university. A lot of people always say University of Maryland. I was thinking of checking that out. I'm trying to fill in the blanks as I go."
The next time I see Mario it's early January 2009.
We meet in the campus center and go to the advising center. He wants to find out what grade he got in his English class, and sign up for his next course.
The advising center is crowded. The television is tuned to CNN - news about layoffs, the recession. There's a huge line. I learn later that enrollment on this campus is up by nearly 10 percent. This is what a lot of people do when they lose their jobs - they go back to school.
But Mario's situation is the opposite. He just got a job. It's full-time, with health insurance, a retirement plan, and an annual salary of $27,000.
He delivers this news kind of casually - like, no big deal.
But it seems like a big deal to me. "That's pretty great," I say.
"Yeah," he says, bashfully. "I'm going to be an outreach worker." He tells me it's a job at a youth center in Langley Park.
I'm surprised. He told me he never wanted to go back to Langley Park. He said if he's driving and his route takes him in that direction, he'll make a u-turn, take the long way, to avoid being back there.
"And now you're going to go?" I ask.
"Yeah." He swallows hard. "It's going to be a good experience. I've thought about it a lot. I'm going to be able to see what's going on in Langley Park. One thing is remembering all the things in Langley Park, and another thing is actually having to see it." He pauses. Swallows again. "I'm going to go back to where I started off, but now I'm going to be able to help."
"Are you worried about that, or afraid?" I ask. "It sounds kind of intense."
"Ahhh," he says, sighing deeply. "I'm not afraid of the gang members that are in there. Because it's an environment I grew up in. It's kind of normal."
He breathes deeply. "What I'm worried about is that the law enforcement, the detectives that are going around there - that if they see me outreaching to a person, I hope they don't think I'm getting involved with any criminal activity. Because sometimes the law can look at you that once you're a thug or a criminal, you're always going to be one."
He says the manager of the youth center has talked to him about how the police will probably be suspicious. And how the gang members will try to lure him in.
"Some people won't believe that I've changed," Mario says. "And I understand that. I have that in mind."
I ask him how he got the job. He says it was kind of random.
Last fall when he was looking for work he got to wondering - if a potential employer ran a background check on him, what would they see? Mario wasn't sure. And someone told him about a program that could help him get a copy of his record. To find out more he had to go to the youth center in Langley Park.
So he went.
They helped him check. Turns out his record has been cleared.
And he met the people who run the youth center, got to know them a bit. He says he ended up getting a temporary job through a youth employment program they run. And then, "They gave me a break. They opened up a position for me."
He says he's going to be working with teens in Langley Park, helping them get hooked up with programs and classes the center runs.
"So why do you think they picked you?" I ask. "Why did they hire you?"
Mario pauses for a long time.
"They thought I was pretty mature," he says shyly. "And they thought I can help out a lot of the young people that walk in to the center, and I will be able to give them part of my testimony, and tell them how a young person can change."
I ask him if he thinks there is anything he has been learning in college that helped him get the job. He laughs.
"Telling them that I go to college helped me out a lot."
It's not the degree he's getting or something specific he's learning. Just being a college student gives him a certain stamp of approval for the world.
He says he starts his new job on Monday.
Mario got a B in his fall semester English class. He finds out from the adviser he meets after we wait in line for 25 minutes.
"So the question now is where you want to go from here," says the adviser, Larry Thomas. "You can finish your English requirements for your degree. Or you could start your way up the math ladder."
"I want to follow up on English, I have that in mind," says Mario.
Then he says maybe he wants to take a second class. I'm stunned. He's about to start a full-time job and he wants to take two classes? Thomas asks him the same question.
"You're going to have a pretty full-time life if you do two courses and a full-time job," says Thomas.
"OK," says Mario.
The adviser goes over the various classes Mario could take, including math. Thomas is impressed with Mario's scores on the placement test and encourages him to take the higher-level math class.
"OK," says Mario.
Like the adviser we met in the fall, Thomas doesn't seem to know quite what to make of Mario. Mario doesn't say much, doesn't ask any questions.
"So are you all set?" Thomas asks.
Mario nods. He says he will register online later. And we leave.
I ask him why he doesn't want to register now. He says he needs his mother's credit card. That's how he's been paying for his classes. It wasn't his plan. He was going to pay for it all himself, and help her pay the mortgage. But when he couldn't find a job last fall, she came through for him. He says she's proud, "really excited," that he's going to school.
"She don't want me to be like some of my uncles. Right now it's winter and I think some of my uncles are out laying bricks or making cement. While in the future, I can be in a office with a heater, wearing something nice," he says. "I know my mom wants that for me."
And Mario says he's beginning to get a clearer idea about what he wants to do with his life.
"I feel like I'm getting closer to a life plan. Because the job I've just been offered, the boss told me it was actually a career job."
Mario says he's thinking about becoming some kind of counselor or therapist or social worker. I ask him if the job at the youth center works out and he feels like there's really a career path there, will he quit school?
No, no, he corrects me quickly. "I'm not planning for that job to get in the way of my school. I told my boss that as well," he says. "If the job does get in the way, I have in mind that I would be willing to [quit] and understand that once I have a degree, more opportunities will open up. I'm not willing to give school up for anything right now."
But he says it's dawning on him that getting an associate's degree is going to take a lot longer than the two years he originally imagined. He first realized this in his English class last semester. He overheard people talking about how they were taking three or four classes at a time.
"That's when it hit me. I said, 'Oh, that's why they're going to get done in two years.' But taking one class at a time, it's going to be a long process," he says. "I'm going to have to stick to school for a long time."
He thinks it's probably going to take him five years to get his associate's degree.
And he says he can do it. "I think I have more of a chance of getting a degree than I had when I started," he says. "Because I read more now. And homework is not too disturbing anymore. Now I see homework as something…" he pauses. "I say class is like a snack and when you really eat is at home, doing your homework. That's where you get your nutrients."
Continue to part 3.