Mario says college is helping him learn to enjoy reading.
"I'm really starting to like reading 'cause I learn a lot," he says. "When I read I ask where they get all these ideas from. So it's become really interesting."
He tells me about the books he's been reading - one about health, another about families, a book about teen pregnancy. It sounds like they are mostly Christian self-help books. And when he talks about them he doesn't just mention what he's learning. He talks about how he is developing a respect for books, and the people who wrote them.
"Whenever I read a book I always think about how much work [the author] actually had to put into it," he says. "It's not just writing down ideas."
He says his writing classes at Montgomery College are helping him appreciate how hard it is to write well. He realizes that it takes a lot of effort, a lot of work to make a book. It's like he's grateful for the writer's willingness to stick with it.
And he says he's been trying to encourage his younger brothers to read more too.
"I try to be the example to my little brothers. They see me reading and I tell them to read as well," he says. "And they started reading every once in a while."
He says one of his brothers is doing well in school, the other one is struggling a bit.
"We just try to motivate him. You know, not make him feel forced to do it. That way he does it willingly," he says. "I talk to him about self-discipline. He got to learn to discipline himself. I'm not always going to be there to push him."
He says the other day he was talking with his brothers about careers. "They both have spoken about being an architect because they saw my dad as a construction worker. So they like the whole construction idea," he says. "But they want to be professionals at it. Not just go out there and lay bricks."
Mario thinks his brothers look up to him in a different way because he's in college.
And he says word has spread to the jails where his old friends and his older brother are locked up; they've all heard, Mario's in college.
"They tell me they're proud," Mario says. He says he visits when he can.
"It makes me feel pretty good that I'm doing something in life," he says, smiling.
"Finally. That's how I think about it. Finally I am doing something for myself."
It's now June 2009. I haven't seen Mario since January. I've been calling and e-mailing, trying to set up an interview, asking if I can visit him at the youth center in Langley Park. And I'd like to meet his mother, and his little brothers.
Mario sends back short, polite responses. He says he's too busy. He'll call me later. He'll ask his supervisors if I can come to work with him. He'll try to find a time when I can meet his family. But he says he hasn't had time to eat a meal with them since Thanksgiving.
Finally in late June we make a plan to meet. I'm going to go with him to math class. He decided not to take math last spring - he realized two classes would be too much with his new job. So he took just the English class, and now he is taking math during summer session.
I'm supposed to meet him at the campus center at 7:45 a.m. He has a flexible schedule at work. He goes to class in the morning, and then works into the evening, and on Saturdays too.
I show up at the campus center but Mario's not there. He calls my cell phone and says he overslept. He'll be there soon.
I wait 15 minutes. 30 minutes. I call him again. No answer. I wait, leave messages. Nothing.
It's nearly 9 a.m. I've been waiting for more than an hour. And I'm thinking maybe this is his way of saying he doesn't want to be interviewed anymore. Or maybe worse - maybe things are not going well and he doesn't want me to know about it. I'm feeling disappointed. I realize that I'm really rooting for him. I want him to make it. And - selfish thought - I want him to tell me about it.
I'm in the lobby of the campus center. It's 9:00. I'm about to leave. And Mario comes rushing up to the front door.
"Ready?" he says.
As we walk to his math class he tells me he was up late because there was a banquet for the teens he's been working with at the youth center.
"It was recognition for the youth," he says. "Because some of them don't have the high school graduation experience, we try to do something for them. We passed out certificates to the youth that did a lot of community service. And after we passed out the certificates, we had a big feast."
And he adds, "I'm just tired." Then he tells me he's way behind in his math class.
When we arrive at his classroom, the students are taking a test. Mario gets his and sits down.
The first question is "Solve the following equation: 342 = 51x."
I try the test, but I'm pretty lost. I can't remember how to factor equations. I give up and look around.
There are 12 students in the class. The professor is sitting at a desk in front, correcting tests as students hand them in. Behind him is a big, white dry-erase board, wiped clean. You can still see traces of all the equations once written there.
The classroom walls are pretty bare except for a flier about careers in the health sciences and a poster with Murphy's Law #19 printed on it: "If there is a 50% chance of success, that means there is a 75% chance of failure."
It seems like an odd poster to display in a math classroom at a community college. Math is what messes a lot of students up. Many never end up finishing their required math courses, and it keeps a lot them from getting a degree.
"I think I failed," Mario says after class. "When [the professor] teaches it, I get it. But when it's time to do it, I go blank."
Mario says he's thinking about dropping the class, taking it again in the next summer session that starts in a few weeks. "I went from not knowing almost anything to - I was able to catch up a little bit. So if I take it again this summer I think I'll be able to catch up more," he says. "And I'm thinking if the same thing happens and I fall back, then I'll try to do it again in the fall, until I pass it."
