A Mother's Story She did what she could to protect her only child. And when it wasn't enough, she did what she thought she couldn't: She let go.

May 09, 1998|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

It is a winter night and the room is dark and the clock on the wall says 3 a.m. But the clock is wrong: It is not 3 a.m., not here, in this quiet West Baltimore rowhouse.

The quiet is wrong, too. No sneakers pounding up and down the stairs. No cartoons blaring from the television. No "Ma, I'm hungry" or "Ma, where's the wash rag?" or "Ma, can I go outside?"

The only sound is the video sliding into the VCR.

The mother pushes a button and settles back in her chair. She is alone tonight -- her husband at work, her mother at home -- though their chiding voices still echo in her head. Kaye, let the boy go around the corner. Kaye, let the boy grow up. Kaye, you can't watch over your child forever.

Yes, I can, she would think. For as long as I'm breathing, I can. He is my son and my job is to protect him.

When the videotape begins, the screen flickers and fills with color. Grassy fields, crooked trees, low mud-colored buildings. And then boys, so many boys, in khaki shirts and blue shorts, squinting in the sun as they wave and grin at the camera. A woman calls out their names. Terrell. Sherlock. Derrick. Donte.

And finally, Jerrell.

The mother springs from her chair. "Hi, baby!" she waves at the television. "Hi, my son!"

It is a little after 7 p.m. in this West Baltimore rowhouse when Kaye Yarrell, for the first time in months, sees the face of her only child. Sees his round, smooth cheeks. Sees his wide, bright smile. Sees him raising his hand to answer a question in class.

Kaye leans forward and shrieks. "Go, my son! Go, baby!" She points at the teacher, a tall man in a baseball cap: "Call on my son ... he know the answer! He's doing like this -- she pumps her arm in the air. "Call on him!"

But the teacher cannot hear her. Her voice would have to travel thousands of miles, across ocean, across desert, to the continent of Africa, to the country of Kenya, to a patch of land at the equator, to a place called Baraka, where her son and 35 other Baltimore seventh- and eighth-grade boys go to school.

Kaye turns and looks at the wall.

3: 15 a.m.

As long as he is gone, she will keep her clock on his time.

This is a story about a mother who did something no mother should have to do, which is put her son on a plane and send him to the other side of the world because she felt it was the only way he'd have a shot at a future. But it's also about something every mother has to do, which is know when it's time to let go, even when her heart screams hold on.

During the tearful months before she heard of the Baraka School, Kaye would stand beside her son's bed and watch him sleep. On those nights, Jerrell looked so innocent, snoring under his X-Men comforter, that it almost seemed as if nothing had changed -- that he was still the infant who slept on her chest, the toddler who followed her everywhere, the little boy who crawled into her bed because he saw ghosts in his room, and only his mother had the power to protect him.

But something had, in fact, changed, and Kaye knew it. Standing there, in the dark, her head pounded with questions. Who are you? What is happening to you? What kind of child are you becoming? He was a stranger to her now, her 11-year-old boy, and she was scared. Scared by the fights and failing grades. Scared by the rough friends and lies. Scared by the condoms under the bed, the suspension slips in the bookbag, the call from the officer: Do you know your son hasn't been in school, ma'am?

Scared because she didn't know what more she could do. She'd spoiled him and coddled him; she'd punished him and hollered at him; she'd visited his school so many times she began to feel as if she worked there. And for what? The boy who'd missed only five days of school in his life would miss 48 days of sixth grade. The boy who'd been on the honor roll was bringing home 55s and 60s. If something didn't change, she knew he'd end up on the streets.

And all Kaye had to do was look around the city -- at the dealers and addicts and drugs and guns -- to know what the streets could do to her child. All she had to do was think of her big brother James, shot in the head, dead at 34. He didn't use drugs anymore, she'd told Jerrell when he was younger. But he'd hung out with people who did.

From her wrist dangled a gold bracelet inscribed "#1 Mom." It was a Mother's Day gift from Jerrell, bought with hoarded lunch money, back in the days when ghosts were imaginary and solutions were oh-so-simple. In the days when Kaye wrote a poem to ward off spirits, and she'd hear her son chanting at night in his room.

I'm not scared

I can fight

I'll take my fist

And knock you out.

But that was a long time ago. Now, when night came, it was the boy who slept soundly and the mother, full of fear, who wanted to raise her fists and fight. She blamed the school system, the teachers and Jerrell's peers; she blamed a city that didn't seem safe for children.

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