It was just about a year ago, with spring upon us and the war-for-oil behind us, that curiosity about the life of a 15-year-old boy named Chris Alston occasioned a visit to Johnnycake Middle School in Woodlawn. Everyone at the school remembered the boy well, though he'd spent only a month or so attending classes.
It turned out that other endeavors had distracted Chris Alston from his studies, in particular his relationship with two older boys who sold drugs. By the time I got to Johnnycake to ask about him, Alston had fulfilled a prophecy of teachers.
"We'll read about that kid," some of them had predicted. And they did.
They read about his murder in the newspapers.
Alston and the two older boys he admired were murdered in the basement of a house in southwest Baltimore. The police said the triple slayings resulted from a drug deal that went bad.
A tragedy like that does not occur in a vacuum; it sends tremors through a community, especially a suburb like Woodlawn, and back to the school. It was the teachers and staff at Johnnycake who had the last shot at pulling in Chris Alston from the darkness he seemed intent on entering. But Alston brought too many problems with him when he transferred to Johnnycake from a city school. He got into fights. A chronic truant in the city, he repeatedly skipped class at Johnnycake. He was recommended for expulsion after only a month.
And a few months later he was another statistic, another teen-age homicide victim, a name in a newspaper. His is one of two names that Ed Massey, the assistant principal at Johnnycake, mentions when he sounds an alert for the boys coming through his school.
The other name is Erik Chestnutt. He was murdered last month on a gas station parking lot in Woodlawn. He was in a group of kids who were walking toward some pay phones to call for rides home about 11 o'clock on a Friday night. A stranger, apparently trying to impress a friend sitting inside a nearby car, stepped in front of Chestnutt and fired a gun. Chestnutt, 16 years old and a terrific baseball player, died on the way to the hospital -- a horrible, senseless waste.
Erik Chestnutt was not like Chris Alston, in that Ed Massey felt all along that he, the teachers and the boy's parents had a chance to show him a better way. Two years ago, Chestnutt was an eighth-grader at Johnnycake, one of a handful of boys who had been in "bits of trouble," according to Massey, who wanted the boys to know the risks they were taking by goofing off and getting in trouble. He took Chestnutt and three other boys to Woodlawn High to hear a speaker on the dangers facing black teen-agers in America.
"After the speech, I remember telling Erik and the others that one out of every four black males between 14 and 22 will either be dead or in jail," Massey says. "And it was Erik who said, 'It's not gonna happen to me.' . . . He was a good kid, he really was. He was finally going somewhere."
"Erik, he was like an older brother to me," said Lamont Keyes, who was seated on a wooden bench in Massey's office yesterday morning. "He watched out for me. . . . He was shot because of jealousy. That's an assumption I make, but it seems to make sense because Erik, he had a lot going for him, because he looked good. He had a job. He was on the baseball team at Woodlawn. He had a pretty girlfriend. He had OK grades. He got his act together."
Lamont Keyes seemed like a bright, congenial kid. He's been in "bits of trouble," mostly for what he calls "stupid stuff." He's one of the kids Massey closely monitors because he and the teachers at Johnnycake have a good chance of showing him the right path -- away from trouble and guns and drugs, or even a dead-end job.
"I like to be a lawyer some day," Lamont Keyes said. "I like to debate. . . . I'm trying to get my act together and stay out of trouble and not do stupid stuff."
"That's what I tell them," Massey said. "They have a choice between common sense and stupid stuff."
"I try to do the right thing," Lamont Keyes said, acknowledging that he's not always successful. "Most of my friends are cool. We try to help, brother to brother. What happened to Erik, it frightened me, but I try to think positive things. I'm not ready to die. I'm still young. I want to sprout out, you know, sprout out, like a flower."