He sounds so matter-of-fact when he says this. Passing this class is what he has to do. He will do it.
I ask him where he gets his attitude of persistence and he surprises me by saying his father. Until now Mario has talked little about his father.
"He was a fighter," he says. "He wouldn't give up on something. He was a construction worker. He would get sick. He would go to the hospital. He would come out of the hospital at like 2 in the morning and have to leave for work at 4:30 in the morning. He would put food on the table. Whether he was sick or whatever, he would go to work. So, he always had a lot of weight on him, and he was willing to pull through."
Mario says his father was 17 when he came to this country - alone.
"My father had a lot a lot of obstacles and he did some time in jail as well. But he was able to keep himself out of a lot of trouble," he says. "He was like a big time alcoholic but he quit that. He quit drinking, he quit smoking."
What Mario seems to be recognizing about his father now is the ways that he was trying to change, just like Mario is.
"Because he didn't have the papers, he didn't do the whole school thing," says Mario, referring to the fact that his dad was not a legal resident of the United States and couldn't go to college. "But I know if he had opportunity, he would've tooken it."
Mario adds: "What he couldn't do, I'm trying to kind of pick it up."
I really want to meet Mario's little brothers. Mario says fine, but weeks go by, then months, and I have a hard time getting in touch with him. I want to talk with his supervisors at work too, but I feel like I should have his permission first, make sure it's OK with him.
And all I'm getting from Mario are brief, polite messages about how busy he is with school and work and church.
Finally, in late September 2009, Mario invites me to his house.
The house is a one-story brick ranch. His mom has planted sunflowers in the front yard. It's a Wednesday afternoon. She's working. His brothers are in their bedroom. He says they're shy, not sure if they want to meet me.
So I sit down and interview Mario, hoping we can convince his brothers to emerge from hiding later.
"So what's going on in your life right now?" I ask.
He smiles that huge smile and says, "Ummm, a lot." He pauses. "A lot."
He tells me he failed his math class. "Failed it completely," he says, shaking his head.
And he decided to withdraw from Montgomery College.
But he has a new plan.
He's taking a math class online. And also a philosophy class, and a theology class. And he's into this third year of Bible studies, taking courses in Christian ethics and the history of the Christian church.
And he says he's still working as an outreach worker at the youth center in Langley Park, part-time.
And he seems to be doing great.
He's taking the online courses through Liberty University, a Christian school based in Lynchburg, Virginia.
He says it was hard to get used to the online classes at first. "You don't have anybody telling you to sit down. You don't have anybody telling you what to do. You have to kind of put yourself away from everything and just study," he says. "You have to rely a lot on yourself." Then he adds, "Personally, I like studying alone."
He says he found out about Liberty through friends at his church. He likes the idea of being at a Christian school, and from a practical point of view, he says it's working out better for him.
The semesters at Liberty are shorter than they are at MC, so Mario thinks he's going to be able to get his degree more quickly. In fact, he thinks he's on track to earn a bachelor's degree - not an associate's degree, but a bachelor's - by 2011.
And he applied for financial aid and says he got a good package. He says he's only paying a few hundred dollars more than he was at MC. And what he really likes about Liberty is that it offers a degree in what he wants to do - Christian counseling.
He says he got the idea to be a Christian counselor from listening to the radio, a local religious station. "At 1 p.m. they always have one hour of Christian counseling and people call and they present real situations," he says.
He would listen to the show. "And I was just thinking this is something that I really think we need," he says, referring to himself and other Latinos. "[We] get into problems and don't know the solutions," he says. "And it just came to my mind one day - if this is something we need, why not do it?"
He says he didn't know anything about Christian counseling so he started reading about it online. He went to some retreats, met some other counselors, even found a Christian counseling center near his house and called them up. They told him they have never had a bilingual counselor, and they really need them. When native Spanish speakers come in to discuss their problems, they have to do it in English.
"I won't provide any solutions for anybody," Mario says, about being a Christian counselor. Instead, he says he will help people find their own solutions, he will help them gain insight. Then he adds, "I don't think I can change anybody. Only a person can help themselves."
He says this is the same message he is trying to send to the young people he works with in Langley Park. He tells them: "'I'm not here to solve your problems. I'm just here to help you find a solution.' And then they have to work towards it themselves."
Mario says his long-term goal is to get a master's degree in marriage and family counseling - and eventually, a Ph.D. in Christian psychology.
He says when he's ready to start his master's degree, he wants to move to Lynchburg, Virginia and live on campus at Liberty. He drove there a few months ago to see the campus.
"It's a lot of mountains," he says. "It looks real nice."
And he's thinking maybe he'll go to California for his doctorate. Someone told him about a program in Los Angeles, at UCLA. He's going to check that out.
