Good kid on bad corner toils to mend his world

May 11, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Thomas Coles is 17, a sweet-natured kid with a funky haircut and a thin frame. He likes basketball, rap music, movies and girls. He helps out at the local recreation center and volunteers to babysit for his 2-year-old niece. He dreams of going to college.

At Baltimore's Flag House Court projects, where so many boys succumb to idleness or drugs, Thomas is unusual. He once broke into cars and hung out on corners, but now he studies diligently to earn his B's and C's at Southern High School. He's taken a job scrubbing toilets, busing tables and mopping floors in a restaurant for pocket change. He cares deeply about making his mother proud.

Thomas' family is like many others at Flag -- poor and struggling. He shares a crowded apartment with his mother, sister and niece, and squeezes his 6-foot-2-inch frame onto the living room sofa each night. He gets little help from his father, a recovering drug addict living in West Baltimore, whom he sees no more than twice a year. "He's been clean about three years," Thomas says. "I'm proud of him. I think he knows that."

But Thomas was thrown a lifeline -- and he's grabbed it tight.

Four years ago, Thomas met David Miller, a teen counselor at Flag's Boys and Girls Club. Since then, Mr. Miller has introduced Thomas to a world invisible to many young people growing up at the East Baltimore housing project, a world of opportunity and promise. The two have gone fishing, visited local college campuses, played basketball, seen movies, shared books and talked for hours about African-American history and life.

"When I met Thomas, he was just another brother hanging out," Mr. Miller says. "But now he's making a transition."

With Mr. Miller's help, Thomas is determined to escape Flag. But such resolve can be fragile there.

"There are very few guys Thomas' age in this area doing anything positive," says his mother, Alice Lang. "They're either selling drugs or if they are not doing that, they are doing nothing.'

In his journal, Thomas does not chronicle young love, or sports exploits or any of the things that occupy the thoughts of many people his age. Instead, he writes about the poverty and despair, the lust for fast money and the mindless violence that strangle many young lives at Flag. Already, Thomas has witnessed the murder of his best friend and seen other buddies taken away to jail. Once, he got into a playground fight that the other guy wanted to finish two days later with a gun. And friends regularly ridicule his ambitions.

"They were talking that macho crap at the [Boys and Girls] club again," begins one entry in his journal. "When you control a man's thinking, you don't have to worry about his actions. That won't get us anywhere as a people. Instead of talking macho we need to talk about unity and trying to tackle some of the everyday obstacles we face in the community."

Those are no mere polemics, not coming from Thomas. He talks seriously about the need for young people at Flag "to think as we instead of me." But he knows that goes against the code of the neighborhood, which says everyone should look out for himself.

"Trouble is easy to fall into down here," he says. "The door is always open for that."

"Run the street"

Thomas likes to say he was born and reared at Flag, which is not quite true. He's lived at the housing project since he was 2.

When his mother moved in, she was a 20-year-old parent of two who had just ended a relationship with Thomas' father. A high school dropout who later earned an equivalency diploma, Ms. Lang hoped for a career. She took several community college courses in correctional administration, but never came close to earning a degree.

She says single motherhood and poverty always seem to intrude on her plans. For years, Ms. Lang has bounced between welfare and low-paying jobs. Most recently, she was working as an office clerk, but she lost that job last month. "I'm by myself and it's hard," she says, explaining that she stays at Flag, in a cramped $80-a-month apartment, because it is all she can afford.

Ms. Lang says she tried hard to be a good mother, but at times her own struggle for survival caused her to be preoccupied. When Thomas was very young, he would amuse himself with friends: riding bicycles and scooters along Flag's open-air hallways or playing football on the patchy lawns in front of the buildings.

By the time Thomas reached middle school, he says, his mother did not always remember to check his report cards, or even make sure that he went to school. "I used to be able to say anything. I could say the school burned down, and that's why I was home," Thomas recalls. "She wouldn't know."

As he got older, Thomas found more serious trouble. "We would go and beat people up for no reason at all, that was the crowd I was hanging with," he says. "I was not too interested in school. I would stay out late at night and run the street. I'd sleep in school. I wasn't into dealing drugs, but it was the next step."

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