Despite odds, brothers seem good bet Mom's guidance keeps sons straight

October 18, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Shawn Johnson, 18, strode down the dark street, rushing home from the library early one evening, when a lady walking in front of him abruptly stopped and dropped her bags. There she stood, frozen, until Shawn walked past.

"It was kind of sad. She thought I was going to mug her or something," Shawn says, shaking his head. "And I was just thinking about getting home and working on [a school] project."

The woman's reaction did not faze Shawn. It is something he and his younger brother, Gerald, 16, are accustomed to. They are good, church-going young men who have never been in trouble. But they realize that many people assume the worst about them simply because they are young, male and black.

The Johnsons know the awful facts: 56 percent of young black men in Baltimore were in trouble with the law on any given day last year. Homicide is the leading cause of death among black men aged 18 to 24 in America. As many as half the students in Baltimore public schools drop out. And the students most likely to fail are black males.

"You know all of this worries me. I worry about my boys out there. Not worry, worry. But I think about them," says Charlotte Johnson, a 57-year-old swimming pool aide and former foster mother who struggles to raise her sons as a single parent. "All I can do is monitor my boys as much as possible. I don't let them just hang out, and I stay involved in their lives. And I ask them a lot of questions before they go out of the house."

In part because of the prodding of their vigilant, religious and selfless mother, the sad statistics don't define how the brothers Johnson view themselves. And, so far, they are beating the odds. They are in school, off the street and clear of trouble. But, still, they can't escape the shadow cast by 56 percent of their peers.

Shawn is a senior at Edmondson Westside Senior High School, a place clear across town from his family's small, semi-detached home in Northeast Baltimore. He rides two buses and the Metro to get to school. The entire journey takes an hour and a half. At Edmondson, Shawn is a senior and a member of the Air Force Junior ROTC program. He has serious ambitions about going to college, then joining the Marines. He is eyeing Clark Atlanta and Temple universities.

Gerald is a deeply spiritual youngster with a manner easy enough that some of his schoolmates playfully needle him by calling him "Rev." He is a sophomore at Frederick Douglass Senior High School, where he is enrolled in the music careers program and sings in the bass section of the choir.

To be sure, the Johnsons are young men who would make any parent proud. But, to many, that reality is often obscured by the images many people hold of young black men. Strangers on the street try to avoid them. They've been rudely rousted by police. And God knows what thoughts their very presence sends through the minds of some teachers and potential employers.

"When you walk by some white people on the street, they clutch their purses," Shawn says.

Chuckling, Gerald adds, "Their attitude is, 'just don't hurt me.' "

The brothers admit that their presence incites fear and a dubious reaction in blacks as well as whites. It is as if young black males are marked for trouble, they say. And that attitude causes the Johnson brothers to question how they are treated each time they enter a new situation.

Shawn worked last summer at Towson State University as a member of Upward Bound, a program that helps prepare students for college. He worked in the cafeteria, in the kitchen.

"That was a big experience. Mostly, they tried to keep the blacks in the back," he says.

One day, he says, money was stolen from a purse in the cafeteria. Immediately, he says, black Upward Bound students became the prime suspects. Shawn says he was questioned and told to write a statement for police.

"They tried to put me on the spot," he says. To his knowledge, the crime was never solved.

Gerald also spent the summer with Upward Bound. He remembers crossing paths with a nervous man on a foot bridge on the Towson campus.

"This guy was gripping the rail and just asking question after question," he says. "I don't know why he wanted to talk to me. But the look on his face said, 'Be my friend. Don't bother me' ."

That they incite that kind of fear leaves the Johnson brothers somewhat bewildered. But intellectually, they understand the fear because their lives bring them in close contact with other young people who are causing mayhem.

They are quick to say that most people they know want no trouble. But many others do. Their experiences prove it. They've rumbled with bullies and been picked on at the neighborhood swimming pool. They've seen schoolmates beaten by bands of hoods for no apparent reason.

Gerald has watched thugs in his school squirt a substitute teacher in the face with a fire extinguisher. And he just shakes his head at the food fights that erupt regularly in the cafeteria.

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