But ultimately, he says he will come back to Maryland. "Because my mother's still here and my little bothers will be here. So I am planning to come back and see how I will settle down around here," he says. "That's what I have as my idea for now."
It's a pretty incredible transformation. Four years ago, Mario was a high school dropout locked up in jail. And now he has this clear and ambitious plan for his future.
He says his family and friends ask him how he's been able to change.
"I always tell everybody the change is God," he says. "Like only God can do that change, that radical change."
"So you're not giving yourself very much credit," I observe.
He laughs. "I don't give myself credit because I was personally destroying my life. You know, most of the choices I was making was either going to end me in jail, crippled or probably dead."
But he says everything changed once he started going to church. "We say once we accept Christ in our heart." As soon as he did that, he says, "I didn't want to hurt nobody, I didn't want to be violent, I didn't want to use drugs."
He was just as surprised as everyone else. "I didn't understand it," Mario says. "I didn't know why things were happening. I didn't even know why I was in church. That's why I give most of the credit to God because it's like out of nowhere somebody just grabbed me and started making me walk another way."
I'm listening, nodding, and I'm still thinking - he's underestimating himself.
"You think it's God," I say. "But what about you?"
He just laughs. He's sticking to his story.
"I feel that God has presented opportunities and he's just left me to make the decisions, whether I take the opportunity or not," he says. "I think he does that with everybody. Everybody gets opportunities."
I ask him if he thinks he had opportunities when he was growing up in Langley Park.
"I didn't realize that I had them." But he did, he says. "Yeah, I think I've been privileged."
Mario might be one of the most relentlessly optimistic people I have ever met. I don't understand how he got that way. But it's no wonder he's come so far.
I still want to meet Mario's brothers. They're in their bedrooms. They haven't made a sound the entire time Mario and I have been talking.
"So, you think we can get your brothers to come out?" I ask.
"I guess," says Mario. They might be sleeping. He goes to check.
And I look around the living room. There's a couch and a large, soft chair, a big TV and a bay window full of plants. On the wall behind where I've been sitting there are a bunch of family photographs - formal portraits taken in a studio.
Manuel and Geovanni emerge from their bedroom. They look at me quickly, then down at the floor. Together they shuffle across the room to the edge of the couch, as far from me as possible. Mario sits down in the big chair.
Geovanni is 13. He's a freshman in high school. Manuel is 12. He's in 8th grade.
"So I've been interviewing your brother for like a year - more," I say. "And he's changed a lot, it seems to me. How do you think he's changed?"
"A lot," says Geovanni, and they all laugh - Mario too.
"He was meaner," says Geovanni. "But now he's nice and trying to help us like build our own path to a better life than what he had. He helps us make decisions that young men go through. He basically tells us right from wrong and then we have to figure out by ourselves sometimes based on what he taught us."
"I guess now like he has a better character," says Manuel. "He's a lot more better now. I mean I see him a lot more."
Mario says this is one of the things that's great about taking the online classes through Liberty University. He's home more, reading and doing his work, but getting a chance to hang out with brothers too.
"I guess like he's my role model," says Manuel. He says after their dad died, he started doing badly in school. "And now that my brother is like trying to take care of me, I'm doing a lot more better in school," he says. "Because now instead of my mother just coming home and giving me compliments of what I did good, I have my brother to like, be proud of me."
Manuel smiles. He has a big smile like Mario's.
Geovanni is smaller, shorter than his younger brother, with a delicate face and bright eyes. "I was always doing good in school," he says. And when his father died, he says he tried even harder because that's what his dad would have wanted.
And he says he's still trying hard because "I see Mario, how he did bad back then, and now he's trying to regain his life. And I'm trying to make sure I don't go through that," he says. "And if I have a family then I will make sure that they also have a good life, better than Mario and Carlos and our old life."
Carlos is their oldest brother. He's 21 - a year older than Mario. Carlos has been in jail since 2005. He pleaded guilty last spring to federal racketeering charges for participating in the criminal activities of the gang MS-13. He's waiting to be sentenced. Mario says the sentencing is scheduled for Friday, two days from today.
"The way it looks right now it's probably eight to 12 years," says Mario.
He says he visits his brother in jail, writes him letters. "And we talk on the phone," says Mario. "He calls the house."
"And I'm always thinking when he comes out, once I have some degrees, I'll be able to help him out, have some money on the side. And help give him a jump start." He pauses again, breathes in. "So yeah, I think it's all right."
I ask Mario how his job at the youth center is going. He says there has been turnover in the management, they're changing some of the programs, and he doesn't want me to come right now.
He tells me the job isn't quite what he expected. He says the kids in Langley Park who need the most help don't come to the center. And when he goes out in the streets, they won't talk to him. "They're in the same state of mind that I was in," he says. "They think that's the reality and that's it for them."
He says when anyone will listen, he extends two offers: Come to the youth center, or come with him to church.
He's had one taker, a teen who walked out of the gang. "It's good to at least see one person," he says. "It's a privilege to see that."
Mario says it's hard for him to watch what's going on in the streets. He knows he can't change the kids.
"It's up to them what decision they're going to make," he says. "But - they're not going to last on the streets. The way things are now, it's almost impossible to run around in the street and be a gang member for more than two years. Somebody's going to kill them, or most likely they're going to go to prison."
Then he adds. "Death is not the biggest fear that they have in the street, I think. What torments them the most is the thought of prison."
His voice cracks a little. I think he's going to cry. But he doesn't.
And what I realize, looking at him, is that of course he believes in divine intervention.
His older brother and all of his old friends are in jail or in prison. And he got out. He was set free.
And here he is, living in a middle-class neighborhood, going to college, thinking about getting a Ph.D.
"It's so unlogical," he says. "My explanation is God."
As I get ready to leave Mario's house I remember that I wanted to ask him if he has any photographs of himself when he was a teenager. I still can't imagine him as the thug he says he was.
He says no, he doesn't have any pictures. Then he remembers a couple that were taken when he was in jail.
He goes to his bedroom and brings back two fuzzy Polaroids. One shows him in his cell. He's wearing a white t-shirt and orange prison pants. He points to what looks like a mail slot in the cell door and says, "Your food goes through that hole right there."
In the other picture, he's outside. "That's the courtyard where you're allowed to play basketball," he says.
He looks old in these pictures - older than he looks now.
I tell him that and he laughs.
And I ask him if that part of his life is over. Is he clear of all the criminal charges, could he still be taken in for something he was suspected of doing in the past?
He pauses for several seconds.
"Umm," he lets out a deep breath. "I feel that it's over. I feel. But I don't know what the future holds."
He says he wonders sometimes if he's still under investigation, if the cops or the feds are still trying to build some kind of case against him. He says about a year and a half after he got out of jail, a SWAT team broke down his family's door at 3 a.m., cuffed him, searched the house, said they were taking him back to jail.
But they didn't.
They left - and his mother had to buy a new door.
He says he never saw a search warrant, doesn't know what they were looking for.
"So um, whatever happens, happens. I mean, I can work for a better future, but whatever happens I will have to accept it. So, that's also part of the reality that I live in. And I'm trying not to let it bother me."
When he told me this I don't think I understood the weight of what he was saying. But listening back to the tape, I recognize in the tone of his voice how fragile the future still feels to him.
Before I leave his house, I point to the portraits on the wall behind the couch and ask who is in them.
One is his father when he first came to the United States. There's also a portrait of his mother's parents in Guatemala, and one of Mario's mother and father. He doesn't know what year it was taken.
And in the middle of the wall is a big, formal portrait of two little boys. They're dressed up in suits, sitting on a couch, their short legs sticking out towards the camera.
It's Mario and his older brother Carlos.
"How old were you?" I ask.
"Maybe one and two," he says.
"Your brother looks scared, and you look surprised."
It's an odd picture. Mario is looking at the camera with his eyes wide open, like he's seeing something fascinating and strange. And his brother appears terrified. His face is pinched. It looks like a slap or a gust of wind is about to knock him over.
About a week later, I look online to see if Carlos has been sentenced. I find a press release from the U.S. Attorney's office dated October 2, 2009. It says Carlos Martinez was sentenced to nine and a half years in federal prison.
Mario is about to celebrate his 21st birthday. Last year some of his church friends gave him a cake. They sang "Happy Birthday." He says in the past, when he celebrated birthdays with his friends, it was all about getting wasted, staying up late, partying too hard. He says it was really nice to get a birthday cake.
And Mario's younger brothers Geovanni and Manuel say they're going to college. They're still mimicking Mario. They say they want to go to Liberty University, maybe University of Maryland.
Manuel and Geovanni were in elementary school when their brothers went to jail, their father died, and their mother moved them out of Langley Park. I ask them what's different about their new neighborhood, compared to where they used to live.
Geovanni, the older boy, says, "It's OK, but like in Langley Park, there was always kids there to play with. But now, over here, it's boring."
Manuel, the youngest, says he remembers playing outside in Langley Park. It was more fun over there, he says, more kids around. But "here, they help you a lot more in school," he says. "Life over here is a lot more peaceful."
I never get a chance to meet Mario's mother. He tells me she works too late, she's too tired when she gets home.
But he says she's doing well these days. "You can see the happiness in her," he says, smiling. "It feels pretty good to make her happy after the long, hard past."
Back to Rising by Degrees.